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December 20, 2003

TT: Truth and consequences

Michael Kinsley, who has his moments (but oh, those quarter-hours!), recently put his finger on something that's always irritated me. We all know that politicians never tell the truth, but I don't mind flat-out lies--that goes with the territory. What drives me wild is their inability to say anything without spinning it. Whatever else you may think of him, Howard Dean occasionally does otherwise, as Kinsley points out:

After calling Saddam's capture "a great day" for the military, for Iraqis, and for Americans generally, he added that it was "frankly, a great day for the administration." This is a rare example of a politician saying "frankly" and then saying something actually frank. It comes close to admitting the obvious: that this development helps Bush's chance of winning next year's election and therefore hurts Dean's.

It's a real mystery why politicians find it so hard to admit the obvious about the horse-race aspects of politics. No doubt it requires a dose of blind optimism to be a politician in the first place. Even Dennis Kucinich must think he has a 1-in-10,000 chance of becoming president, when his chance is actually much smaller. But there is also an annoying convention that you must pretend to a confidence you don't feel. Anyone who doesn't realize that this week's news has been a big boost for Bush's re-election is too stupid or blinded to be elected president. Yet the press will punish any candidate who says so, possibly because if the candidates take up stating the obvious, they're stealing our material. The pols need to be coy and evasive so that we can tell it to you straight.

Once again, this is not--repeat, not--a political blog. My reason for drawing your attention to Kinsley's column has to do with the impeccably cultural topic of what used to be called "manners," by which I don't mean choosing the right fork. It is an aspect of American manners that our politicians emulate our advertisers by engaging in the 24-hour robotic spin that determines their every public utterance: "So, Senator, how do you explain the presence of that cheap hooker in your hotel room?" "When I am elected president, the failed economic policies of the current administration will be reversed, thus reducing the burden on the middle class!" (No doubt this phenomenon is in large part a function of the takeover of the political process by lawyers.) In the process, they debase the culture as well, precisely because they're not fooling anybody. When the men and women who lead us, or wish to lead us, engage in such shameless and transparent verbal trickery, they are going far beyond the necessary quotient of euphemism that lubricates everyday human transactions. They are proving themselves consistently untrustworthy in small things. Why, then, should we trust them in large ones?

I doubt I'm the only person in America who's noticed this phenomenon, and who finds it more than merely disagreeable. I've posted this description of contemporary politicians before, but it's worth repeating:

A walking, talking person-shaped but otherwise not very human amalgam of "positions," that familiar, tirelessly striving figure interviewed on the evening news who resoundingly tells you what he is thinking--and you keep wondering whether you should believe a word of it. These are people who don't seem to live in the world so much as to inhabit some point on graph paper, whose coordinates are (sideways) the political spectrum and (up and down) the latest overnight poll figures.

It's from Meg Greenfield's Washington, a book written in secret by the woman who ran the editorial page of the Washington Post for years--and who made sure her truth-telling wouldn't see print until after her death. It's brilliantly put, but what does it say about Washington (or about Greenfield, for that matter) that she considered it too hot to publish while she was still alive?

Back in World War II, shortly before the greasy cloud of spin had seettled on the land, Gen. Joseph Stilwell, whose nickname was "Vinegar Joe," met the press after having been forced to retreat from Burma by the Japanese. He said, "I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and re-take it."

The day any politician of either party makes so blunt a remark within earshot of microphones--and declines to retract, moderate, or invert it before the day is out--you'll know the barometer of cultural health in America is moving in the right direction. But don't hang by your thumbs waiting for it.

Posted December 20, 2003 11:26 AM

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