Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 January 2008

Tired of Lies

After two days to mull over Barack Obama’s and Mike Huckabee’s stunning victories in Iowa, it occurred to me that our pundits and mainstream media are missing an important point. Hunger for real change was of course a factor. But there was something else. The American public, including this writer, is tired of lies.

Over the last several decades, a new form of public speech has arisen in America. The technique is not easy. It is a combination of understatement, de-emphasis of unfavorable facts, and subtle but distinct misstatement. It also involves endless repetition of generalities. Practicing it is an acquired skill, now taught in our universities. It goes by the Orwellian name of “communication,” but most of us know it as “spin.”

The trick is to hide and stretch the truth as far as possible without losing all credibility. Where to draw the line depends on your audience: the less informed, less intelligent and more gullible they are, the farther you can go. A lawyer practicing this skill, for example, will go farther with the jury than with the judge.

This skill is relatively new. If you go back to the last century, the quaint folk there didn’t practice it. From Harry Truman to Jack Kennedy, they all sound like John McCain in 2000, on his best days. Their speech is straightforward and plain. They acknowledge difficulty, nuance and setbacks. Occasionally they confess error or take an opponent’s point, often with humor. They don’t sound like a lawyer trying to excuse an ax murder with misdirection and guile. They don’t sound like Bill Clinton debating the meaning of “is.”

Unfortunately, many of today’s public figures do. And our media reward them. They comment on someone’s “communication” and “credibility,” but seldom on his truthfulness. As “objective” and “neutral” commentators, they correct only the most egregious of lies, such as Iraq’s alleged participation in 9/11—and then only when it is repeated unconscionably and becomes the basis for disastrous public policy.

Some media have “fact checking” departments, especially at campaign time. But they are staffed by unknowns, and their work is buried on the back pages and in fine print. Insofar as the headlines, the key stories, and editorial opinion are concerned, the truth is what someone can get the public to believe.

The public now understands all this instinctively, but it took a long time. With his broken English and “aw shucks” demeanor, George W. Bush seemed credible until Iraq exploded, gas prices skyrocketed, and our economy started falling apart. The disastrous implosion of his credibility has made us all much more sensitive to spin.

So you can explain the results in Iowa without ever using the word “change.” Here is what may have brought Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney down:

1. Hillary’s “experience.” Hillary Clinton is a second-term junior senator from New York. That’s the only political office she has ever held. She has never run anything but her own campaigns and (earlier in her career) a few bar association committees. The only real decision that she made during Bill’s tenure in the White House (which she or Bill will reveal) involved her health-care proposal, which failed. Yet she has tried to portray herself as having enough executive experience to perform well in the Oval Office from day one.

Don’t just take my word for this. Take hers. Last night, in the debate in New Hampshire, she had the chance to expand on her “experience.” There were no time limits, and the moderators were more than generous in giving her time.

Although I lost track of the number of times she used the word “experience,” she gave no specifics other than her Senate work, her 1993 health-care proposal, and some work she did in Arkansas as a political spouse while Bill was governor. Her argument was entirely spin and repeated generalities. She used the same “communication” technique that Bush and Cheney used to assert that Saddam had WMD and was complicit in 9/11: endless repetition without specifics. In short, she relied on “spin.”

People are not stupid. If being presidential spouse is presidential experience, why isn’t Barbara Bush or Laura Bush running on the Republican side? After all, the field is wide open. Would anyone consider either a serious candidate for president?

If being First Lady is not real executive experience, then Hillary is no better qualified than her rivals Obama and Edwards, and much less qualified than Joe Biden and John McCain.

The media explained Iowa’s rejecting Hillary by saying voters there didn’t value experience over change. They based this conclusion on polls saying that about half of voters bought Hillary’s spin and thought her the most experienced.

But there’s another possible explanation. Maybe the voters who bought Hillary’s spin did so because they weren’t paying much attention and didn’t care. Maybe the other half of voters were paying attention, valued experience highly but didn’t think Hillary had much, other than her brief Senate career. Maybe they thought she had inflated her résumé and that the inflation was a lie.

