Has Being A Skilled Liar Become A Qualification For High Office?

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Did you know that Hillary Clinton is a liar? Everybody knows that. Everybody also knows that many of our leaders and aspiring leaders, liberal and conservative alike, are liars. It is part of what leaders do to achieve their goals. Because liberals generally share goals with their chosen leaders, they ignore the liberal lies. So, too, conservatives ignore the lies of conservative leaders. Sadly we live in a world of bipartisan lying and partisan defense of those who lie to advance their public policy goals.

You can read about Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi-related lies in recent commentaries by Kimberly Strassel and Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal. You won’t read about Hillary’s lies in the New York Times, though Times columnists regularly comment on Republican lies. Nor have we heard any objections to Hillary’s lying from her thinning opposition in the Democrat contest for president of the United States. Lying by leaders and aspiring leaders seems only to trouble the political opposition.

In other words, there seems little chance that Hillary’s persistent lying will make any difference whatsoever to her prospects in getting the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Being a skillful liar may in fact be viewed as a necessary qualification for anyone aspiring to high government office. Partisans care more about achieving their policy goals than they do about how those goals are achieved and the veracity of their chosen leaders.

That we live in a whatever-it-takes political world is underscored, perhaps inadvertently, in an article by Jonathan Mahler that appeared in the New York Times magazine a week ago. Mahler comes to the defense of Seymour Hersh’s article in the London Review of Books in which Hersh argues that the Obama administration’s account of the killing of Osama bin Laden is significantly a fabrication. Mahler’s point is not that Hersh is right and those who have reported the administration’s version of the story are wrong, but that journalists can never know enough to be certain that their sources are telling the truth. Only the passage of time allows journalists to become historians, and even then the truth remains elusive.

Of course those journalists whose reporting is challenged by Hersh take offense at Mahler’s suggestion that Hersh could be right. No reporter wants his or her version of truth proven wrong. It suggests bad reporting.

But buried, almost off-hand, in Mahler’s piece is a revealing explanation for why reporters who rely on government sources will always be wrong some of the time. Mahler quotes Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists: ‘‘[Government officials] are representing a political entity inside the United States government. Telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth is not their job, and even if it were their job, they would not necessarily be able to do it.’’ Mahler concludes that ‘it’s hard to imagine that telling the whole truth was more important to Obama, or should have been more important, than managing America’s relationship with this unstable ally. … There’s simply no reason to expect the whole truth from the government about the killing of bin Laden.”

Mahler’s easy acceptance of lying by the nation’s highest public official might reflect a perception that the public’s interest in relations with Pakistan and other southeast Asian nations outweighed the public’s interest in truth. Sometimes lying to liars is the only way to avoid disastrous consequences. But most of the pervasive lying that has come to dominate our domestic politics has nothing to do with high stakes, real world, consequences and everything to do with gaining political advantage at every opportunity.

There is wide agreement that Hillary won the day at the Benghazi hearing, not because she offered convincing evidence on what happened but because she was in control and her Republican adversaries seemed to flounder. In other words, she controlled the narrative and, as Mahler observes there are different ways to do that. The “old-fashioned way” is to “classify documents that you don’t want seen” and (quoting former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates) “keep mum on the details.” The “modern, social-media-savvy approach” [employed by Hillary Clinton in the Benghazi hearing] is to “tell the story you want them to believe. Silence is one way to keep a secret. Talking is another.”  

Both may be equally effective and, notes Mahler, “they are not mutually exclusive.” But there is a big difference between declining to reveal facts and telling bald-faced lies. Public officials who expressly or impliedly acknowledge that they are not revealing the truth can nonetheless earn our trust if, at the end of the day, they have good reasons for keeping secrets. But when public officials lie to us, even if they have good reasons for keeping secrets, we can no long trust that they won’t lie to us for purely personal or partisan reasons.

While we might wish that all public officials would always be truthful, we should not be surprised that Hillary and so many other public officials and those who aspire to officialdom lie with impunity. What should worry us is that partisans from right and left are wholly indifferent to lying so long as it advances the cause they support.