The Little Lies That Matter
It was the line that would jumpstart his ascendancy: “I’m Jimmy Carter, and I’m running for President. I will never lie to you.” When Gore Vidal first heard this remark, he was standing with the late Senator Frank Church of Idaho. Church, so Vidal records in his memoir Palimpsest, turned to him and said with morose delight, “Now Carter wants to deny the very nature of politics.”
In the case of President Carter, it was not a lie that destroyed his presidency. As it transpired, the American people did not much care for the truth either, promptly throwing him out of the Oval Office in favour of an acting president who had spent most of his life earning a crust by making audiences believe just about anything. Reagan’s administration would be thrown into chaos by one gigantic lie, or occlusion of the truth: the cover-up of illegal arms sales to Iran, and the misdirection of profits from those transactions to purchase weaponry for the Contras in Nicaragua.
These all-encompassing lies which engulf administrations and have the whole nation talking are not in fact the ones we ought to be concerned about the most. After all, the American people in this regard have traditionally been rather good at distinguishing the colossal, harmful lies from those not worth a second thought.
While conservatives believed it to be a scandal worth fighting over, the majority of Americans understood that it was not the business of Kenneth Starr or anybody else for that matter whether President Clinton did or did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. At once, the Watergate scandal and all that came with it – obstruction of justice, abuse of power, financial irregularities – forced Richard Nixon to become the first the resign the presidency.
Rather, particularly in the midst of a heated and oftentimes vile election season, the lies we should be concerned about the filthy little lies, or dirty tricks, which have been and continue to be a feature of every national campaign. These have ranged from seemingly minor indiscretions – such as when the Bush campaign in 1988 injected the rumour that Kitty Dukakis had once burned an American flag into the national discourse – to the downright egregious. In early 2000, for example, Karl Rove allegedly initiated a whispering campaign against John McCain which included the use of a mendacious push poll question, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”
These lies are typically the most damaging precisely because it is difficult to refute them. Delivered through robocalls, televised ads, or speeches on the stump, they are introduced into the national dialogue and allowed to calcify in the absence of an immediate riposte, in the form of a fact check or opposition rebuttal. This problem is compounded when the ossified lie is taken up as a talking point, uttered by every party operative on every radio and television programme and inserted into every public speech. The firm lie, repeated often enough, becomes an accepted truth.
The Republican National Convention has proven to be a forum in which this principle has been tested to the limits of its success. Multitudinous Republican speakers from Rick Santorum to Newt Gingrich have said that President Obama has removed the work requirement from welfare reform, a message which first emerged in a 30-second attack ad funded by the Romney campaign. Politifact found this claim to be undeniably false, noting that the Department of Health and Human Services memo to the states seeking waivers from the federal government allowed them that right only if they could “improve employment outcomes for needy families”. But this has not prevented the lie from being picked up by the media, including august institutions like The Washington Post, whose blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote that Obama “tossed aside” the old rules to appease an “anti-work welfare contingent” in America.
Another lie running through the convention is that Obama has “never worked in the private sector”, even though he worked both for Business International Corp. as a research assistant and as a partner in the law firm Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland. Then there were the lies Paul Ryan articulated in his speech on Wednesday night. One example: Ryan chided Obama for failing to prevent the closure of an automotive plant in Janesville, Wis., even though it effectively shuttered in December 2008 during the Bush administration.
To the question of why after the 1960 election cycle, Gore Vidal chose to return to the novel and turn away from politics, Vidal oft replied that “the novelist must always tell the truth as he understands it, while the politician must never give the game away”. The need to manipulate, to distort, and to defame are intrinsic to and inseparable from politics; thus, the lie has been and will be forevermore part and parcel of American political life. This does not mean, of course, that these little lies have to be the basis and driver of the national conservation.
It is the duty of the voter, then, to become more alert and attune to the lies our leaders or their surrogates force upon us, so that we might nip them in the bud before they bloom that most odorous of turdblossoms: the invented fact.