[Jumbo: a Jumbo is a special Ethics Alarms award for conduct that emulates the gag from the Broadway musical and film “Jumbo,” in which Jimmy Durante, as a circus clown trying to steal an elephant, is caught red-handed by a sheriff, and asked, “Where are you going with that elephant?” “Elephant? What elephant?,” Jimmy replied.]
As readers who travel here often know, I really hate, hate, hate obvious lies. They are cowardly, they are insulting, and when they are authored by public officials, they recklessly foster public cynicism and distrust. You can’t do your job right, and you don’t even know when it’s pointless to lie? Why should we trust you to be able to do anything right?
Of course, we shouldn’t.
You will seldom see a more blatant and embarrassing example of the desperate, immediately apparent lie than this one from the District of Columbia Board of Elections after it mailed out 305,164 copies of the official D.C. voter guide with the D.C. flag on the front cover printed upside-down. This immediately provoked much local media, pundit and social media hilarity and mockery, but no, announced the Board. This was no lazy clerical error from the government famous for them. This was intentional! A devilishly clever strategy!
The election board’s spokeswoman, Denise Tolliver explained that the upside-down flag was a deliberate move—an upside-down flag is a distress signal, after all—to grab the attention of voters and “see how many clicks we can get.” “People are responding, aren’t they?” Tolliver said. “They’re paying attention. It’s working!”
Nobody believed it, of course, because the only idiot in the conversation was her, and, by proxy, her superiors. Eventually the board’s executive director, Clifford Tatum, confessed. “No, this is an error,” he e-mailed a D.C. Council member.
Let me leave it to Colbert King, the Washington Post’s diligent chronicler of D.C. government corruption, to summarize what this incident means:
“The ill-designed cover can be forgiven. The lie cannot. The public has a right to expect the government to tell the truth. Snafus occur. People can make mistakes. But government officials, especially those with an election board where integrity and trustworthiness are paramount, simply cannot be allowed to tell the public that which they know to be untrue. Who will believe the next thing that comes out of the mouth of the board’s spokeswoman? Or the board itself.”
Or any part of the D.C. government.
Or any government.
Still, you have to admire the creativity. “We were intentionally incompetent to draw attention to the issue!” is an excuse I haven’t heard before. I’m sure the Obama Administration will get around to it eventually.