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.