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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Pants on Fire!

You probably heard the news that Barack Obama Tuesday acquired enough delegates to be the presumptive winner of the democratic presidential primary. This was long-expected, of course. Mathematically, a win by Hillary Clinton has been a near impossibility for months. Everybody, it seems, had known this, though Hillary stayed in the race for reasons of her own. She never “said die”, even though she’d already drunk the hemlock. I can’t speak to the wisdom of her choice, honestly. I assume it was a power play, and that her control of so many delegates puts her in a stronger position to demand a cabinet position (attorney general?) or even the vice presidency. The more of a pain you are, the more someone will pay you to have you go away. I really can’t say. But she stayed in the race long after it became clear she could not win the nomination.

To reasonably stay in the race, of course, she had to deny or ignore these facts. The legitimacy of her continued candidacy depended upon projecting the belief that she still had a chance. She went from town to town on the campaign trail voicing this false belief – and often declaring her expectation that she will in fact win. Since she’s an intelligent, rational person, I have to question whether this was a truthful statement – whether she in fact believed it—and I have serious doubts. And I am not alone in this.

But of course, she’s safe in declaring any belief she wants because we do not have a way to conclusively verify her intention or her true beliefs. So we in a sense are forced to give her the benefit of the doubt, even when all evidence points to artifice. In political circles, this realm of personal belief is a recognized contradiction-free zone. A savvy politician is stupid not to take advantage of this loophole in fact-checking. They learn to say they believe whatever is most expedient to be seen to believe. What they really believe is largely independent from their public statements about it, and is protected within their inner circle.

I watched some of the election punditry Tuesday during the final primaries. Even before the polls closed in Montana, the news organizations had declared Obama the presumptive nominee. Clinton then gave her final speech of the primary campaign, scheduled an hour before Obama’s, to an audience of supporters who, we were told, were not allowed to have cell phones or blackberries so that they would remain unaware of the fact that the networks had already pronounced the race over. It’s hard to imagine that Clinton herself was kept unaware of the facts, but she chose not to mention it. She—and everyone else there-- seemed to believe she was still in the race.

Of course, the plausibility of this “belief” that Clinton would win has been waning steadily since “super Tuesday”, and on this day, it was literally a foregone conclusion that she was out of it. Clinton would have had to win both the final primaries in South Dakota and Montana by about a hundred points just to keep Obama from acquiring the number of delegates he needed to clinch the nomination that night. No informed person could reasonably still hold out any hope for a Clinton victory. The only issue was whether or not she would acknowledge this. She chose rather to portray a person still with hope for victory. The pundits withheld their determination of whether this was dishonest, delusional, or just pathetic.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart of that day taped at 5, before the returns came in, but aired at 11. I tuned in to watch it just after Obama’s speech and found that the guest was Clinton’s campaign committee chairman Terry McAuliffe. There is no one who has recently exploited the free zone of personal belief more than he. Long after a Clinton victory was possible, he prognosticated with practiced confidence and enthusiasm not that she could but that she would win the nomination. Stewart treated us to a video “greatest hits” of McAuliffe making such ridiculous statements on various news outlets, time and time again. And here he was on the very day that he KNEW it would all end-- that all these fanciful assertions would be exposed and knocked down like a house of chimerical cards – taping a show that he KNEW would not air until AFTER Obama had already won (and had given a speech claiming this). And yet, he took that moment to categorically reassert his claim that Clinton would win the nomination. It was so brazenly false as to be shocking. Stewart could barely believe it was happening – he asked “How do you DO that?”

What he meant of course is “How can you sit there and lie to my face?” Because that’s what he was doing. Lying. We know it and they know it. But since we can’t demonstrate the falsity of prediction, a form of belief, we silently grit our teeth, and they continue to do it.

He’ll no doubt be working for the Obama campaign in a month or two, using the same dishonest tactics against republican operatives like Karen Hughes doing the same thing. After each public debate or speech, some news organization will put a microphone in his face so he can look America in the eye and say whatever he wants us to think he believes. We’ve come to refer to this as “spin”, but that implies we think they’re just engaging in wishful thinking or biased perception, when really it’s clearly unprincipled “lying”.

OK, I know lying in politics isn’t exactly new. But haven’t we reached something of a crescendo lately? It seems to me that public figures used to keep their lying to a plausible minimum, largely because being found to be a liar used to have adverse consequences for the public trust and one’s career. But now it’s in many cases expected. It’s shocking when somebody tells the truth, even under oath, when they could conceivably, if disingenuously, claim to not know, not to remember, or not to not mean what they knew, remembered, or meant. Evidence may rebut such assertions, but no one has the balls to try to attach the “liar” label when there is the slimmest colorable claim that they are being genuine.

I understand this reluctance, but a person is only entitled to this benefit of the doubt until they demonstrate they don’t deserve it. Once you’re caught in a probably lie, this ought to presumptively discredit your future statements. Really, once someone like McAuliffe or Hughes has demonstrated not just bias but clear disregard for truth, how can a news organization continue to give them a platform to speak and pretend it’s still plausible that they’re speaking from their honest opinions? Wouldn’t it be more honest to introduce these people as “professional liar James Carvell” or “cynical misinformation expert Karl Rove”? or “White House propaganda conveyer Dana Perino”

The fact that no one does this suggests that lying in this way is accepted as business as usual, even when the campaign is over. Sadly, this was confirmed recently by former White House propaganda conveyer Scott McClellan’s new book. In it, McClellan criticizes the current administration for being in “perpetual campaign mode”, and it’s clear by this, he means “constant lying”. Although he gives his old boss (Bush) the benefit of the doubt as to whether he really believes what he’s saying, he describes a White House that said and did whatever was necessary to have the impact it desired, to leave the impressions of facts it wanted to leave, irrespective of reality.

How far can this go? How much latitude do we allow a public figure to deny reality if they express the falsities as their opinion or belief with sufficient brazenness, even though it strains credulity? How many times do we let such people do this before we publicly dismiss them? Our forbearance is seemingly infinite.

Isn’t it time we called liars liars?

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