Are facts fungible? Is it acceptable to lie to the American people either by misrepresentation or omission? Once upon a time — like during the George W. Bush administration — a presidential misstatement on an important issue, even if believed fervently at the time, was called a “lie.” You remember, it was a slogan and everything (“Bush lied, people died”).
Now, however, the truth-telling bar is so low that truth becomes an option. There was this revealing exchange on Meet the Press:
DAVID GREGORY: You were advising the president on the kinds of things he should say. Why did not you, or somebody else, say to him, ‘Mr. President, don’t say no matter what you’re going to keep your health care plan.’ Was that bad practice? … But that’s why you’re there!
AXELROD: Well, hindsight is 20/20. … There is a small group of people, David — the vast majority of Americans, that statement will hold true for. For this small group of Americans, it hasn’t. But, the calamitous thing here is that the website wasn’t up because many of those people who have to transition are going to get better insurance for less money but they just can’t tell that now because they can’t get on the website.
Hindsight? In hindsight it was better to have told the truth. It was an option, I suppose, but not a requirement. Even his “explanation” is untrue: “I don’t think there’s any shame in saying, we didn’t anticipate this one glitch, we grandfathered a lot of policies, we didn’t anticipate this one glitch, but many of those people are going to get better health care for less money when this website is up and running and they can select it.” No, these were the administration’s own regs and the idea that millions of people had to be moved into the exchanges was part and parcel of the scheme. Still, the truth is optional for this crowd.
It’s not just Democrats. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) hasn’t been borrowing just a line or two for speeches; he’s been lifting whole passages repeatedly for his public addresses. He became quite annoyed on Sunday when pressed on plagiarism — misrepresenting others’ work as your own:
STEPHANOPOULOS: I know you — you dismiss that as making a mountain out of a mole [sic]. But since then, Politico reported that there were more instances where you used words that first appears in other places. And I know you dismiss those questions.
But do you concede, at least, that this is pretty sloppy?
And don’t you have to tighten up your speechmaking operation if you, indeed, do want to have a presidential run?
PAUL: Well, you know, the footnote police have really been dogging me for the last week. I will admit that. And I will admit, sometimes we haven’t footnoted things properly. In fact, I’ve given thousands of speeches and I don’t think I’ve ever footnoted any of those speeches.
In the speech in question, I quoted from “1984,” “Gattaca,” “My Left Foot,” Michelangelo, Einstein, and Ray Bradbury, among maybe a dozen others. And I attributed everything or attributed everything to them.
But I didn’t get into the secondary sources and say I quoted Einstein as according to an AP story or as according to Wikipedia.
So I think the spoken word shouldn’t be held to the same sort of standard that you have if you’re giving a scientific paper. I’ve written scientific papers. I know how to footnote things.
But we’ve never footnoted speeches. And if that’s the standard I’m going to be held to, yes, we will change and we will footnote things.
Everything in that paper, if I had presented it for an academic — or that speech for an academic publication, would have had footnotes next to it.
In some of the other things that are now going to pop up under thousands of things that I’ve written, yes, there are times when they have been sloppy or not correct or we’ve made an error.
But the difference is, I take it as an insult and I will not lie down and say people can call me dishonest, misleading or misrepresenting. I have never intentionally done so. And like I say, if, you know, if dueling were legal in Kentucky, if they keep it up, you know, it would be a duel challenge. But I can’t do that, because I can’t hold office in Kentucky then.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So what’s the fix?
PAUL: Well, we’re going to have to footnote things, like I say. But here’s the problem, George. Ninety-eight percent of my speeches are extemporaneous. I spoke for 13 hours on the floor,extemporaneous. And so it is a little bit hard to footnote things accurately. And I will give you an example.
I love the quote from Niall Ferguson, you know, referring to the president, saying, the deficit is declining, and now Ferguson says, yes, from super-enormous to really, really gigantic. And I love the quote.
But is that enough or do I have to say, as I heard or read on an AP story about Niall Ferguson, or as I heard when he was on with George Stephanopoulos? I mean, there is a sort of a certain degree when we’re going to say, is that nitpicking?
So is referring to the person enough or do I have to refer to the original source, where I got the quote from, the person? In an academic paper, even if you paraphrase something, don’t even use the same words, anything paraphrased has to be sourced.
So when I wrote scientific papers, I sometimes had statements with eight footnotes for one sentence. Is that what you want me to do for my speeches? If it’s required, I’ll do it. But I think I’m being unfairly targeted by a bunch of hacks and haters. And I’m just not going to put up with people casting aspersions on my character.
To begin with, no one is asking about “footnotes” nor even to cite the source of information. But what Rand Paul did was lift extensive portions of other people’s work. It was more than a quote and more than a fact, statistic or observation. So that is just “nit-picking”? First the defense is: It’s not a big deal. Second defense: I’ll be more careful. Third defense: Critics are “hacks and haters.” That is positively Obamian.
Lying in politics is hardly new, of course. What is new is the lack of shame when caught being dishonest. What is new is that honesty now is simply one of a few options, styles of speaking, if you will, available to many public figures. In neither of these cases was there ever any thought given to an apology — how quaint! — for lack of forthrightness.
This is not a standard we apply to employees, friends or our own children. The media and voters shouldn’t let it go by the wayside when pols do it.