WHEN POLITICIANS ARE AFRAID TO TELL THE TRUTH…. I’ve never sought public office, so I can’t relate to how difficult it must be to deal with sincere-but-ridiculous questions. Barney Frank offers an example of one style of response, but not everyone can pull it off as well as he does.

But at least Frank didn’t pander to nonsense. A couple of weeks ago, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa hosted a town-hall event and was asked “death panels.” Instead of explaining reality, Grassley knowingly misled his audience, telling constituents, “[Y]ou have every right to fear…. We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.”

It was one of Grassley’s lowest points of late — Time‘s Joe Klein called the comments “sheer idiocy” — which the conservative senator has struggled to explain. Yesterday, on “Face the Nation,” Grassley conceded he knew the “death panel” claim wasn’t true, but wasn’t comfortable telling his constituents the facts.

“I said that because — two reasons. Number one, I was responding to a question at my town meetings. I let my constituents set the agenda. A person that asked me that question was reading from language that they got off of the Internet. It scared my constituents. And the specific language I used was language that the president had used at Portsmouth, and I thought that it was — if he used the language , then if I responded exactly the same way, that I had an opposite concern about not using end-of-life counseling for saving money, then I was answering — […]

“You would get into the issue of saving money, and put these three things together and you are scaring a lot of people when I know the Pelosi bill doesn’t intend to do that, but that’s where it leads people to.”

Grassley, in other words, is comfortable letting confused constituents stay confused because they’re “scared.” Because right-wing lies have caused widespread confusion, he added, the provision “ought to be dropped.”

But that’s crazy. The sensible solution is to have Americans’ elected leaders tell them the truth and alleviate their unfounded fears, not let panic-stricken, gullible people “set the agenda” and kill common-sense measures that up until recently enjoyed broad bipartisan support.

As for Grassley’s claim that he used “exactly” the same language as President Obama — “pull the plug on grandma” — the Iowa senator again has it backwards. The president was mocking the “death panel” nonsense, explaining what wouldn’t happen. Grassley’s town-hall answer made it sound as if the bogus claim had merit.

Paul Krugman concluded, “We talk a lot about ideology, we talk a lot about the influence of moneyed interests, and all that is relevant. But we should not ignore the sheer personal cowardice of many politicians. Here we have Grassley saying, in effect, that he was afraid to tell a constituent that she was wrong — then trying to blame President Obama for his failure to tell the truth.”

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.