The Long Walk: A Column About Washington
More than 2 million Americans work for the federal government. Many of them come and go depending on who occupies the White House. Alec Bings is the other kind. Now he is following the GOP primary, and he is following it nervously. These are—for Alec Bings and countless more like him—dark times in the trenches.
BY Alec Bings
When John Lennon recorded his Imagine album in 1971, he allowed a film crew to chronicle the effort. The result was a documentary called “Gimme Some Truth,” named after one of the album’s songs. In one brief but gripping scene—which can be found on YouTube somewhat peevishly under “John Lennon Talks To A Hippie Guy”—Lennon confronts a bedraggled young fan who had taken to sleeping outside on the Lennon-Oko estate. In an effort to explain himself, the trespasser tells Lennon how deeply he connected with the Beatles’ lyrics, quoting a line from “Dig a Pony” (“you can radiate everything you are…”). With polite frustration, Lennon demurs: “I was just having fun with words. It was literally a nonsense song.” The young man appears devastated and lost.
That feeling of being deceived, needless to say, happens all the time in our frayed and crummy politics. But it’s almost never as innocuous as personally construing John Lennon’s enigmatic songwriting. When our political leaders “have fun with words,” it’s a bit more mean-spirited. Put bluntly, they lie to us, and it’s only on the rare occasion that we learn just how humdrum the practice is. The best example of this realization came during last spring’s fight on Capitol Hill over Planned Parenthood. Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona claimed that more than 90% of Planned Parenthood’s funding went to pay for abortions. When it was pointed out that the actual number was closer to 3%, Kyl’s office plainly explained to reporters that Kyl’s assertion “was not intended to be a factual statement.” Gimme some truth, indeed.
Throughout this election season, from the first Iowa county fair to today, no candidate has shown a keener capacity for fibbing than Mitt Romney. Steeled and sharpened by an eternity of campaigning, Romney has made dishonesty a foundational piece of his run for the White House. Of course, it was unavoidable—an inevitable tactic thanks to his particular circumstance. Once the winner of the majority of votes in a decidedly liberal statewide electorate, our friend Mittens had the unenviable task to then win the majority of votes in a decidedly conservative primary. A bit of that gap could be made up by undergoing some kind of profound ideological conversion on certain issues. But to make up the rest, he would have to put in hard work to mask, muddle and deny. This clear requirement to grab the GOP nomination left him no choice but to toss away old positions like the desiccant packets in a new coat, an automatic reflex for things now useless.
The lies themselves are so basic and shameful that anyone paying enough attention to this whole sordid affair can’t be blamed for suffering from spontaneous eye-rolling and teeth-gnashing. Romney’s largest indictment is based on his patently false claim that President Obama “has no jobs plan.” He also tells all who will listen that federal spending has jumped since Obama took office, when nonpartisan analyses find the opposite to be true. (Write it down: even including some stimulus spending that was technically Bush’s call, federal spending under Obama has seen the smallest increase under any recent president.) Even relatively minor issues get no respect. Facing critics for only releasing two years of tax returns, Romney said John Kerry did the same in 2004. Except, of course, that Kerry released 20 years’ worth. During the NRA convention in April, Romney called himself a “life member” despite having obtained his “lifetime” membership when he began running for president eight years ago. And a few weeks back, Romney cited a new book on the White House’s policy strategy to accuse Obama of deliberately hurting the economy. When called by reporters, the author, Noam Scheiber, said Romney was in fact reading his book utterly wrong. Only Alvy Singer bringing out Marshall McLuhan at the movie theater had it better.
The fact that so many of Romney’s lies are about himself and his very public past bears closer inspection. Unlike other political prevarications aiming to accomplish a goal—cover up a scandal, start a war, whatever—Romney lies about what he is, who he is. Mitt Romney seems to forever embrace the role of the tear-down corporate raider, armed with the businessman’s credo that he is not defined by what he does. That internal dissonance smoothes the way for a campaign so embracing of untruth. This neatly tailored falseness can be easily packaged, and Romney’s claques eat it up while the rest of us consider lives as career drinkers. It comes down to simple cognitive laziness—for such wide swaths of the country to face this most insincere campaign and shrug at it suggests that maybe we’re just not all that interested in the details. Campaign coverage may pick apart Romney’s persona, but the focus has universally been the man’s inherent phoniness—not his rampant deceit. The man’s vague phoniness and robotic “weirdness” is easy to write about (and, yes, fun) but the fact is that as we get closer to Election Day we are suffering from a lack of public penalty for the GOP’s fraudulence.
And sure, we’ve got fact-checkers everywhere, but describing something as “mostly false” lacks the ringing gong sound of “this was a lie”—to many casual observers, it suggests something perhaps within the margin of acceptable civic behavior. So what that Politifact finds Romney says a “Pants on Fire” fib once out of ten checked statements but Obama gets that label once out of a hundred times? Often the reaction is: see, they both lie. Our faces weary from politics’ dreary tugs, we throw our hands in the air and curse the lot. This, by the way, is the secret power of the birther nonsense. Donald Trump, the state of Arizona and the rest of them willfully ignore facts to the point where certain feeble minds begin to see “facts” as insufficient and flawed. They want their own facts, their own truth—the truth they want to believe. This is how unscrupulous miscreants like Romney get elected president.
The mythos of Mitt Romney is hardly made of white marble; the most powerful hallmark of this campaign is that his dishonesty keeps that façade standing. Last Thursday, he gave a speech widely accepted as one of his most spirited. In his oratory, Romney declared, “I will not be that president of doubt and deception. I will lead us to a better place.” There is a coin-flip’s chance that this disingenuous Romney campaign will indeed win the day and take over the federal government—and it’s hard to predict how his campaign will translate to governance. But I think of Beethoven who, as the story goes, fired his housekeeper despite the fact that she was doing excellent work. Still, she had kept something unpleasant from him by fibbing about it and thus had to go. “Anyone who tells a lie has not a pure heart,” Beethoven said, “and cannot make pure soup.”
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