It’s a good cartoon for two reasons. It appeals to our baser, more cynical selves, who suspect that absolutely no one in politics today hews cleanly to the truth. And, secondly, it conjures the irony that, of course, Washington did go on to a rather spectacularly successful career as the country’s first president.
Which got me to thinking about the Current Occupant and his astonishing capacity to lie to the American people. The most recent is over the renewal of the FISA wiretapping law. Bush tried bullying the House into passing a reauthorization bill by claiming that failure to do so would put America at greater risk of another terror attack.
He was lying through his teeth. In fact, the law passed last August, the one that authorizes government eavesdropping on Americans – provided there is a warrant – will not go out of force this week, as Bush claimed. Its provisions remain intact at least until August ‘08. The CIA or the NSA, or whoever, can still get inside my phone and my email if they want to. And the phone companies who provide the access will still enjoy immunity from lawsuits, provided, again, the request for cooperation from the government is legal. The government can even decide to spy on me now and ask for a warrant later. So, there will be no “gaps” in intelligence, as Bush warned.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Bush of “fear mongering.” Good for her. And the House, knowing there would be no national security lapse, called the President’s bluff and went home for a long weekend. Good for them.
It was actually kind of funny. In order to get his way, he threatened to cancel his Africa trip and stay home – if Congress didn’t knuckle under before the recess. He was lying about that, too. He’s there now on a five-nation legacy tour. Telling people he didn’t really mean it in 2001 when he said: “Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease.”
George Bush is not credible. But he’s not simply ignorant; his statements are calculated to deceive. Lots of people do that, you say, especially people seeking high office. John McCain, for example, professing that now he really truly is a conservative. Or Hillary Clinton saying, well, promising whatever she thinks will give her the best shot at being elected.
These candidates want it so desperately. Remember, back in 2000, when candidate George W. Bush promised over and over that “the vast majority” of his tax cuts would “go to those at the bottom”?
But surely the consequences of one’s lies are what matter. Remember the bumper sticker “Clinton Lied But Nobody Died”? Surely the damage done by “America does not torture,” or “Saddam is seeking nukular material from Niger” outweighs that of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
I think people are sick to death of official mendacity, a governing philosophy perfected by Bush and company. (As my mother likes to say, “The truth isn’t in him.”) We are insulted by its condescension, its anti-democratic assumption. Does he (Bush/Cheney/Limbaugh/Dana Perino) really think we are that stupid? That gullible? That malleable?
And I think this healthy disgust is at the core of Barack Obama’s surprising run. Whether or not he can pull off a revolution of attitude in Washington, D.C., a truth-telling revival, as it were, he is offering integrity now. (Imagine, he admits he inhaled.) He is appealing to our better, more hopeful, more realistic selves. Realistic in the sense that each of us understands how a lie eats away at the liar’s own self-respect.