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Running on a Lie

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What kind of person tells a self-aggrandizing lie, gets called on it, admits publicly that the truth is not at all what she originally claimed -- and then goes out and starts telling the original lie again without changing a word?

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Sarah Palin is beginning to seem like quite an unusual woman, and I'm not talking about her love of guns and "snow machines," her faith, her family or any of the presumably non-elite attributes that we in the "elite media" are accused of savaging. Wrongly accused, I should add; reporters are doing nothing more sinister than trying to find out who she is, how she thinks and what she has done in office.

One deeply troubling thing we're learning about Palin is that, as far as she's concerned, unambiguous fact doesn't appear to rise even to the level of inconvenience.

I'm sorry, but to explain my point I have to make another visit -- my last, I hope -- to the never-built, $398 million "Bridge to Nowhere" that was to join the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, with its airport on the other side of the Tongass Narrows.

You'll recall that in her Republican convention speech, Palin burnished her budget-hawk credentials by claiming she had said "thanks but no thanks" to a congressional earmark that would have paid most of the cost. A quick check of the public record showed that Palin supported the bridge when she was running for governor, continued to support it once she took office and dropped her backing only after the project -- by then widely ridiculed as an example of pork-barrel spending -- was effectively dead on Capitol Hill.

In her interview with ABC's Charles Gibson, Palin 'fessed up. It was "not inappropriate" for a mayor or a governor to work with members of Congress to obtain federal money for infrastructure projects, she argued. "What I supported," she said, "was the link between a community and its airport."

Case closed. Except that on Saturday, days after the interview, Palin said this to a crowd in Nevada: "I told Congress thanks but no thanks to that Bridge to Nowhere -- that if our state wanted to build that bridge, we would build it ourselves."

That's not just a lie, but an acknowledged lie. What she actually told Congress was more like, "Gimme the money for the bridge" -- and then later, after the whole thing had become an embarrassment, she didn't object to using the money for other projects.

I'm not shocked to learn that politicians sometimes lie. To cite an example that comes immediately to mind, John McCain's campaign ads attacking Barack Obama have taken such liberties that even Karl Rove says he wonders if they've gone too far. But it's weird for a politician -- or anyone else, really -- to maintain that an assertion is true after admitting that it isn't true.

Maybe Palin cynically believes she can keep using the "no thanks" line and manage to stay one step ahead of the truth police. Maybe she calculates that audiences would rather believe her than their lying eyes. Or maybe she really believes her own fantasy-based version of events. Maybe the Legend of Sarah Palin has become, on some level, more real to her than actual history.

And quite a legend it's turning out to be. The Post reported Sunday that as mayor of tiny Wasilla, Palin pressured the town librarian to remove controversial books from the shelves, cut funds for the town museum but somehow found the money for a new deputy administrator slot and told city employees not to talk to reporters.

And the New York Times reported Sunday that as governor, Palin appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, to a $95,000-a-year job as head of the State Division of Agriculture. Havemeister "cited her childhood love of cows as a qualification for running the roughly $2 million agency," the Times reported, noting her as one of at least five schoolmates to whom Palin has given high-paying jobs in state government.

Nothing against cows. Nothing against high-school BFFs and being true to your school. But a different picture of Sarah Palin is beginning to emerge. The McCain campaign would like us to see a straight-talking, gun-toting, moose-eviscerating, lipstick-wearing frontierswoman. Instead, we're beginning to discern an ambitious, opportunistic politician who makes no bones about rewarding friends and punishing those who stand in her way -- and who believes that truth is nothing more, and nothing less, than what she says it is.

The writer will answer questions at 1 p.m. today at http://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

Read more from Eugene Robinson at washingtonpost.com's new opinion blog, PostPartisan.


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