The phrase honest politician has become an oxymoron. We should not be impressed by the prospect of having the first woman, first black or first Latino president. What would be far more radical would be to have the first honest president, if not ever, certainly in a very long time.
Presidents in recent memory have been excellent liars, contributing mightily to our culture of dishonesty. Bill Clinton had the audacity to look right into the TV camera and blatantly lie to the American public. George W. Bush has probably set a record for official lying, though it might take many decades to fully document them. Carl M. Cannon saw the bigger truth: “posterity will judge [George W. Bush] not so much by whether he told the truth but whether he recognized what the truth actually was.”
Things have gotten so bad that hardly anyone can even imagine an honest president. But if we don’t expect an honest president, how can we expect to trust government?
Don Nash made these insightful observations, “If America was ever faced with a politician who spoke truth to the people, no-one would know what to make of the oddity. This politician could probably not get elected to office. Sadly, Americans can’t handle the truth. …Lies, then, are the consequential destruction of American democracy. Little by very little, the lies and lying politicians have chipped away at America’s Constitution and the American form of government.”
Rampant lying by politicians is a major reason why so many Americans have stopped paying attention to politics, stopped hoping for political reforms, and stopped voting
Lying politicians probably tell themselves that the public cannot take the truth. Many convince themselves (lie to themselves) that lies of omission are not really serious like lies of commission.
Just how bad things have become is shown by the recent decision by the Supreme Court of the state of Washington that lying politicians are protected by the 1st Amendment. They are free to lie as much as they can get away with. Free speech apparently is a green light for lying, even though it leads to rotten, dishonest government.
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During this primary season it is worthwhile to look at Republican and Democratic candidates from this honest-president perspective. A truly honest president would have the greatest loyalty to honoring the rule of law, the Constitution and the needs of the public, rather than what we have grown used to: greatest loyalty to their party and the moneyed interests funding it. If the nation really wants a change president, honesty should be a requirement.
On the Republican side, Ron Paul looks like the most honest candidate. Straight-talk John McCain still seems to have better than average honesty, and Mike Huckabee seems relatively honest, except when he talks about his record on taxes as governor. On the Democratic side, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel look the most honest, with Bill Richardson running close. Among third party presidential candidates in recent history, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan stand out for their honesty, which clearly was not sufficient to prevail against liars.
Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney are pretty comparable big-time, gold-medal Republican liars. And with Romney we might get the first Mormon president, but not an honest one. If Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, then the most dishonest Democratic candidate will have prevailed. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that only 34 percent of Americans view Senator Clinton as honest. As to Barack Obama, viewed as 50 percent more honest than Clinton in some polls, his statements about his upbringing, universal health care, and campaign funding cast doubt on his honesty. Still, he seems successful in selling himself as honest. Liars are bad, but liars claiming to be honest are worse. Odds are that there will be no honest Republican or Democratic presidential candidate to vote for in 2008.
An honest president would threaten the corrupt, dishonest and rigged two-party political system, so one getting a presidential nomination is improbable. How could an honest person obtain financing for their campaign? How could they get diverse groups to support their candidacy? Candidates tell different groups what pleases them, and eventually contradict themselves. Flip-flopping sounds bad, but is even worse when the new position is a lie.
Some may suggest that a candidate does not have to be honest during campaigning, but only be honest once elected president. But can someone with real character find it easy to lie repeatedly during campaigning and then have the ability to stop lying once elected? I think not. Besides, how can citizens detect the potential honest president if that person is behaving like all normal lying candidates during campaigns? A truly honest person must stand out and be seen as exceptional by the public because of their habitual honesty. Much of the appeal of Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich is their perceived honesty. But the candidates most likely to succeed attract supporters for their policy positions, promises or ability to win, despite not being seen as honest. That makes their supporters delusional. They lie to themselves to justify their support.
This means that most people reject choosing a candidate on the basis of their perceived honesty. They knowingly choose dishonest politicians. Why?
Lies entertain. Honesty disturbs. Honesty produces painful truths about the nation, government, and failed public policies. Truth-telling politicians usually say things that people would rather not hear and or think about.
Meanwhile the mainstream media and pundits, promoting confrontation and horse races to entertain and keep their audiences, are reluctant to call lying politicians liars. Instead, they use oblique language and euphemisms to conceal the truth about lying. They are as dishonest as the politicians they talk about. How interesting it would be to have media people ask candidates something like: Are you being the most honest person you can be in this campaign? I don’t think the majority of dishonest ones would not say “yes.” Instead, they would dance and blabber.
Tragically, Americans have become used to lying politicians. Can our democracy survive when most people believe that an honest president is both impossible and unnecessary?
Of course, honesty by itself is no guarantee that someone will be a great president. Nor is it by itself sufficient reason to vote for someone. But imagine if we insisted that it be a necessary, minimum requirement for supporting politicians.
In the end, without honesty, every reason we use to vote for someone is a joke. Delusional thinking about candidates has produced our delusional democracy. Time to stop voting for liars. Better to not vote at all. Voting for liars only encourages more lies.
Joel S. Hirschhorn can be reached through www.delusionaldemocracy.com.
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