By Steve Chapman
On his first day campaigning as John Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards put on his most sincere expression and informed a crowd in Cleveland, “I can tell you one thing you can take to the bank: He will always tell the truth to the American people.”
I don’t greatly resent politicians who stretch the truth, but I like them to keep the fibs at least minimally plausible. Yet here was Edwards announcing that a Kerry presidency will deliver the most unlikely miracle since the Virgin Birth.
It is no surprise that in a race for the White House, candidates would tout their honesty. Candidate George W. Bush promised that upon being inaugurated, “I will swear to not only uphold the laws of our land, I will swear to uphold the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God.”
His implication was those traits had become virtually extinct. Bill Clinton’s biggest fans were reduced to defending his integrity by insisting that he lied only about sex. Americans figured Bush was bound to be less prone to deceit than Clinton, who not only lied to the public about Monica Lewinsky but was held in contempt by a federal judge for making false statements under oath.
Bush, unfortunately, has not misled us any less than Clinton did, though he has not done it with quite so much skill. No one will say of him what former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., once said of his predecessor: “Clinton’s an unusually good liar.”
Bush’s Iraq policy has been justified by a collection of half-truths, deliberate exaggerations and false claims, most of which he has spent the last 15 months trying to live down.
Journalist David Corn had little trouble filling 337 pages in a book titled “The Lies of George W. Bush.” In his re-election campaign, you don’t hear the president talk much about how he’s restored “honor and dignity” to the White House. He’d no more highlight the issue of honesty than he would fondle a White House intern.
In his defense, Bush can cite plenty of precedents among presidents. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt promised he wouldn’t send American boys to fight in foreign wars, even as he was looking for a way to do just that. The term “credibility gap” was invented for Lyndon Johnson and his fraudulent deceptions about Vietnam.
Richard Nixon was one of the world’s worst liars, despite endless years of practice, and that characteristic led to his downfall. After declaring he had never traded arms for hostages, Ronald Reagan admitted he had.
Even presidents we now regard as models of probity sometimes uttered bald-faced whoppers. When the Soviets announced they had shot down an American spy plane flying over their territory, Dwight Eisenhower insisted it was an innocent research aircraft gathering weather data — only to be humiliated when the truth was exposed to the world.
Jimmy Carter promised the American people, “I’ll never lie to you.” Yet even before he was elected, his knack for embroidering the truth inspired Harper’s magazine to publish a lengthy article with the headline, “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies.”
The first President Bush pledged he would never raise taxes — “Read my lips,” he said. You know what happened next.
Can Kerry and Edwards do better?
Luckily for them and their opponents, presidential campaigns aren’t conducted under oath. For that matter, most voters would recoil in horror if they were confronted with stark honesty about painful issues. Candidates invariably agree with Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”: “You can’t handle the truth!”
So anytime a politician claims he will always tell the truth, you can be sure he’s lying. And when can you be sure he’s telling the truth? If he says he’ll lie.
Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate.