Have you ever witnessed a politician lying while somehow revealing that he knows that you know that he is lying?
I recall, years ago, watching one of our trustees (in the South Orange County Community College District) saying something. He was saying something that he knew to be false. I studied him carefully. He had a peculiar look. It was almost a chuckle. He was concentrating on the person to whom he was speaking, not on what he was saying. The attitude of his body and head was askew—he seemed to be maintaining a kind of sidelong glance.
It seemed to me that he was enjoying himself. That was because he was not merely lying; rather, he was displaying his capacity to lie while getting away with it. He wanted his opponents—that would be me—to know that he was just then doing the sort of thing that caused me to contemn and oppose him. He was standing on my neck as I lay powerless on the ground. He wanted me to know that this is the sort of thing that he does and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.
I marveled at this guy. I thought: he’s nothing like me. For whom, I asked myself, is he a trustee?
* * *
I don’t get it. Sarah Palin is running around telling bald-faced lies, and her running mate, Senator McCain, who has come close to doing some of the same in recent months, is backing her up.
In class recently, this issue came up. A student who seemed to be defending Palin immediately suggested that all politicians lie (or perhaps she meant that the current crew of Democratic and Republican Prez/Vice-Prez candidates lie).
Well, yes, I said, but not all lies are equally egregious. If, for instance, a candidate were to plan to do X, announcing that plan, and then find himself in unexpected circumstances that compel him to not do X, the initial “lie” would not trouble us much.
That was not a particularly good example. Still, everyone seemed to agree that lies and deceptions and untruths come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and they aren’t all egregious or equally egregious.
What about Sarah Palin? Since her “coming out” two weeks ago, she has consistently communicated these ideas among others
• That she has championed the elimination of earmarks (a form of pork-barrel politics)
• That she was offered the “bridge to nowhere” but turned it down
• That she was offered the “bridge to nowhere” but turned it down
Well, no, she is hardly a champion of the "end earmarks" cause. Both as Mayor of Wasilla and as Governor of Alaska, she pursued earmarks vigorously.
Not only did she not turn down federal funds for the “bridge to nowhere,” she actively supported the bill that was supposed to provide it. Congress then removed the “bridge” from the bill, which passed, providing Alaska with over $200 million of federal money, which she did not turn down. (Even without the bridge, the bill was "pork.")
Any way you cut it, some of the key points and impressions that she is communicating to Americans are bold attempts at deception.
This was made clear early on by numerous journalists. So has she backed off? That’s what Hillary Clinton did when it became clear that her Bosnian “sniper fire” tale proved to be distinctly erroneous.
Palin has not backed off. She has simply repeated her lies.
* * *
Obviously, deception is and has long been a routine element of American politics. But I cannot readily recall a case like this one: the (national) candidate lies boldly; the lies are revealed to be lies; nevertheless, the lies are repeated often and noisily even as respected journalists and news organizations draw attention to their status as lies.
Some deceptions are defended with implausible but available explanations according to which what is “really meant” by the deceptive claim is actually true. There can be no doubt that Senator McCain’s oft-repeated assertion—made before groups of people who are not rich—that Senator Obama wants to “raise our taxes” is in this category. (In truth, Obama would raise the taxes of wealthy taxpayers who constitute a small percentage of Americans.) McCain can explain, of course, that Obama does indeed want to raise taxes for some Americans. And perhaps he (McCain) is simply failing to notice that the people to whom he is speaking aren’t those whose taxes would be raised by Obama. So he isn’t necessarily lying.
I suppose people differ with regard to whether we should give McCain any slack here. I’m not inclined to do so. Others may be more charitable.
Palin’s lies seem to be the unvarnished sort. There is no defense possible for them, unless it’s “well, the other side lies too.”
Does Senator Obama lie? He does. Like many Democrats, he often says or implies that, according to Senator McCain, the country might have to fight in Iraq for 100 years. Well, no, that isn’t what he said. In context, he was talking about (or easily could have been talking about) an American military presence in Iraq like those in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. (No fighting goes on in those places.)
