At the White House in 1983, Ronald Reagan told a visiting Israeli prime minister that he'd been among the first American photographers to take pictures of the liberated victims of Nazi death camps in Poland at the end of World War II. Reagan, whose presidency was an analgesic of tall tales that have gotten taller since, was lying: His military service during the war was as a cameraman for the Army Air Corp's First Motion Picture Unit on Hollywood lots, beyond which he never strayed much. Lyndon Johnson lied to U.S. troops in Korea when he told them that his great-great grandfather had fought and died at the Alamo, although the guy had been a real estate broker who'd never fought a day in his life. Bill Clinton lied on television about not having sex with Monica Lewinsky. In 1988 Joe Biden lied his way through an entire speech about his humble beginnings -- a speech mostly cribbed from a TV ad for a British politician.
None of the lies was of any consequence, including Clinton's about sex. I subscribe to the Talmud's exemptions from truthfulness when it comes to sex and hospitality, but not to the juvenile proposition that every lie is a matter of state -- or worse, of "character." Otherwise the likes of Thomas Jefferson, who technically raped Sally Hemmings, and Franklin Roosevelt, who not so technically cheated on his wife with Lucy Page-Rutherfurd until the day he died (when Lucy, not Eleanor, was at his bedside), should be booted off their memorials' pedestals. For the current generation of inquisitors, our experience with the last two presidents settles the issue: The adulterer takes Mount Rushmore compared to the bible-thumping teetotaler who's losing three wars, ruined the economy and reaped global ridicule.
White lies keep shout-show hosts wagging their tongues. They don't tell us anything about a politician's judgment or trustworthiness. For that, there's the demonstrable falsehood that affects real lives as opposed to bogus TV outrage. We knew during the 2000 campaign that George Bush was lying when he claimed he could cut taxes, keep the budget balanced and Social Security safe. We knew in 2002 that he was lying when he tied 9/11 to Saddam Hussein or that al-Qaida and Saddam "work in concert" to spread weapons of mass destruction. We learned before the invasion of Iraq that he'd lied about Saddam's nuclear weapons, and learned soon after it what we'd suspected, that he'd lied about WMDs. Yet he won reelection. The message was: Manipulate. Slander. Lie. If it's what the electorate wants to hear, it'll work.
The McPalin campaign knows. No need for rumors and innuendoes. It flat-out lies. Repeats the lies. Then lies again when the lies are exposed. There's Palin's lie about the infamous Bridge to Nowhere: She campaigned for it, then kept the $223 million in federal tax dollars when Washington killed its support. Still, she keeps repeating her "thanks but no thanks" line rally after rally. There's Palin's lie about how "we began a nearly $40 billion natural gas pipeline to help lead America to energy independence," as she told the Republican convention, even though not an inch of that pipeline has been built, not an inch will be built for years, and it may never be built at all. There's Palin's lie about being an ethical reformist even though she thought nothing of billing taxpayers for 312 nights spent at home, at $60 a night, on days she commuted 45 minutes to her governor's office in Anchorage.
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Then there's McCain's fantasies about balancing the budget while cutting taxes, fighting wars and "changing the tone of Washington" while slandering Barack Obama's darkish background. It's what Justice William Brennan once defined, in a different context, the reckless disregard for the truth.
But to succeed, deception needs a receptive audience. It needs the incurious, the unquestioning, the toadying. The effectiveness of the lies, in a year when comatose fleas should capably beat the shrewdest Republican, is telling -- not about the candidates' venality, but about the electorate's want: This isn't an election about change. It's an election about extending the denial that made the last eight years possible. Many Americans, maybe most, want to convince themselves that America's moral authority and example is undiminished despite the last eight years. (And who can blame them? Who doesn't wish it weren't so?) The last thing those brave Americans want is change. They want leadership that validates their delusion. Palin-McCain is their narcotic bridge to nowhere.