All lies are not created equal *UPDATED* & *UPDATED AGAIN*

In response to an earlier post I did about Obama’s habit of lying about easily verifiable events, beliefs and associations in his past, echeccone made the statement, one we’ve often heard, that “every politician lies.” There’s a kind of sweeping truth to that statement, but its very broadness hides the fact that not all lies are created equal. I was just going to leave a responsive comment to echeccone, but it got so long that I decided to use my blogger privilege of elevating my response to its own post. So here is my little riff on why all lies are not created equal, and why Hillary’s and Obama’s lies fall into the worst category.

As any of us who have children or who remember our own childhoods know, lying is an integral part of the human condition. There is no toddler who hasn’t stood before Mom and Dad, staring at the paint on the living room wall, and then glancing down at the paint all over his hands, only to announce without shame, “I didn’t do it.” Said child is always punished, and the punishment comes along with a lengthy explanation about the value of truth and the danger of lies. As a society, we don’t tolerate it well when people deny wrongdoing.

However, at the same time we teach children not to tell these baldfaced, punishment-avoiding lies, we also encourage them to be nice — and to do so even when that involves a lie. “If Tommy asks why you won’t play with him, don’t say it’s because he smells bad. You can say it’s because Mommy wants you home Wednesday afternoons.” These social lies easily continue into adulthood. To the question “Does this dress make me look fat,” the answer is always “No,” regardless of truth.

We also learn as we get older to use lies to protect someone else’s secrets or security. Imagine, if you will, that you’re 10 and your best friend has just confided that she loves Billy. If another classmate asks, “Does your best friend love Billy,” the answer is an emphatic “No.” We don’t betray our friends’ secrets unless someone’s safety is at stake.

Many of these things hold true in political life as well. Of course politicians are going to say they love babies and are for truth justice and the American way (or, if they’re Lefties, for the un-American way). We don’t question them too hard on these things, since we understand that the answers will be generic, just as they are with the “fat dress” question. Likewise, we expect politicians to lie if they’re being pressed about matters that are state secrets. “Hey, Pres. Truman! Are you planning on dropping the Bomb on Japan tomorrow?” That’s another “No” answer.

We also are willing to give favored politician some latitude on broken promises. Thus, the question in the voters’ collective mind when a politician breaks an promise is, “Did s/he, at the time s/he made that promise, have any intention of keeping it?” If people believe the answer is “yes,” they’ll listen with some respect to the politician’s excuses for failing to keep that promise. If the answer is “no,” or if it is apparent that no person of reasonable intelligence should have made such a promise in the first place, then voters will be much less forgiving.

And then there are the lies that Hillary and Obama tell, likes that hark back to the toddler years: They get caught doing something bad, and they simply lie about. Hillary confines herself to denials and accusations. In the face of her intransigent denials, when the truth finally emerges, she tends to look awful. Obama is more clever. His first instinct is to deny, and then he starts leaking out the ugly truth. And by leaking it out slowly, he defuses the impact of the fact that, yes, he did engage in wrongdoing or, yes, he did associate (fairly closely) with terrorists or, yes, he did know all along that his preacher is an anti-American racist kind of guy.

The thing is that, no matter how Hillary and Obama spin it, whether through denial and accusation, or a slow, deflecting acknowledgment, they’ve engaged in the types of lies that most people find unforgivable — the kind of lies that have no social utility but that are just used by the liar in a craven attempt to deflect punishment or humiliation. That is, these aren’t lies to be kind, or lies to protect someone or something (other than the liar), or statements that time proved to be untrue. These are out and out squirrely lies aimed at deceiving people about negative aspects of the politician’s conduct, personality or associations.

And that’s why it’s simply not enough to excuse Hillary and Obama by saying that all politicians lie. All lies are not equal and some are definitely worse than others.

UPDATE: Wolf Howling has an excellent analysis of Obama’s little (and big) Wright lies.

UPDATE II: And here’s another example of Obama’s ever spiraling lies, this one about ex-adviser (or not?) Robert Malley. I mean, he’s definitely an ex something, but Obama has been spinning like crazy about whether he is now or ever was an adviser.

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  • Thomas

    Hello Bookworm,

    Agreed on all points. However, if I may point something out about Obama. He does, as you say, lie and then slowly leak out the truth once the lie is caught.

    But what about his lies that are flat contradictions of reality. He said he has worked on bi-partisan legislation. This is a flat lie since he has the most liberal voting record in the Senate. As far as I know, he hasn’t initiated any legislation whatever, but is only a signatory of the bills. I.e. he hasn’t passed any bills. He’s a fifty year old man and the only thing he has to show for it is two books that talk about himself and a few million bucks.

    He said that work to get the government to do the people’s will. That’s kind of hard if he refuses to do his job as a Senator.


    “Since September 2007, Obama has missed 80 percent of Senate votes.” Which is practically his entire tenure as Senator.

    As far as I know, these flat contradictions of reality aren’t being addressed at all. It seems he’s so busy being a personality celebrity that Senate work is just too boring.

  • Thomas

    Howdy Bookworm,

    My previous comment is on moderation.

  • Alex

    T S Eliot observed that the pursuit of politics is incompatible with a strict attention to exact meanings on all occasions.

    Professional politicians are motivated to lie – even to themselves. They have acquired the habit of self-deception which is essential in order to govern others.

