Thursday, November 29, 2018

* Presidential Pinnochios

Column: All the Presidents Can Tell Whoppers All Right, and They Do

  • Shawn Braley illustration

For the Valley News
Saturday, November 24, 2018
Let’s tell the truth about lies: Almost everyone tells them. Except maybe Jimmy Carter, our 94-year-old former president who promised, “I will never tell a lie to the American people.” And he apparently has not.
Carter once even admitted in an interview in Playboy that he had “committed adultery in his heart” by lusting after women other than his wife. That’s pretty honest even for an evangelical Christian, which he is. We rewarded him for that scrupulous honesty by throwing him out of office after one term.
I suppose you could say another president, George Washington, was first to declare, “I cannot tell a lie,” even though, as the story goes, he said that as a child. But that story about cutting down the cherry tree has itself been found to be a lie. A white lie, I suppose, or a myth, but untrue nonetheless.
So, is our current president the exception, or is he the rule? Donald Trump regularly earns The Washington Post Fact Checker’s award of 3 Pinnochios (a significant factual error) or 4 Pinnochios (a whopper), meaning that, like Geppetto’s wooden puppet whose nose grew longer every time he fibbed, our current president is a liar.

But every other president in my lifetime (except Carter) has been a liar, as well. Just listen to them:
■ Barack Obama: “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”
■ George W. Bush: “Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction.”
■ Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
■ George H.W. Bush: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
■ Ronald Reagan: “We did not, repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages — nor will we.”
■ Gerald Ford: “There was no deal, period, under no circumstances,” after issuing a pardon to Richard Nixon, later disputed by the reporting of Seymour Hersh.
■ Richard Nixon: “I had no knowledge of the ... break-in, that’s for sure, no knowledge of the ... cover-up. Oh no.”
■ Lyndon Johnson: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
■ John F. Kennedy: We have no intention of military intervention in Cuba.
■ Dwight Eisenhower: The American U-2 spy plane that was shot down over the USSR was merely a weather plane that had flown off course.
■ Harry Truman: “We wished in the first (atomic bomb) attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians.”
■ Franklin Roosevelt: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
And that is just in my lifetime. Why would we expect anything different of Trump? At least his lies have not caused thousands of war deaths. So far. We can’t say the same of the Bushes, Nixon, Johnson, Truman or Roosevelt.
By the way, except for the prohibition against bearing false witness against thy neighbor, lying is not one of the transgressions forbidden by the Ten Commandments. That’s pretty limited. You can’t lie about your neighbor, but you can lie about your family, you can lie about people who aren’t your neighbors and, incidentally, you can lie about “the failing New York Times.”
Even U.S. libel and slander laws are more strict than the Ten Commandments. You can’t tell a lie about anyone out loud or in writing. If you do, you can be sued for damages. Unless you are a politician. In that case, the courts say, stretching the truth can be acceptable. As U.S. District Judge S. James Otero ruled last month, Trump’s reference to porn star Stormy Daniels’ accusations as a “con job” was protected by the First Amendment as the kind of “rhetorical hyperbole normally associated with politics and public discourse in the United States.”
So what are we to do? Are we all swimming in presidential Pinnochios from Roosevelt to Trump? The Washington Post reports that Trump has told about 6,000 lies since he was inaugurated two years ago. That’s a whole lot of big wooden noses.
If we can’t look to presidents for guidance about truth, what about Jesus? Did he lie?
We will never know because all the witnesses are dead and all the documents are disputed. There is even a whole field of scholarly debate called the “ipsissima verba jesu,” the very words of Jesus.
In 1976, when I was a religion student, only 26 words in the Bible were accepted by scholars as being “the very words of Jesus.” Now, in 2018, that number has grown to more than 1,000.
But there is a catch: The attribution of those words to Jesus is largely based on the argument that they are written in Aramaic in translations of the original texts, not in Greek or Latin. Aramaic was the language that a Palestinian carpenter would have spoken in 32 A.D. Therefore, those Aramaic words might have actually been spoken by Jesus.
That’s pretty soupy scholarly evidence I’d say, and opens up another problem: If you believe something that cannot be verified with witnesses or documents, does that make it true? Consider American history, which does have witnesses and documents.
“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races,” said Abraham Lincoln in his first debate with Stephen Douglas on Aug. 21, 1858. Witnesses heard Honest Abe say it.
Five years later, as president, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Paul Keane lives in Hartford.