Opinion

Does the truth matter to voters?

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Lanny Davis
Former Special Counsel to President Clinton
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      Lanny Davis

      Lanny J. Davis counsels individuals, corporations and government contractors, and those under congressional scrutiny, on crisis management and legal issues by developing legal, media and legislative strategies that are designed to best produce a successful result for the client. He has experience in securities fraud and SEC investigations as well, and has found that utilizing such an integrated legal/media/lobbying approach can lead to quicker and less expensive settlements or even successfully litigated outcomes. Senior officials of public companies have also hired Lanny and his crisis group to defend themselves successfully against "short and distort" attacks and other market manipulations. For 25 years prior to 1996, before his tenure as special counsel to President Clinton, Lanny was a commercial, antitrust, government contracts and False Claims Act litigator (both in defense as well as plaintiff). He has argued numerous appellate cases in the U.S. courts of appeals.

      In June 2005, President Bush appointed Lanny to serve on the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by the U.S. Congress as part of the 2005 Intelligence Reform Act. In that capacity, he received the highest level security clearances so that he could be fully briefed and "read in" to the various anti-terrorist surveillance and financial tracking programs at the highest classified level. From 1996 to 1998, Lanny served as special counsel to the president in the White House and was a spokesperson for the president and the White House on matters concerning campaign finance investigations and other legal issues. Lanny has participated in national, state and local politics for almost 30 years. He has served three terms (1980 to 1992) on the Democratic National Committee representing the state of Maryland, and during that period he served on the DNC Executive Committee and as chairman of the Eastern Region Caucus. In Montgomery County, Maryland, he served as chairman of the Washington Suburban Transit Commission.

      Lanny has authored several books and lectured throughout the United States and Europe on various political issues. Between 1990 and 1996, Lanny was a bimonthly commentator on Maryland politics for WAMU-88.5/FM, a Washington, D.C. local affiliate of National Public Radio. He has been a regular television commentator and has been a political and legal analyst for MSNBC, CNN, Fox Cable, CNBC and network TV news programs. He has published numerous op-ed/analysis pieces in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, he Washington Post and other national publications.

      Lanny graduated from Yale Law School, where he won the prestigious Thurman Arnold Moot Court prize and served on the Yale Law Journal. A graduate of Yale University, Lanny served as chairman of the Yale Daily News.

      Lanny is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and Connecticut and before the Supreme Court of the United States and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

There is a cynical view of American voters that they don’t care about the truth — that they can be bamboozled into being persuaded by negative ads. “Negative ads work” is the trite expression that gets an almost unanimous nod of the head, even among those who hate them.

Well, that might be true if candidates accept the conventional wisdom from their top strategists to ignore the ads (“don’t dignify them — stay on message,” was the advice reportedly given to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 about the “Swift Boat” ads.)

Since most candidates follow this advice, it’s hard to find examples to prove that it is the wrong counsel and that negative ads, when successfully challenged as false or misleading, can be made to backfire. But I have one very good one.

In 2005, then-Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine (now running for the U.S. Senate) was subjected to a series of attacks by his Republican opponent in their race for the Virginia governorship.

Beginning in early October, then-Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, consistently ahead in the polls, focused most of his TV ad spending on attacking Kaine for his opposition to the death penalty, which was favored by Virginia voters by more than 2 to 1. Kaine explained that his opposition was based on religious conviction, but that as governor he would follow the law and would exercise his clemency powers sparingly.

Nevertheless, Kilgore deluged the TV airwaves with ads, stating that Kaine had said not even Adolf Hitler deserved the death penalty. But Kaine immediately published a full transcript of the interview from which the reference to Hitler was derived, and the transcript said just the opposite — that Hitler “deserve[d] the death penalty.” Then Kaine took to the airwaves with his own ads, making Kilgore’s lies the issue.

The polls turned in Kaine’s favor. Editorials and newspaper stories ran throughout the state highlighting the dishonesty of Kilgore and the ads he sponsored and condoned.

The Roanoke Times wrote on Oct. 13, 2005, in an editorial, “Kilgore drags the governor’s race to an insulting new low with his attack on Tim Kaine’s principled stance on the death penalty.”

So when Tim Kaine came from behind and won on Election Day by a substantial margin of 6 percentage points — 52 percent to 46 — he did more than win the governorship of Virginia. He won the battle for truth — and the vindication of the fact that voters are not stupid and don’t like someone who thinks that they can be fooled by lies.

Last November, Mitt Romney was caught when his campaign ran an ad that showed Barack Obama stating that he knew little about economic issues. But it turned out that statement was actually referring to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) own admission, not Obama’s. Romney was unapologetic about the lie: “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” he said.

On April 29, Glenn Kessler wrote in his must-read Washington Post “Fact Checker” series that an ad produced by a pro-Romney super-PAC falsely accused President Obama of sending “billions” of stimulus dollars overseas to pay for green jobs. Kessler pointed out that these assertions were debunked two years ago by PolitiFact and Factcheck.org. “Yet here the erroneous assertions emerge yet again, without any shame, labeled as ‘the truth’ or ‘fact,’ ” Kessler wrote. These ads were awarded the ultimate “liars” grade of “Four Pinocchios.”