  • echeccone

    I agree with Alex’s post above. I would encourage Bookworm to offer a strict definition of the meaning of unacceptable lies and how only the democratic candidates currently and historically have made them. Even better would be to set those definitions and then judge only future comments (and all of them) based upon it. If you could show a statistically significant difference between the frequency of occurrence amongst liberal candidates rather than conservative ones, then you would have proven me, Alex and T.S. Eliot wrong. Short of that, I think you’re simply showing cognitive bias (i.e., a conservative only sees liberal lies, a liberal only sees conservative lies, a hammer only sees nails…).

    I wonder why self-deception is essential to govern others, Alex. I mean, much governing is now conducted by markets, which do not require self-deception. And scientific progress is predicated on factual analysis and objective verification by an unbiased second party. Wouldn’t it be great if our policies (taxes, budget, foreign policy, etc.) were set that way? I bet we’d be more peaceful and prosperous. Or am I being idealistic now?

  • Alex

    I think many ambitious people who aspire to leadership, do so because they either fail to acquire much self knowledge, or tend to suppress any propensity to “see ourselves as others see us”.

    How many men and women, if they were completely honest with themselves, would claim that they had the qualities of intellect and character necessary to guide others? Politicians do this all the time – justified by self-serving talk (lies) about their concern for the public good.

  • Bookworm

    echeccone (Comment 4):

    I don’t have time for a long comment now, but I don’t recall ever saying that only Democratic candidates are guilty of lies that they use to cover malfeasance. I did point to the fact that the two Democratic candidates in this year’s race frequently use lies to hide the fact that they’ve engaged in illegal, unethical or distasteful (to the voters) acts, or to hide the fact that their past associations are less than savory. You extrapolated beyond what I said (which is fine if you really think Dem candidates traditionally are the ones most likely to tell self-exculpatory lies). Also, I think you might want to read what I wrote because I did define pretty closely what voters consider (or should consider) unforgivable likes, a definition I’ve reiterated in this comment.

  • Tap

    There is certainly too much variety in the types of lies told for me to attempt to categorize each possible type and give each type a relative weight.

    What Book has described here, though, is obviously true – there are different types of lies and they definitely don’t all carry the same level of offensiveness.

    Why don’t we stick to comparing one type of lie amongst the various politicians? The type that Book was talking about in her post: Knowingly making a false statement in order to hide undeniably unacceptable behavior/deeds/words?

  • Ymarsakar

    I’m not sure whatever things Obama might have said in public equals the lies he has told himself when the cameras weren’t on.

  • echeccone

    Bookworm, your definition is a good start, although I would judge someone by their actions and words much more heavily than their associations. But I understand that some people believe that Wright is Obama’s spiritual advisor and want to make hay of that as a ding to his judgment. I don’t agree with it, but I can accept it. In any case, by that definition, you ought to be calling out McCain for his past denials and shifting explanations for similar associations and acts of malfeasance. For example, McCain was one of the “Keating Five,” and although never convicted of wrongdoing, did intervene on behalf of Charles Keating after Keating gave McCain at least $112,00 in contributions. In the mid-1980s, McCain made at least 9 trips on Keating’s airplanes, and 3 of those were to Keating’s luxurious retreat in the Bahamas. McCain’s wife and father-in-law also were the largest investors (at $350,000) in a Keating shopping center; the Phoenix New Times called it a “sweetheart deal.” Although he was let off on a technicality, no one doubts the extent of fraud and racketeering perpetrated by Keating, and yet McCain maintained the relationship. Bad judgment? Different than Obama’s link to Wright? How so? And speaking of unfortunate associations, in 1995, McCain sent birthday regards, and regrets for not attending, to Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonano, the head of the New York Bonano crime family, who had retired to Arizona. Old Joe is responsible for more deaths and “terrorist acts” than the Weatherman Group, so why isn’t Fox reporting on this 24/7 like it is on the Ayers-Obama connection? What’s the difference? Finally, McCain also admitted that adultery caused the breakup of his first marriage–a comment that was widely interpreted to mean more than just his affair with his current wife Cindy–and appeared less than credible on the allegations of another affair with a D.C. lobbyist. There are on-the-record sources quoted in the NYT saying that they were instructed to keep Iseman away from McCain, and McCain contradicted himself on at least one occasion on certain legislative favors made to facilitate a media acquisition by one of Iseman’s clients. When the news of a potential affair broke, his campaign manager kept many reporters away from the candidate until the story could be delivered consistently, which was an odd response given McCain’s normally open style with the media. Interestingly, McCain also initially didn’t deny the affair but attacked the NYT for a smear campaign; moreover, his story on what exactly he did legislatively for Iseman (the bigger sin, from my standpoint) shifted in the very pattern which you abhor. I’m wondering which of these examples of unsavory association or worse you’d like to distinguish. I’m sure there are others, too. He is a politician afterall. Personally, I don’t care much about any of these so-called issues, since they distract from the important policy differences. My concerns with McCain have to do with his position on Iraq, which is untenable and wrong-headed, and his comments on selecting federal judges similar to Bush’s nominations, which, if sincere, will make the Supreme Court far more conservative than the nation’s center. Beyond that, I actually like McCain quite a lot. His views on climate change (believes it needs to be addressed), immigration (for realistic policies, including amnesty, until he flip-flopped) and free trade (sees it as a source of growth and wealth) are similar to mine. And I loved his willingness to attack the ethanol subsidies/tariffs even in the state of Iowa amongst farmers. He remains more of a maverick than conservative Republicans hope, and this could prove his greatest asset and the Dem’s greatest fear during the fall campaign. I just wish we could talk about those issues rather than whether his lies are less compulsive than Obama’s. It really is an unproductive discussion.

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