No `liberties' with the truth

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MAYBE someone should have revoked Larry Speakes's ``PR man's license'' before he became presidential press secretary. Mr. Speakes says he took a bit of liberty with that license in fabricating quotations for his boss. What he took liberty with, in fact, was the integrity of the United States government. His concocted quotes were designed to make the President look good, to show he could hold his own against the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Polishing a client's image, an admirable talent in the right setting, is the essence of public relations; it's not, or it shouldn't be, the essence of communicating the words and decisions of a democratic leader to his people and the world.

Too much hinges on the accuracy of presidential words to tinker with them. The specific phrases cooked up by Speakes may seem almost trivial; the principle involved is not. The former press secretary, now chief publicist for the Merrill Lynch Corporation, admits in his new book that he did the wrong thing because the Soviets knew the President didn't utter the post-Geneva summit remarks attributed to him by Speakes, and they might have objected. It was wrong, more fundamentally, because it involved lying, and lying should have no place in our public discourse.

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We know, of course, that it sometimes does. The revelations of the Iran-contra case, to use the most recent example, show how prosaic falsehood can become when government officials believe they're serving some purpose higher than the truth.

The probably fleeting uproar over Speakes's ``liberties'' provides yet another opportunity to make a lasting point: Truth should be the standard of communication in the nation's public life. Otherwise, policies rest on shaky ground, and the government itself, which rests on the trust of the people, is jeopardized.

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