2. Hillary’s vote on the war. Hillary insists that her 2002 vote to authorize war with Iraq was a vote of conviction. She tells us that everyone believed Saddam had WMD, and she was no different.

But there are two holes in her story. She also tells us that she voted for war as a last resort, after diplomacy. But she failed to vote for the Levin Amendment, which would have required president Bush to undertake additional diplomacy before going to war.

Much more important, Hillary never read the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). As we now know, it contained strong dissents regarding Saddam’s possession of WMD. Former Senator Bob Graham (D. Fla.), who did read the NIE—and strongly urged all Democrats to read it—was one of six senators to vote against war.

Now Hillary Clinton is nothing if not a policy wonk. The NIE was only ninety pages long, and she had ten days to read it before the vote. If her vote was really one of conviction, wouldn’t she have read it before deciding?

There is, of course, an alternative explanation: she didn’t need to read it because she had already made up her mind to vote for war for political reasons. She wanted to become the first female president. She knew Bush and Rove would slime her as “weak” if she voted against war. So ambition may have swallowed conviction.

Voters may believe that Hillary lied about her motives for one of the most important votes she would ever take in the Senate. (This analysis also tells us something about Hillary’s ability to resist Republican demagoguery, but that’s another story.)

3. Mitt Romney and the sanctity of life. Mitt Romney’s sordid tale is much shorter. When he was governor of Massachusetts—one of the most liberal states in the nation—he was pro-choice. As he began his run for president, he became pro-life.

He said that sympathy for the embryos used in stem-cell research caused his podium conversion. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.

For me, a lie about “cultural” issues doesn’t matter much because I don’t think they have any place in serious presidential politics. But there are lots of people for whom a candidate’s positions on abortion and stem-cell research are literally matters of life and death. Most of them are Republicans. Isn’t it more likely that these folks turned away from Romney because they don’t trust him than because they don’t trust Mormons generally or dislike consultant-driven campaigns?

* * *

Like Al Gore’s frogs in hot water, we Americans live in a bath of lies. Since the Second World War, skilled prevarication has pervaded our public life. It is so pervasive that we no longer speak of “facts” or “truth,” but “credibility.” For us there is no longer an objective reality, only what people can be led to believe.

The change was so gradual that we hardly noticed it. But fortunately for us frogs, the Bush Administration’s flagrant lies have shocked us out of our torpor. The consequences of those lies were enough to catch our attention: chaos in Iraq, thousands dead and tens of thousands wounded, a catastrophic loss in international honor and prestige, and a tattered Constitution here at home. Now our “strong economy” is beginning to unravel, too.

In the end, Bush, Cheney and Rove may have done us all a favor. We frogs may finally be jumping out of the hot water before it reaches the boiling point. Sensitized to the consequences of credulously accepting lies and spin, we are more careful now. Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney may be the first casualties of our new awareness.

If this analysis is correct, then nominating Hillary Clinton would be suicide for the Democrats. The reason is not just Hillary herself. It also is Bill.

I still love to hear him talk. I still resent the Gingrich Republicans for spending so much money and wasting so much time and energy trying to remove him from office. But I never want to hear another president lying to the public as he did about Monica Lewinski. And I never want to hear another president debating what the meaning of “is” is.

Lots of voters feel the same way, and the Republicans will not forget. It would be irony indeed if our new-found sensitivity to the lies of Bush, Cheney and Rove spoils the Democrats’ best chance in two generations to remake society for the better.


The lead New York Times story this morning covers the Bush Administration’s new plan for covert operations in Pakistan to prevent Al Qaeda from destabilizing that country. Apparently that is now a key Al Qaeda goal.

On August 1, 2007—over five months ago!—Obama gave a major speech on terrorism and foreign policy suggesting, among other things, that we go after Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Hillary Clinton dismissed him as “naïve.” The Bush Administration, as usual, didn’t listen.

If Obama had been president, would we have stopped Al Qaeda’s destabilization push before it started? Would Benazir Bhutto still be alive?

We’ll never know. But we do know one thing. Beating Al Qaeda and keeping our country safe requires a leader capable of seeing around corners. Neither Dubya nor Hillary can.

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