When The Truth Hurts, But A Lie Will Hurt More


In the early stages of the  Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton infamously asked his then advisor-polster Dick Morris to research whether a lie or the truth would best serve Clinton’s purposes.  (Morris’s recommendation based on his polling data: “Lie your head off.“) The attitude that truth is just a conduct option with no more or less to recommend in it than various versions of spin, deceit, obfuscation, misrepresentation, fabrication and denial is endemic to politics, which is not to say that it is necessary or healthy. Lies can be justifiable tools of the trade in the utilitarian world of politics and government, but if there isn’t an accepted recognition that they are inherently harmful, lazy, undermine trust and tend to become addicting (See: Dick Morris and Bill Clinton), then the cure becomes worse than the disease.

The Presidency of Barack Obama should be remembered as a stark lesson in the danger of avoiding unpleasant truths. What focused my attention on this was an interview that featured journalist Geraldo Rivera opining that describing President Obama’s performance in the wake of the Ukrainian incursion “weak” was “unhelpful,” “borderline patriotic” and “accomplishes absolutely nothing but scoring cheap political points in the near future.” At the same time, this morning’s Washington Post is filled with commentators struggling with the Democratic Party’s Obamacare problem, following the disheartening defeat of Alex Sink in a special Congressional election in Florida. Some of those commentators argue that beleaguered Democrats should aggressively make the case that the Affordable Care Act is a roaring success. Or as Dick Morris would put it, “Lie your head off.”

Rivera’s attitude is responsible, in a way, for the whole Barack Obama debacle. When he ran for office, the news media decided that it was “borderline unpatriotic,” as well as racist, to ask whether a man who had not yet served a full term in the U.S. Senate, was a largely absentee state legislator and had never served in an executive role of any kind in his entire career had sufficient experience to serve in the toughest leadership job of them all. No such reticence accompanied their coverage of Sarah Palin’s fitness for a far less critical position. During the Obama Presidency, the approach of the bulk of the media (meaning the liberal-biased segment), has seen its role as rationalizating, excusing, ignoring, glossing over, covering up or misrepresenting mistakes, botches, flunked Leadership 101 tests, failures, lies and scandals that past Presidents, not just Republicans but every single one of them, would have been criticized for, universally, long and hard. This conduct, Geraldo to the contrary, is what is “unhelpful” and “borderline patriotic.”

When I am directing a stage production, I am often faced with an unpleasent choice. Do I encourage a cast that has just worked hard and sincerely by calling its output “good”, even though I am unsatisfied with the results, and indeed find them alarming? This keeps up morale, and I can still point out problems and flaws in a constructive way. No, in fact, I do not. If it stinks, I say so, and for three very important reasons. The first is that if I call what is not good good, the performers, or some of them, will begin to believe that what they have given me is good, when it is not. This means that they will continue to do what has produced unsatisfactory results. The second is that if they know they weren’t good, they will either think that their leader and manager doesn’t know what good is, thus costing him their trust, or they will realize I am lying to them, which undermines their trust as well.

The third reason is that it’s true.

All of these reasons apply with equal force, and more, when it comes to assessing Presidential leadership, in a crisis or out of it. There is no reason to believe this President knows what weak leadership is—after all, he believes that announcing red lines and consequences that he has no intention of backing up with actions is a show of strength. He needs to be told by supporters and critics alike that his conduct ill-serves the nation and the world, as often as possible and in unequivocal terms, so there is some slim chance that the message will be received and acted upon. (I say this in the sincere conviction that Obama’s leadership deficit is beyond repair, in part because he appears incapable of self-criticism, but the general ethical principle of making weak leaders face facts is sound.) Moreover, it is unfair to him, and any leaders, not to provide the benefit of honest conveyance of the truth, especially when it involves the projection of power. It isn’t just Republicans who think Obama’s response during the Ukrainian crisis is weak. The public and the world think so as well. I wonder if respect for the United States abroad can sink any lower, but if it can, the perception that blatantly weak Presidential leadership is regarded as strength here will do the trick.

The Affordable Care Act debacle issues are a bit different. I am not sure what I would advise Democratic candidates whose fingerprints are all over the throttle on the ethics train wreck that it has become, but insisting that it’s a roaring success when it is a festering boil is neither ethical nor smart. There are two ethical stances, and only two:

1. “It can still be a good law, and we will fix it so it does what it should do to the net benefit of the nation, if we are allowed to by Republicans and you. We were not as honest, diligent, competent or careful as we should have been in planning and implementing it, and we misrepresented the law to you as well. That was wrong, and I apologize for my part in that, and for the conduct of my party. But I still believe that the law will work. Give me another chance.”


