When dishonesty is the story

WHEN DISHONESTY IS THE STORY…. I think there’s a temptation on the part of some observers to find contemporary events unprecedented. It’s not enough to witness an extraordinary development; we want to believe it’s the most extraordinary development ever.

In politics, this leads to routine hyperbole. We heard plenty of observers argue, for example, that the fight for the nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was the most vicious and aggressive Democrats had ever seen. That’s utter nonsense.

On some occasions, though, what sounds hyperbolic might actually be true. I started reading up last night on some of the campaign styles of presidential candidates of the television era (every race since Kennedy-Nixon), and it led me to conclude that John McCain is running the most fundamentally dishonest campaign of the last half-century. Every candidate from both parties has spun, accentuated, and exaggerated. They’ve all taken cheap shots and made promises they almost certainly knew at the time they couldn’t keep.

But there’s just something breathtaking about John McCain’s 2008 campaign, and it’s not just because he’s running in part on his reputation for candor and integrity. We’re talking about a candidate who’s been lying about everything — his record, his running mate, his opponent, his agenda, his past, and his policies. He’ll lie, get caught, and then repeat the same lie. He’ll lie, get caught, and then lie about lying. He’ll lie about some things in which the truth was just as good, but lying came more naturally. And he seems to be lying more as the race unfolds.

It’s reassuring to know others have noticed the same thing, especially over the last 24 hours. Josh Marshall asked how voters can trust “a liar as big as John McCain.”

[L]et’s slow down and look at the facts that are not being disputed. John McCain is telling lie after lie. Not off the cuff remarks that can be excused as accidents or flubs but the same lies consistently and many of them. Serial liars are never trustworthy people — that is a truism. But it also demonstrates a deeper character flaw. A normal job applicant would be disregarded out of hand after such a record became clear.

Andrew Sullivan expressed surprise at the “barrage of lies” from the McCain campaign.

I mean, what is going on? … I know many people believe that the American people — especially the under-informed swing voters — are too dumb to know when they are being lied to. But these lies are so obvious and irrefutable that this cannot be true.

Paul Krugman lamented the McCain campaign’s “out-and-out lies.”

Dishonesty is nothing new in politics…. But I can’t think of any precedent, at least in America, for the blizzard of lies since the Republican convention.

Ezra Klein noted what would be the obvious conclusion “if there were justice, or consistency, in electoral politics.”

…McCain is an opportunistic liar. And that’s not a partisan judgment, there’s simply no other way to interpret these facts.

And the New York Times’ Michael Cooper and Jim Rutenberg report in a news story today that this might, slowly but surely, be on its way to becoming a campaign narrative.

Harsh advertisements and negative attacks are a staple of presidential campaigns, but Senator John McCain has drawn an avalanche of criticism this week from Democrats, independent groups and even some Republicans for regularly stretching the truth in attacking Senator Barack Obama’s record and positions.

That’s an exceedingly polite way of noticing all of the people who’ve noticed McCain’s pathology.

I couldn’t help but love the response from McCain spokesperson Brian Rogers who said the campaign “stands fully by” all of McCain’s lies, adding, “And if you and the Obama campaign want to disagree, that’s your call.”

McCain and his gang have their reality, and they like it just fine. Whether everyone else prefers a different reality is not their problem.

John McCain has a problem telling the truth. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be just as big a campaign narrative as Gore’s so-called “exaggerations,” or Kerry’s so-called “flip-flops.”

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation