Institutions and Values Part III: Lies and Damn Lies


Within the currency of American values, none has been devalued more than honesty. It’s become okay to lie, especially within one of America’s great institutions, our political process.

Definition of Lie_Merriam WebsterA lie, according to Merriam Webster, is to “make an untrue statement with the intent to deceive.”

A scholarly analysis of lying produced at Michigan State University cited this definition:

“Simply and broadly lying occurs when a communicator seeks knowingly and intentionally to mislead others….” and another conclusion: “Thus it is not sufficient that something is false for it to be a lie; it is the intent that distinguishes the lie.”

But in politics, as in life today, lying is becoming commonplace.

Hyperbole, exaggeration, selective amnesia, and glittering generalities used to be the bad boys of political rhetoric. Now those sins are for sissies.

As I noted in a previous look at lying in 2017, if you peddle backward from the least offensive to the most, here are some common gradations:

  • Misstatements
  • Hyperbole and exaggeration
  • Deception
  • Lies, and
  • Damn lies

No American politician has lied as much as President Donald Trump that we know of.

When Politifact analyzed hundreds of Presidential utterances, of Trump, Obama, and Hillary Clinton, 26 percent of the statements of both Obama and Clinton were determined to be “false, mostly false,” or “pants on fire” lies. Think about that: one-fourth was untrue or at best misleading. Seems like a lot.

No longer.

Trump’s statements produced a score of 69 percent. More than two thirds of the statements reviewed were either misleading or lies. Trump has taken the practice of lying to new and soaring heights, up so far into the behavioral stratosphere it gets hard to breathe when he speaks.

It’s not exactly breaking news, though.

“Trump as a mogul on the rise in the 1980s and ’90s found him categorically different from the other self-promoting celebrities in just how often, and pointlessly, he would lie to them. In his own autobiography, Trump used the phrase ‘truthful hyperbole… truth-stretching that Trump employed, over and over, to help close sales,” wrote Marie Konnikova in Politico Magazine in February 2017.

How did we get to this point, electing a President who just evades what appears to be the truth with such reckless abandon? The answer is not breaking news, either.

A Little History

Current history suggests, as is the case with most American institutions and traditional values in a state of decline, it didn’t start with Trump and it won’t end with him. Those who believe otherwise are driving down a primrose path without GPS.

  • Hillary Clinton lied about the advice she got from former Secretary of State Colin Powell on private email servers and she apparently lied about what then FBI Director James Comey said about her testimony to the FBI.
  • Email disclosures confirmed that she lied about the cause of the Benghazi attacks, and even lied to the father of one of the victims of that attack. She lied about passage of the Defense in Marriage Act.
  • President Obama lied to us, too. “If you like your health care plan you can keep your health care plan,” and “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” and “This is the most transparent administration in history.”
  • Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was an unabashed bs’er. He claimed the Koch brothers were “one of the main causes” of climate change, and that Mitt Romney “didn’t pay taxes for 10 years,” a lie he repeated on the Floor of the Senate, making it even more egregious.
  • Reid later shoved our face in his mudslinging when confronted with the lie, saying defiantly: “They can call it whatever they want. Romney didn’t win, did he?”
  • Remember Senator Rand Paul falsely accusing fellow Senator John McCain of surreptitiously meeting with ISIS?

History is replete with great public lies. President Dwight Eisenhower lied to the American people about the U2 spy plane shot down by the Russians. President John Kennedy reassured us: “…the United States intends no military intervention in Cuba.” Lyndon Johnson lied about the reasons for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which legitimized our full-scale intervention in the Vietnam War in 1964. President Richard Nixon’s string of lies regarding the cover-up of the Watergate break-in is legendary, culminating with his whopper: “I am not a crook”!

The book of lies runs the gamut in politics on both sides of the political aisle, at all levels of government, and does not discriminate among gender, race, religion, region, or age. We’ve been progressing toward this juncture in our history for some time.

The question is at the junction, which set of tracks will we take?

Lying is not confined to politics. Studies have shown that average Americans admit to lying an average of once a day. Survey participants have said it is okay to lie to the Internal Revenue Service and insurance companies. And there have been some whoppers. Think Bernie Madoff. Recommended to me by fellow member of the college debate team was the 1954 book, How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff.

Think, too, about the infotainment industry, which wraps its tentacles around politics and then squeezes until all the profit has been sucked out, makes Trump look tame. The most recent example comes from Sacha Baron Cohen, a celebrity prankster who makes his living making fools out of others. His most recent antics targeted such characters as Sarah Palin and Roy Moore.

Cohen conned them into appearing in a documentary they were told was about wounded veterans. For Palin, I read that he disguised himself as a wounded war veteran for the phony interview (I have not seen the show and have no intention to). The Cohen con job is being financed by cable channel Showtime, which is owned by CBS. Cohen’s victims are as I understand it almost exclusively conservatives.

The Cohen fiasco is another example of how traditional values and our institutions are being corrupted by lower standards of behavior, and a rather frightening political and ideological arrogance that breeds an end-justifies-the-means-mentality.

And apparently there is no shame in it. Bad behavior as often rewarded more than it is penalized. I will long remember being shocked to learn that South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, who violated common decency and the rules of the House of Representatives by yelling, “you lie” at President Barack Obama in the middle of a State of the Union address, reported that his fundraising showed a major increase immediately after the incident.

People, generally, can easily isolate themselves from truth today, making it easier to make up their own. They can choose to accept one set of statistics and ignore another or accept one set of conclusions and ignore others.

People are not challenged to think outside the dots, or instilled with a sense of obligation to respect contrary points of view or broaden their intellectual horizons. They can be snug as a bug in a rug with perceptions with which they are most comfortable, believing what they want to believe, or more to the point, believing what they need to believe. They also have a far greater challenge getting close to truth. There are fewer reliable sources.

Leaders and policy-makers who are growing comfortable with lying to those they serve, are just a step away from lying to themselves and believing it. When that occurs, we will all find ourselves on a slippery slope to more disillusionment and decline.

And that is no lie.

This is part III of a three-part series. Read Part II: The Pyrite Rule

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.