For me, the deepest mystery to emerge from this White House is how its words became so empty. On Tuesday, in response to Paul Manafort’s conviction and Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, West Wing aides drafted a noteworthy statement for the president’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani: “It is clear that … Mr. Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.”
This formulation, I suppose, is meant to provide the public — that is, we the people — with a reason to repudiate Cohen and to cast him and his testimony aside as worthless. But are these words not also an accurate description of the president? Are we then to cast him and his assorted testimonials aside, too?
Or are we to take the aides’ words as meaningless? Such is the pass to which we have come. The empty words conjure an image of a line of open mouths — black holes — issuing a string of zeroes.
I think of the Bible: “The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man?”
I think of the “counsels of an old and affectionate friend,” George Washington, in his farewell address: “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric? … Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?”
We are, it seems, set about the business of making America great again. I for one would rather see America made honorable again. I would like to see our integrity restored.
Yes, we the people have significant disagreements among ourselves about immigration, health care, taxes, political economy, cultural visions, and the training and responsibilities of the professional elites among us. But we can work those through with one another and with leaders of integrity.
The intensity of our disagreements, and the temptation to short-term victory, should not lead any of us to adopt weapons that will do us all in — such as dishonesty and the evacuation of meaning from our language. What, then, will we have done to our inheritance? How will we preserve a legacy of democratic practice and faith to pass on to future generations?