The Washington Supreme Court held last week that candidates for office can lie. Washington is one the states that provides remedies when candidates maliciously lie about their opponents in an election. The Court held that the statute violates the First Amendment.
Candidates lie! What a revelation!
The word “lie” is very short and powerful. It means to intentionally deceive, to utter a falsehood with the intent to deceive. To dissemble, to fib, to misrepresent, to misstae, to fabricate, to utter a falsehood and to perjure oneself simply do not convey the same strong message as “to lie.” Admittedly the word has been cheapened in political discourse in recent years. Seemingly every time we disagree with an opposing politician, or facts don’t develop the way we expected, someone lied. “Bush lied, Thousands died.” So much for the classic Nixon line: “Prior statement inoperative.”
Modern political vocabulary harkens back to George Orwell and Newspeak. Expenditures become investments and taxes are now revenue enhancements. Tax cuts are labeled subsidies by opponents. Double talk and hypocrisy are common currency.
Yet, candidates, politicians, political parties, and press agents lie in the traditional sense. They lie on their resumes, military background, participation in war protests, financial transactions, campaign contributions, education, athletic success, criminal past, addiction, drugs, alcoholism, ethnicity, fidelity, sex, religion, families, ethnicity and religion.
They lie to constituents, voters, the media, staff, campaign workers, fellow politicians, lovers, and their families. They may even lie to themselves. Representatives and Senators do one thing in Washington and say the opposite back home. Presidents stare the camera in the eye and lie to the viewers. Is it no wonder that the American public holds Congress in even less esteem than the President?
Some politicians master the art of talking out of both sides of their mouth. Indeed, some are so smooth that even though you know they’re lying, you award style points.
If caught, some politicians resort to “The Big Lie,’ pioneered by Goebbels and the Nazis. If the lie and the denial are outrageous enough, people just might believe them. The boldface lie may succeed.
Even non-lies may sound like lies. President’ Nixon’s “I am not a crook” was literally true. He was not a crook, but he was many other things.
Lying is non-partisan and non-sectarian and now non-actionable. Some lying is congenital, some opportunistic, and some out of desperation, but a lie is a lie.
Some lies may be minor, but others are devastating to the nation. LBJ accused Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 campaign of being a war monger interested in nuking Vietnam. (Goldwater was an unabashed hawk who did not understand the value of nuance in a Presidential election.) Only later did we learn that all along President Johnson was planning a substantial escalation in Vietnam, waiting only until after his reelection to implement the decision. Indeed, the Congressional vote to support South Vietnam, The Gulf of Tonkin resolution, was based on a false story about North Vietnamese attacks on American naval vessels in international waters.
Fake documents and redigitized photos lie.
I’ve seen lies in school board and city council elections all the way up through Presidential elections. A few judicial candidates may even lie.
On the other hand, sometimes candidates cannot lie. Twice in the 1988 Republican Primary in New Hampshire, Senator Dole tried to tape “The Pledge.” He just couldn’t do it. The Pledge is the New Hampshire promise not to raise taxes.
Instead, Vice President George H.W. Bush received the nomination, and in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention vowed “No new taxes.” That was a winning sound bite over Governor Michael Dukakis of Taxachusetts. Yet, once again we learnt three years later from an article in the Wall Street Journal that President Bush never intended to abide by it.
Sometimes lies catch up to politicians. President Bush’s reversal of “No New Taxes,” which was viewed by many conservatives as a covenant, led to H. Ross Perot receiving sufficient votes in the 1992 election to swing the election to Governor Bill Clinton.
Office holders lie in office.
Incumbents lie in running for reelection.
So why shouldn’t candidates lie in seeking office?