Voters Have Low Tolerance for Lies
Truth-telling seems rare in politics today, say some experts, but the public still demands it
CONCORD, N.H. — ASKED in a hotel lobby here if he would pledge "never to lie" as Jimmy Carter pledged in l976, lesser-known presidential candidate Larry Agran responded quickly: ll never lie to the American people."
Democratic hopeful Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa stood at a construction site, mulled the question a moment and said, m comfortable with that." And Republican Patrick Buchanan, after a speech to a senior-citizen group, laughed and said, m not going to imitate Jimmy Carter on anything."
Recent national polls by newspapers indicate that the desire for truth from candidates is much on the minds of Americans. "It's worth having them say they won't lie," says John Fluerant of Concord at a Buchanan campaign stop, "but we have to hold them to it."
Sissela Bok, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and author of the book "Lying," says, "What is really sad now is that when a public official or candidate is exposed in a lie, nobody is shocked anymore because that's what people expect. This is really a tragedy for our country."
Benjamin C. Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post, spoke last November at Harvard University about presidential lying. He said, "It seems to me lying has reached epidemic proportions in our culture in recent years and that we've all become immunized to it.... If we cannot trust our presidents, who can we trust? If our leaders lie - routinely - who should we follow, or even worse, why should we follow?"
More to the point, is it possible to become president and not lie? Former Speaker of the House Thomas (Tip) O'Neill says, "There are certain things that should be kept a secret. Nixon denied that he bombed Cambodia, and he tried to keep it a secret, but the reason he did was that the North Vietnamese were hiding in enclaves in Cambodia and preparing their [attacks]. Nixon lied to the American public, but he was doing it for the safety of America.... That's the way of American politics."
Ms. Bok says one test for lying is "the intent to mislead." Does she think President Bush was misleading the American public when he said, "no new taxes" during the campaign and then supported new taxes later?
"I would call that a foolhardy promise," she says, "and politicians do it all the time. They say, 'I promise that prosperity is just around the corner,' or all kinds of things that they really have no power over."
At the same time, in politics or out, everybody "fudges" statements or sometimes compromises values to avoid embarrassments or to maintain civility. But the trust needed between citizen and politician is fundamentally different.
Walter De Vries, director of the Institute of Political Leadership in Wilmington, N.C., was asked how the voters should protect themselves from being misled.
"Very difficult," he answers. "You don't know you're being misled until after [it's happened.] I think there is a difference between the intent to deceive, making a mistake and admitting it, or deciding I'm just going to lie about this particular thing. These are all different shades.
"But I think anybody in politics who engages directly in telling a lie and knows it consciously [has] got to be pretty stupid to do that, and I'm not even talking about the morality or ethics of it."
According to Mr. De Vries and others working in programs to instill ethical attitudes and collaborative skills in young politicians, the United States political process that has evolved hardly encourages candor. Nor has the electorate acted as if it did not expect candidates to offer solutions for everything under the sun.
"I think political people have allowed themselves to be put in the position of omnipotence in terms of what they can and cannot do," says Robert Mitchell, director of the new Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University. "There's an expectation that when you run for office you have a solution for everything. That's what the American public wants, someone to spoon-feed them a solution."
To discourage lying and misleading, politicians may need some relief from the pressure to have all the answers.
"It's very important for someone to be able to say one doesn't know something," says Bok, "that they are not fully informed on absolutely every problem, or that they haven't taken a position."
Says Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing magazine (published by Congressional Quarterly), "We agree to buy the Brooklyn bridge from politicians. They keep selling it to us because we're willing to buy it."
Mr. Ehrenhalt suggests politicians might trust in candor as being more persuasive than pie-in-the-sky promises or lies.
"[Politicians] never say, m not sure there is a solution to that problem," he says. "There are many problems in which ... there are no easy solutions. No politician likes to say, 'Look, our state is 49th out of 50 in all important economic indicators. If I do the best possible job, maybe we can be 48th in four years.' And the voters know that's the truth because Mississippi doesn't become Connecticut no matter what the governor does."
How does Ehrenhalt think Nixon should have handled the initial Watergate incident?
"All that Nixon had to do at some point early in the process," he says, "was say, 'Look, we really made a terrible mistake. There was a burglary, and I found out about it.' I think it really would have been accepted. People will put up with all sorts of personal failings as long as people tell the truth."
According to De Vries, an aggressive press has made it harder for political candidates to lie and mislead.
"There was nobody else to lean on the candidates," he says. "The [political] parties can't do it, so how else do you do it? Through the news media. It is more difficult to lie now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, because the attention of the news media is now focusing on the candidate and his personal life."
Mr. O'Neill agrees.
"There's no question about it," he says. "Nothing is sacred anymore. When I was in college and first met [Franklin] Roosevelt, he was sitting in a wheelchair. I was so shocked I didn't tell my own friends or my parents. [The people] around Roosevelt hid him. When he came out he was always on his son's arm.
"Was that lying to the American public? Sure it was, because in their hearts they felt the nation wanted a strong, physical man leading, not a man who would be leading from a wheelchair."