The nature of truth

Sam Smith

The endless argument about who said what to whom about what in order to get us into the Iraq war demonstrates an illusion about honesty shared by all sides. It is yet another iteration of a phenomenon I first noticed during the Edwin Meese nomination hearings. It became clear then, and so many times since, that America – including its politicians, media and ordinary citizens, had accepted a legal definition of honesty, to wit: if a public person can not be proved to have lied by the rules of a criminal court, he or she can’t be called dishonest and, in the case of a nominee, remains qualified for office. In other words, our standard for confirmation to high office had become no better than that for acquittal of a common thief.

This stunningly low bar has been implicitly invoked many times – most recently and dramatically to exonerate our two latest presidents – and it helps to explain the decline of American politics. Once you leave your judgment of politicians to a court or a prosecutor, it is far too late to do much about them.

Consider, for example, some common synonyms for honesty: sincerity, integrity, frankness, candor, openness. Is there anyone, even on the Fox Network, who would argue that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al at any point displayed such characteristics in dragging us into the Iraq disaster? And how is it that we place such a lower value on such virtues than we do on the question of whether the aforementioned told a prosecutable lie?

In 2003, I was asked by Harper’s to compile a history of the beginning of the Iraq war told entirely in lies by Bush officials and advisers. As I began to work on the project, I was reminded over and over of how little lying often has to do with court-defined perjury. It more typically involves hyperbolic hoodwinking, unsubstantiated analogy, cynical incitement of fear, deceitful distortion, slippery untruths, gossamer falsehoods, disingenuous anecdote, artful agitprop, and the relentless repetition of all the foregoing in an atmosphere in which facts are trampled underfoot by a mendacious mob and their semantic weapons.

One does not have to analyze such language legally to understand its evil. One need only have enough understanding of the manner of the honest, the sincere and the candid to know almost instinctively when their opposite is in command.

Yes, some of the Bush capos may have done it so poorly from time to time that they can be successfully prosecuted. But our ultimate standard for judging their words and claims – whether as a Sunday talk show commentator or as an ordinary citizen – should be an ethical and not a legal one. If we let such con artists get away with their ultimate trick – which is having us believe that if we can not prove their swindle we must accept it – we will have fully surrendered to their treachery.

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