The sad, wry joke that goes, “How can you tell a politician is lying? His lips are moving,” is a moldy oldie that persists in the public mind because it expresses Americans’ views about the quality of political discourse on all sides of the aisle.
Politicians don’t always lie, but they quite commonly over-promise: Every campaign season begins with promises to slow the rise of the oceans, send enough people to the moon to make it a state or produce a balanced federal budget with a nip here and a tuck there that will produce fiscal reform without any pain.
(Except, of course, there will be some pain for those who deserve it make so much money they will hardly miss the billions or trillions it will take to set things right — despite the fact that, as rich as they are, even confiscating every last cent of their money wouldn’t come close to getting us out of debt.)
We’re used to such promises, and sensible people discount them at the usual rates such pronouncements properly earn, which is somewhere between extreme skepticism and utter disbelief.
What’s more disturbing is that when our leading national politicians do decide to leave reality behind and step off down the path of prevarication, they often are terrible at it.
Indeed, their counterfactual statements actually make people’s views of them worse than they would be if they told the truth straight up.
You’d think a lifetime in politics would produce avoiders of the truth who can achieve a certain level of basic plausibility, but the quality of our officials’ evasions is slipping badly.
As a first example, take Attorney General Eric Holder. In the debate over the utility of Voter ID laws to prevent voter fraud, the nation’s top law enforcement official is a denier to beat all deniers.
He has not only pooh-poohed the possibility of someone impersonating a valid voter at the polls (and don’t forget, he works for a president who cut his political teeth with the Chicago machine, where cemeteries have their own polling places), he has taken legal action against states such as Texas and South Carolina to block their Voter ID laws.
But those states, which unlike many others are vulnerable to federal obstructionism because they are covered by civil rights oversight laws dating back many decades, are hardly outliers. There are 31 states that either require a photo ID or some other form of acceptable positive identification prior to voting.
One of the places that doesn’t have such a law, unfortunately for Mr. Holder’s see-and-hear-no-evil stand on this issue, is his city of residence, Washington, D.C.
There, political prankster James O’Keefe sent a minion with a hidden camera to Holder’s voting place, where the undercover photographer asked for a ballot for Eric Holder (without ever saying that was the requester’s actual name) and cited Holder’s address on request.
After the ballot was offered, the agent said he would like to provide a photo ID he had left in his car, and was told not to bother, as none was needed. The fellow then said he wanted to get one anyway, and left saying he “would be back faster than you can say furious.” At no time did he actually take the ballot or attempt to vote with it, thus apparently violating no law.
Holder’s Justice Department dismissed the demonstration as meaningless because it was “manipulative,” but that statement itself is what’s meaningless: Things can be set up and still be extremely telling.
And what this example proved was that someone could have voted in the name of the attorney general of the United States, because nobody cared to notice that a potential voter who was not even of the same race as that official could have used his ballot if he had so desired. Or, for that matter, he could have had any other voter’s ballot.
Would we call, say, a military armory “secure” if anyone could walk into it at any time without showing any identification and walk out with an armload of rocket launchers?
But our top legal officer says that the act of casting a ballot, which is the primary act of citizenship in a democratic republic, has to be open to the same sort of pillage.
If this example doesn’t make the point even to the blindest ideological partisan (Hi there, Mr. Holder!), nothing will.
And speaking of military armories, we can’t ignore the fact that Holder’s DOJ is still hiding the real story behind Operation Fast and Furious, in which more than a thousand weapons were smuggled across the Mexican border with the full knowledge of federal law enforcement.
Those guns have been reported to have led to the deaths of hundreds of Mexicans and at least one Border Patrol agent, and yet top officials continue to resist congressional requests for access to knowledgeable sources (Hi there again, Mr. Holder!).
Now let’s look at another recent example that emerged just in the past few days from the lips of a media adviser to the head of the Democratic National Committee — someone hired to keep Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida from continuing to insert her well-shod nether appendages into her oral orifice (as has been her wont since, roughly, her first day in politics).
The adviser, Hilary Rosen, launched her own attack on what her party has been calling the “Republican war on women” by, well, declaring war on a Republican woman.
The target was Ann Romney, wife of the heir apparent to the GOP nomination. Ms. Rosen described her as someone “who has actually never worked a day in her life.”
Remember, Ms. Rosen is a top-level professional media adviser for the Democrats’ national party chair. It’s a darn good thing the pros warn us amateurs not to try this at home, or who knows what we’d say.
Mrs. Romney, as it turns out, is a cancer survivor, struggles with multiple sclerosis and has raised five children. After Rosen’s faux pas (which she stood behind twice on Twitter before throwing in the towel with an apology), the White House tried to appear as if it didn’t know her, “I know at least three women named Hilary Rosen,” presidential press secretary Jay Carney said, which has to be true, as the name “Hilary Rosen” reportedly appears 35 times on the White House visitor registry. By contrast, the name “Gen. David Petreus,” the head of the CIA and former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, is said to appear just nine times.
This one is getting right up there with Dan Rather’s fake letter about George W. Bush’s military service — and once again we can thank New Media reporters, along with Fox News, for bringing the story to light.
What’s the lesson? People my age can remember a time when there were two major wire services and three national networks, along with a handful of news magazines and a few newspapers with national impact.
What rumors were started, what lies were told, what distortions were created and what truth was forever hidden then? We cannot really know, but we can feel safer we will know now, with hundreds of sources of information available to us on the Internet and in many specialized publications.
Veritas in pluribus, we can say: The truth is found by having many sources.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.