Thanks to Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk’s revelation that he has been knowingly misrepresenting (or “lying about”) the nature of a military honor on his official biography for years, following close on the heels of the Richard Blumenthal scandal, we must answer the question: how much dishonesty should the public tolerate in candidates for the U.S. Senate?
How about “none”?
I’ll stipulate that Blumenthal’s falsely claiming Vietnam service is somewhat worse than Kirk’s substitution of the 1999 “Naval Reserve Intelligence Officer of the Year Award,” an individual honor that was actually given to someone else, for the obscure-sounding “Vice Admiral Rufus L. Taylor Award”, awarded to Kirk’s whole unit, not him individually. Nevertheless, Kirk has been claiming an honor he did not have, and worse, has taken credit for an honor awarded to another man. Like Blumenthal, Kirk has allowed a false military credential to stand without correction for a long time, and like him, had it not been discovered and publicized (in Kirk’s case, by the Washington Post), it would be uncorrected still.
The two political parties can’t credibly try to articulate a filament-thin ethical line that excuses Kirk’s dishonesty and not Blumenthal’s, or vice-versa. And the nation must not tolerate a standard that lets both of them shrug off their lack of integrity and respect for truth by saying, “OK, you caught me. So what? Let’s move on to what matters to the voters.” Not having a gang of habitual liars running the government had better start mattering to voters. It is one of the primary causes of the nation’s problems.
Richard Blumenthal’s strategy for ducking accountability for his lies has been to deny that he lied at all. Kirk’s strategy is apparently to admit the lie, but point out that his opposition is even worse. Neither approach should be acceptable to their parties or the public. This is the ethical standard for candidates for public service: be honest and straightforward about who you are and what you have done, and don’t pretend you are someone you are not.
As always, there will be borderline situations. Should New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, for example, have been disqualified to run because of his false claims of baseball prowess? Perhaps not.
Still: is it really too much to expect and require our elected officials to represent their lives without falsehood and exaggerations? I don’t think so.