Lying Around: Part 4 – When our Political Leaders Lie

For even the most casual political observer, lying is viewed as part of the game. No conscious person, regardless of political affiliation, would be surprised to learn that politicians lie. In fact, most of us would find laughable a statement to the contrary.

Whether or not the lie bothers the general public often depends upon which side of the lie they find themselves. Situational ethics is prevalent in politics as well as in the minds of the public. Do we support the reason for the lie? Does the lie support our personal agenda? Do we like the person who lied? Has the liar duped us? Do we see the lie as understandable and forgivable? The answers to such questions will determine our reaction to the lies and to the politicians who tell them.

All presidents must sometimes lie. Although, Abraham Lincoln contended that he didn’t lie because he had such a poor memory. This anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, makes the point that in order to be a good liar one must remember the lie and all the distortions that protect the lie. When it comes to lying by high-ranking governmental officials, they often have a network of people who remember and support their lie with even more lies. This is especially true in matters of administrative embarrassment or national security. Because our survival can depend on outwitting our enemies, few would argue that we shouldn’t spy. The very business of spying is all about lying and the public tolerates it.

Not all lies are equal. We justify some presidential lies because they support a greater good. If telling a lie can save lives, few would hesitate. The issue becomes less certain if telling a lie would save someone from hurt feelings. The public rarely has enough information or expertise to determine whether the president is lying.

It doesn’t take a political historian to see the diversity in some of the lies told by our recent presidents. And it’s not simply that presidents lie that disturbs the public. It is what they have lied about, to whom they have lied and their motivations for lying that bother us. Political leaders must remain stalwart in the face of criticism and accusations. This requires a tremendous ego. Jimmy Carter arguably had the fewest ego requirements of any president in recent history. As a result, he was viewed as less charismatic than other presidents. He was not a good liar. President Reagan, a practiced professional actor, was very charismatic and had great ego requirements. Such an ego allows one to lie with less internal or moral conflict.

Richard Nixon, who had a mammoth ego, lied to cover up a crime and to keep his job. He didn’t lie for reasons of national security or to comfort a frightened public during a time of depression. It was his selfish duplicity that angered the American people. His proclamation, “I am not a crook!” became fodder for a generation of comedians.

Bill Clinton, riding the crest of a successful first administration, was caught lying about a profoundly human failing. Like Nixon, Clinton’s lies were not about governmental business. Clinton lied to avoid the embarrassment of facing his family and the American public. What seemed to bother people most, and what also garnered him the most support, was that his lies made him seem more ordinary than presidential. The public, regardless of their political affiliation, has increasingly become less tolerant of such lies by their leaders.

George W. Bush, accused of misrepresenting his reasons for invading Iraq, took another approach. He never addressed the accusations of lying, but instead constructed an alternate reality that his supporters eagerly believed. He changed his reasons for invading Iraq from finding weapons of mass destruction, to capturing Saddam Hussein, to freeing the Iraqi people and bringing democracy to the region. His strategy and struggle now seems to be to constrain his administration’s misleads while creating a legacy that fits his ego. It remains to be seen how history will treat Mr. Bush.

Typically, we see lying as a moral weakness and we don’t like to think of our leaders as weak. We hold them to higher standards. Our psychological relationship to our political leaders has characteristics in common with our psychological relationship to our parents. Although we don’t require perfection, we look to them for our moral compass and we protect the image we construct of them. We need to be realistic about the leaders we elevate. We don’t need a scrupulously Honest Abe for president; we need an intelligent, sincere and empathic one who creates more opportunities for telling the truth and fewer reasons for lying.

Tony Butto, DSW, is the director of the Courtyard Counseling Center in Selinsgrove, PA. Dr. Butto also is an adjunct professor of sociology at Bucknell University, Lewisburg.

Lying Around: Part 1
Lying Around: Part 2
Lying Around: Part 3
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