The Truth About Lies

As children, we all heard the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. The rambunctious young George, age 6, was playing with his new hatchet when he decided to do a number on the family's backyard tree. When confronted about this act of vandalism by his father -- who apparently didn't have the foresight to predict that giving a 6-year-old a hatchet might result in some destruction -- George immediately fessed up. "I cannot tell a lie," he said. Instead of delivering the vigorous beating an 18th-century lad might expect, Washington's father praised the future president for his honesty.

The incident never actually happened; it was the invention of the early Washington biographer known as Parson Weems. But 210 years after Weems' biography appeared, the tale is still valued for its lesson: The integrity and fortitude that made Washington the "father of our country" can be witnessed in his unshakeable commitment to the truth, even at such a tender age. Oh, that all our leaders might live up to Washington's standard!

Today, we continue to believe that we can predict whether politicians will perform well or poorly in government by whether we perceive them to be "honest." This seems like a reasonable enough basis on which to judge them, particularly given alternative metrics like which candidate you'd like to have a beer with or which has less political experience and can therefore declare herself "not a politician."

The problem is that we have a rather unusual set of unspoken rules that we apply -- or that the press applies on our behalf -- to determine which lies matter and which don't, which are so consequential -- and so indicative of something dark and dangerous lurking within the politician's heart -- as to disqualify one from office, and which can be ignored because "everybody says that sort of thing."

The latest candidate to run afoul of these rules is Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell, who, despite (or perhaps because of) her refusal to talk to non-conservative media outlets, continues to provide ample material for our amusement. O'Donnell appears to have generously padded her resumé, particularly in the area of her educational accomplishments, claiming to have graduated from one institution when she hadn't and to have attended other institutions when she hadn't (see here for more details). Her dishonesty rings interesting hypocrisy bells -- the anti-elitist desperate to get elite cred, the candidate who claimed her commitment to truth was so fervent she wouldn't lie to the Nazis if she were harboring Jews is now caught lying about something far less consequential. But it gives us the opportunity to highlight the rules of lying in American politics and to ask whether they're serving us well.

The first rule is that lying about yourself is worse than lying about your opponent. Candidates routinely fib about their opponents' records and histories with little notice. Perhaps it's because reporters presume that in the rough-and-tumble of a campaign, a certain degree of hyperbole is to be expected and therefore can't be judged too harshly. If you claim, though, to have done something you haven't, reporters will usually be all over you. Look at what happened to O'Donnell's fellow Senate candidates Mark Kirk in Illinois, who was caught inflating his military record in multiple ways, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who said at various times that he had served "in" Vietnam when really he had served "during" Vietnam. This is the kind of lie reporters find outrageous -- when candidates make themselves look more heroic or accomplished than they actually are. A lie about your opponent may draw attention, but the discussion will be about whether the attack was out of line; in other words, what you did. A lie about yourself, on the other hand, will spur a discussion about who you are.

Which leads to the second rule: Lying about personal matters is worse than lying about policy. That may be because reporters think policy is less important than "character," but whatever the cause, candidates can, with few exceptions, get away with murder when it comes to policy. O'Donnell herself has benefited from this double standard; lots of people heard about her comments about witchcraft, but nearly no one knows that she revived the claim that the Affordable Care Act will create "death panels" -- perhaps the most despicable lie to have coursed through our political bloodstream in recent years.

The problem is that the kind of lie candidates get in trouble for -- like claiming a military honor they never got -- doesn't really have an analogue to the performance of official duties. If a politician lies about policy when he's a candidate, on the other hand, it's a pretty good indicator that he'll lie about policy when he's in office. That does matter.

Unfortunately, the supposed consequences of a liar sneaking through an election are seldom discussed in any detail, so we don't often learn why we're supposed to be afraid of the dishonest candidate. The line we always hear when these lies are exposed is that the dishonesty "raises questions" about the candidate, but we almost never hear exactly what those questions are.

The underlying reason, however, that dishonesty is supposed to matter is that it offers some kind of meaningful prediction about the candidate's performance should the candidate win office. For instance, when a candidate is found to have cheated on his wife, people often say, "If he'll lie to her, how do we know he won't lie to the country?" This kind of thing was often said about Bill Clinton. Once Clinton actually took office, we found that his pre-presidential failings as a husband accurately predicted that as president he would fail as a husband. What effect, though, did that have on his efforts on the economy or foreign policy or anything else? On the other hand, in 2000, George W. Bush told a great many lies on matters like taxes and health care, which foreshadowed quite well the ways he would endeavor to deceive the public on those topics and others. His campaign of deception leading up to the Iraq War is well remembered; perhaps less so is the parade of prevarication that preceded the passages of his tax cuts. Yet no one said in 2000, "Well, if he's willing to lie about his tax plan, how do we know he won't cheat on the country?"

None of us wants politicians to lie to us. If we're going to put honesty near the top of the list of qualities we want in our leaders, though, we should understand why we're doing so and which kinds of lies are the ones we should get angriest about. Resumé-padding and extra-marital affairs shouldn't just be dismissed; they might indeed reveal the kind of character defect that should be disqualifying. But if you really want to know whether a candidate is going to betray you once in office, watch what he or she is saying about policy.

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