2. “This is a fiasco, and I take responsibility for it. Now let me lead the way to purging our system of this failure, and seeking an alternative that works.”

Or they can lie their heads off.

14 thoughts on “When The Truth Hurts, But A Lie Will Hurt More

  1. They can spin the Obamacare debacle all they want, but it is impacting a lot of people in a very negative way. Its one thing to lie about a extra-marital affair, quite something else to try to convince somebody that higher premiums, higher deductibles, higher co pays and having to switch doctors somehow leaves them better off. Not only are they lying, they are immediately caught and they are insulting our intelligence to boot.

    I mean, the ethics are terrible either way, but in one case the lie may work and the other it won’t.

  2. OR, they can lie, and then attack, malign, and make life miserable for everyone who sees the truth. If the emperor who had no clothes had just chopped the head off the kid in the first place, there would have been no second voice murmuring.

    • Sort of like:
      “It was kind of like how the Romans used to, you know, conquer villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go in to a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw and they’d crucify them.
      “Then, you know, that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.”

      Leadership by any means necessary. Who needs to be a great leader when power alone will do the trick?

      • Bullseye for both of the last comments. When you control the entire apparatus of government (though he lost the House) and the entire media, nothing else is necessary, and ethics can freely be tossed out the window.
        Even if the Democrats lose control of the Senate, he still has the media on his side and we will spend the last two years of his administration hearing about the “do-nothing Congress” and how important it is that we return control to the Democrats in 2016 so that Hilary can get the progressive agenda back on track. If that doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen all the way, we’ll be hearing the same refrain from there to 2018, where those Republicans still in control of one house or the other are blamed for stalling things that should have been done, finished, over with a long time ago. In the extremely unlikely event that Hilary doesn’t win in 2016 we will still be hearing interviews and reading articles in which Obama takes time out of his busy speaking schedule to ruminate on how he did his best and we almost had it all, but his agenda was stymied by reactionary wingnuts in Congress who just didn’t want to let a black man succeed, or in which Hilary takes time out of her equally busy speaking schedule (at $400K a pop) to talk about her great service to this country and how those right-wing warriors on women wouldn’t allow it to shine through. When the narrative’s already written, it’s easy to shoehorn the facts to fit it.

        • No, the President will have to veto lots of bills, which will make the “do nothing” label hard to make stick.

          It’s all theoretical, since Nancy Pelosi says that Obamacare won’t hurt Democrats and that by the end of this year everyone will know how great it is. You know, I know a lot of smart people in San Francisco. Her existence is a bigger mystery than the disappearance of the Malaysian airline.

          • Wrong, the President will have had to veto all those bills for the good of the country, now, if Congress would only send him some bills he could actually SIGN…

            • That works only if they are all unpopular bills. I think by then we will have had about four more fiascos, the ACA will be in ruins, and Obama’s approval will be in the 30s. Then the danger will be the GOP being tempted to impeach him.

              • I was being half sarcastic, that’s how he, and the media, will try to spin it. I doubt the GOP will try to impeach him, they tried that once with Clinton and failed badly.

                • They failed because Clinton’s positive poll numbers were neraly in the sixties and the Democrats controlled too much of the Senate. No President can be impeached when he’s popular, even if he is a rapist-traitor. If the numbers are in the 30s, it’s possible.

  3. In my neck of the woods I’m hearing a tactic that’s not really LYING about the ACA per se, I guess it’s a mutated version of your first option. Namely this: The law isn’t working as well as intended, because greedy bastards aren’t willing to help the sick and unwell among the nation. Why do you hate the poor so much, greedy bastards? If you would just do your part and do what you should, this law would be working as well as we’ve been saying it’s working all along.

      • I didn’t say it was right, it’s just a nice tack to take- no so insultingly obvious as the lie, but with the flavor of “I’m sorry you were offended.”

        Oh, and my twisted sense of humor has given your clown nose reference a dark and rather molest-y vibe (to the president, not you) that I am giggling at uncontrollably.

  4. It’s true that all Presidents lie at times. Even the good ones like Truman and Eisenhower. The question is why are they doing it? Is it for the benefit of the country? Obviously Clinton’s lies were more to protect his legacy than anything else and avoid getting impeached which happened anyway. Obama seems to basically be contemptuous of the American people and the largely liberal press have gave him a pass on the lying which is pervasive in his administration.

    • That’s a basic difference between the “black” and “white” lie, Wayne. The black lie is told for personal gain or satisfaction. There’s a lot of shameless black liars in Washington these days. I rather wonder if the market ever has been as saturated with them as now.

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