Sam Waterston is a stage, film and television actor and serves on the board of Oceana and the emeritus board of Refugees International.
“[No man has the] right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it. . . . Thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.”
— Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Address,” 1860
You may know me as an actor. I’m also a longtime supporter of election reform and opponent of partisanship. In 1999 I gave a talk at one of the last bipartisan congressional retreats, using what I had learned preparing to play Abraham Lincoln to warn against faction, partisanship’s original name. The founders knew partisanship to be one of the few things powerful enough to destroy the great American democratic experiment. I had some great quotes. John Hume, a Nobel laureate for his work to bring peace in Northern Ireland, spoke before me. His experience made searing testimony. We did our best. It seems it didn’t work.
Until 2008, when an effort called Unity08, led by Democrat Gerald Rafshoon and Republican Doug Bailey, to elect a bipartisan presidential ticket was defeated, I was a registered Independent. To vote for Barack Obama in the primary that year, I joined a party. Believing it to be the best use of what influence my career in show business might have, I’ve served, more or less quietly, for many years on the boards of Oceana and Refugees International. But working quietly doesn’t feel like an option now. This feels like an all-hands-on-deck moment.
The great issue of today is lying — constant lying in public. Lying is the ally of faction and, since President Trump’s rise to power, it is the greater danger. Yes, the word is lying — not negotiation, salesmanship, bluster, attention-getting, delusion, deception, braggadocio, exaggeration, bullying, alternative facts, or any other euphemism. Once, President John F. Kennedy could say that our national problems were no longer ideological but technical. Lying on a grand scale has reversed that.
And it’s hard to keep up. Trump has lied about climate change and the character and motives of refugees, about how asylum-seekers have been vetted in the past and how many have been able to enter the United States, about immigrants, and a long list of other matters. As with partisanship, the more lying there is, the worse it is. And Trump’s alternative facts have meant nasty real-world consequences.
As lying comes easily to Trump, it should come first in every report about his administration. Trump doesn’t lie about this and that, and he doesn’t lie sometimes. He is a liar, a person who lies. This news should be reported everywhere.
Politicians have lied before, but this is not an old problem getting worse. Indeed, past presidents have sometimes paid dearly for the mere appearance of a lie. A man of great good character and a lifetime of public service, President George H.W. Bush, said “Read my lips,” which was branded a lie, and he lost an election. Accusations of lying — “Lying Hillary” — tainted Hillary Clinton’s run for president. President Bill Clinton told a lie in public and under oath and the scandal got him impeached. The impeachment gained some weight from the sound legal principle that a liar in one thing is likely to lie about other things. That principle should be applied to Trump.
By the frequency of his lying, Trump has revealed a truth we have avoided confronting: Like partisanship, regular and habitual lying is an existential threat to us, to our institutions, our memories, our understanding of now and of the future, to the great American democratic experiment, and to the planet. It blurs the truth, subverts trust, interferes with thought, and destroys clarity. It drives us to distraction.
It’s impossible to overstate what is at stake. “I won,” says Trump truly, following it up with lies about landslides, voter fraud and crowd size. Every American should be alarmed. It ought to be the lead in every article about him and his administration, no matter the subject. Lying at this level is a threat to the Republic.
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