THERE WAS A TIME when to catch a candidate in a lie was to score a major point, or to land a major scoop. Lying was seen as damaging to a potential leader’s overall credibility and trustworthiness, and it was generally held that things like honesty and integrity should be a politician’s stock and trade.
That time is long past. As evidenced by the deafening silence that followed the exposure of the various lies, half-truths, and misrepresentations that comprised the bulk of Paul Ryan’s recent RNC speech (and his subsequent remarks), honesty is no longer expected, nor particularly valued, in our public figures.
The general consensus seems to be that all is fair in the ongoing political civil war, and not only is mud-slinging expected, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s genuine mud or the manufactured kind. Boasting, too, is part of “the game,” and to pad one’s resumé with fake accomplishments and self-serving fictions is just one of those things a good huckster needs to do to stay one step ahead of the competition.
“All politicians lie,” goes one popular defense. “They need to, in order to get elected. It’s getting into office that matters.” You hear this all the time. People don’t care if “their guy” doesn’t tell the truth on the campaign trail, because it’s all about beating the other guy and getting the prize of office. Bold falsehoods are the steroids and blood doping of electoral competition. Both sides do it, people say, so you just have to be the one who’s better at it. It’s called being a winner, and cheating is built into the game now. It’s expected; some say it’s even necessary.
Less than two weeks ago, Lance Armstrong was stripped of all seven of his Tour de France titles, and the standard justification given by his supporters amounts to little more than “Well, everyone else was cheating, so he had to.” And although his name is stricken from the record books, Moses-style, he still has his worldwide celebrity and millions of dollars, which are the true spoils of victory… even ill-gotten victory.
In politics, the spoils are the chance to push your side’s agenda… to get into office and do all those great things you promised you’d do while you were blasting the other side’s hero with bright and shiny lies. The problem with this, of course, is that campaign promises are typically regarded as the biggest political lies of all. Just as we assume that a candidate should lie about his accomplishments and his opponent’s failures, we also take it for granted that the very reasons a man wants the job are pure fabrications, designed only to get the voters to the polls. The earnest hand-on-heart pledges of “I will do this” and “I will do that” are taken as best-case scenarios, not as actual achievable goals. It’s clear to us that, while the right hand is over the heart, the left has its fingers crossed behind the back. “I promise I’ll get you a pony,” our daddy tells us. But we know we’ll get socks and underwear. And we’re fine with that, because it’s how promises work.
And the once-dreaded punishment of exposure, that moment when a journalist or a zealous watchdog actually goes back and checks the record and calls the lie out, isn’t feared at all anymore. “Ooooooh, I’m gonna telllll,” doesn’t hold much power when those responsible for punishing a liar (the voters) seem to give every bold-faced whopper an instant pass. Even before Ryan was done speaking last Wednesday, the fact-checkers were buzzing like a hive of over-stimulated bees, but their stern tweets and TV protests were met with a resounding “Meh” by the public. Many in the press actually thought they had a story there, but their readers and viewers begged to differ, and turned instead to the horrifying news of the cancellation of Jersey Shore. Ryan’s fabrications didn’t matter, because he was “on message,” even if he couldn’t back that message up by using the literal truth. Ryan, and those like him, craft their speeches and comments to serve a “higher truth.” They say the things that they believe in their hearts to be real, even if objective, verifiable reality says something very different.
And so, we are told, honesty is an old-fashioned notion. You don’t bring a pillow to a knife fight, and you don’t bring the truth into a tight election year. Lying, say the Godfathers of politics, is not personal. It’s just business. It is, like modern sports, show business, as scripted as professional wrestling and as corrupt as professional boxing. It’s bulging muscles, and bared teeth, and boastful words, and not one single word, not one single moment, that feels like the truth.
When all is said and done, and the final bell rings, the candidates shake hands, and smile, and say polite things about one another. They talk of Unity, and cooperation, and moving forward. They talk about wanting the same things, and belonging to the same nation.
Until the next day, when they start cooking up the next batch of steroids. And if the fact-checkers can manage to detect the dope, who cares? It’s not like anyone expected fairness anyway.