When I was growing up in New York City in the 1950s lying was a serious matter. If I told a lie at home and was caught I ended up in my bedroom without dinner. At school, if the teacher caught me in a lie, I had my knuckles bashed with a ruler. It didn't take long for me to get the idea that telling a lie wasn't a good idea.
I also don't remember either my parents or my teachers being willing to differentiate between a lie and a half-truth or between lies and "spin." Either something was true or it wasn't. If it was true, then I could prove it by facts. If it wasn't true I missed dinner or ended up with sore knuckles. It wasn't a sophisticated approach, but I think it worked.
Unfortunately, these days, it seems as if what I learned as a child is no longer in fashion. It just seems as though truth has become so flexible as to no longer mean anything. Over the last few weeks I've been struck at just how little truth seems to mean anymore.
For instance, I remember quite clearly listening to an interview of the chief executive officer of Fannie Mae. He was emphatic in saying that his company was not in dire financial straits and that no government bailout was necessary. And yet it would seem that just as he was telling this to the public, he was secretly meeting with government officials to work out the terms of the bailout he had denied would take place.
Weeks before, the chief executive of Bear Stearns did the same thing; he reassured stockholders that there would be no bailout only days before his company was taken over with the help of government financing.
Then, of course, there's the matter of the presidential campaign. What does it signify when Karl Rove, one of the most celebrated "spin doctors" alive, says that the McCain campaign has failed the test of "100 percent truthfulness?" Is it not troubling that a man running for president of the United States would approve television advertisements which claimed that his opponent had supported sex education for 5-year-olds, when, in fact, the record indicates that he did not and that what he supported was teaching 5-year-olds to stay away from sex predators?
And, the other side is also far from innocent as well. Both parties seem to be suffering from a "truth deficit." For instance, Congressman Rangel of New York, one of the smartest and most sophisticated members of Congress, now claims that he failed to pay taxes on real estate because he didn't understand Spanish.
Isn't that odd given the fact that his congressional district includes numerous Hispanics and that several members of his staff are fluent in the language. Even if he didn't understand Spanish himself, couldn't he have asked one of his Spanish-speaking staff or constituents? How does one of the most powerful members of Congress make statements like this with a straight face? And how does he get re-elected every two years?
I've got to admit that I'm really getting rather fed up with politicians, business executives, and other powerful people thinking that they aren't bound by the same rules as the rest of us. I am truly sick and tired of not being told the truth by our leaders. Both the McCain and the Obama campaigns claim that they represent change and that, if elected, they will change the nature of American politics and government. Well, my response to this is simple. Getting rid of congressional "earmarks" and waste sounds great; ending tax breaks for hedge fund operators and wealthy oil companies is equally terrific.
Bringing the country back together is a noble aspiration. Most important, so far as change goes, however, is telling the truth. We need to tell our governmental and business leaders that it's time to stop lying, stop "spinning," stop misconstruing and go back to the old notion that only the truth is acceptable in the public sphere. Otherwise, I just don't see how our country can survive. Doesn't anybody remember the story about George Washington and the cherry tree?