Once again, Obama can fall back on an implausible but available explanation: McCain was not terribly clear what sort of “staying” he was talking about, now was he? Maybe he really did mean to say that we might have to fight in Iraq for 100 years! Could be!
So should we give him some slack? Not much, it seems to me.
Sometimes, the lies seem to be in some sense part of a game in which an opponent’s flubs are punished by constant repetitions of the false interpretations that they make possible. My guess is that Senator Obama is thinking that it serves McCain right, being smacked endlessly about his “100 years” remark. After all, there is no excuse for speaking so inarticulately about so important a matter!
And does anyone really think that McCain would have us fight in Iraq for 100 years? Surely few are that stupid. So maybe the audience is in on the “game,” and so the lie is not really a lie. Maybe.
I guess I’m less sympathetic to McCain when he stands before crowds, points at them, and then says that Obama will raise their taxes. Here, I don’t see the game. But maybe I’m missing something. I wouldn’t be surprised. Is it possible that most of the people in those crowds know better but are just going along with this bit of ironic political theater? I guess it’s possible.
* * *
Let’s get back to this curious new Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Surely there is virtually no one, aside from the truly clueless, who will not acknowledge that she is a poor choice insofar as experience and knowledge are important virtues for a potential President to possess. But politics can get complicated, and we are in a race between McCain and Obama, and—from the point of view of many conservatives, I think—if McCain needs to choose an unimpressive minor politician like Sarah Palin as his running mate in order to win, then it is worth it, given the alternative, namely, the victory of a Democrat who would impose a left-of-center Democratic administration upon the nation for 4 or even 8 years.
Does such a judgment make sense, logically or morally? Should conservatives be willing to risk having this shallow neophyte become President (should the old and sickly McCain die) in order to help secure McCain’s victory over Obama?
Obviously, there are Americans who believe that Sarah Palin is a good choice for VP candidate. Some of them are impressed by her credentials as a “social conservative”—an ardent opponent of abortion, homosexuality, “Darwinism,” and all the rest. So desperate are they to further their “social conservative” agenda that they are willing to overlook her lack of experience and knowledge.
But what about her stature as the Bold Liar? Surely that is a problem for these self-consciously moral voters!
Well, again, the stakes may seem to be very high. So much so that, well, if she has to lie to get elected, then so be it. Nobody gets elected without getting their hands dirty.
* * *
But my guess is that many who support Palin do not possess this kind of sophistication. There is considerable evidence that a large percentage of Americans are appallingly ignorant about issues (and about much else). And many Americans, especially conservative Americans, seem inclined to accept the Republican Party’s cynically-offered conspiracy theory about the “leftist” or “liberal” media. This theory is seldom clearly articulated in the course of the ongoing spectacle of mainstream politics. When such politicians as those we saw at the recent GOP convention appeal to it—always without details or any elaboration—they permit and indeed count on voters’ filling in the blank spaces: that journalists and newspapers flat lie and that, horribly, it is entirely possible that the nasty things that they are saying about our Sarah Palin (and our George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, et al.) aren’t true!
This cabal theory, of course, is preposterous.
Please tell me that I’m wrong, but it appears to me that a large proportion of the American public is sufficiently ignorant (and desperate?) that they will embrace this kind of daft conspiracy theory that the GOP leadership plainly wants them to embrace (judging by the speeches and Pavlovian roars of the recent convention).
And so I suggest to you that, in some sense, among the real issues of our time is the spectacular ignorance and cluelessness of much of the voting public. I think that the real worry about Sarah Palin’s lies is that a great many Americans can deny that she is lying. It does not occur to such people to pick up a newspaper to find out. Indeed, for some of them, the world is the kind of place in which journalists and editors and executives constitute a cabal that secretly does what is necessary to turn mainstream newspapers and TV news programs into a seamless leftist mechanism of thought control.
Sometimes, the leaders of our mainstream parties seem to be standing on my neck, smiling.
And I wonder: for whom are they leaders?