Lying is pervasive in America. It is so pervasive that it leads me to ask some important questions. Are Americans taught to lie, or is lying part of our nature? If lying is learned behavior, how and when were we indoctrinated? If it is part of our nature, is it a defense mechanism that all humans share? Given the propensity of our political and corporate leaders to lie, did they become leaders because they lie so well, or do they lie because they are leaders and their success compels them to lie?
Corporate leaders and political leaders have a name for the strategy that they follow to keep from getting caught lying. It is called "plausible deniability." Often, however, their lies are anything but plausible. In my column last week, I wrote about four leaders who lied under oath: President Ronald Reagan, President George H. W. Bush, Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, and Cardinal Bernard Law. Along with President William Jefferson Clinton, who lied by proclaiming, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," these leaders will go down in history for telling a whoppers when honor called upon them to tell the truth. Humans model behavior. Americans model the behavior of men and women who have reached the pinnacle of achievement. When we model behavior we do as they do, not what they say. The message in their behavior is clear. When in trouble, don't tell the truth—deny it.
If lying is so important to success in America, why don't we teach it in school? We do: it just isn't on the curriculum. Lying goes hand-in-hand with the philosophy that the end justifies the means. Nowhere is this philosophy more intact than in the grading of student work. A whole semester of work is condensed to a single letter. That letter is converted to a number, added with the numbers from other classes, and then divided into a "grade point average." The grade point average takes on more importance than the substance of the work or the student's ability to think. Students learn this fact quickly and act accordingly. Corporations want workers who will lie and cheat. They just want them to lie and cheat in the interest of senior management.
Corporations and politicians have a pat response to charges that they did something wrong. They deny it. No matter how absurd the lie, our corporate and political leaders just keep lying. The heads of the major tobacco companies, the so-called "seven dwarfs," denied that nicotine was addictive during their testimony before Congress. During the presidential campaign, Bush and Cheney denied that their proposed tax cut favored the rich, would require the government to borrow against the social security reserves, or require cuts in future spending. Americans appear to respect such hubris. Despite their bald-faced lies, Bush and Cheney have maintained relatively high approval ratings, in part, because many Americans view them as honest. We as a people have adopted Bush and chosen—the same way parents chose to ignore their children's weaknesses—to ignore his weaknesses and his propensity to lie.
Will the disclosures of the past week that the president and his administration lied to a smitten American public break the public's trust in George W. Bush? Trust is the single most important element of any relationship. Trust is also fragile. The Bush Administration's lies about what intelligence was made available to them in advance of September 11 will certainly test the American people's propensity to separate the perception of the president from the reality of the man. Americans hate hypocrisy. Will a president who used September 11th to bond with Americans only to make political capital from that painful experience be seen as a fraud, a charlatan, someone to be held in contempt? Time will tell.
Some of the families directly affected by the tragedy have already spoke out in anger. Personally, I have responded to the disclosures with a sense of sadness. I do not blame Bush for September 11th, despite the lies about what he knew and didn't know in the weeks before the Al-Qaeda terrorist atrocities. Those acts are the responsibility of the men who committed them. I do, however, have a question for President Bush. Have you no decency, Mr. President?
Bush, National Security adviser Condoleeza Rice, and other administration officials have been spinning the American people by telling us there were no studies done before September 11th to indicate that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might use hijacked airliners as missiles against American targets. We now know that spin was untrue, but the administration keeps spinning. We also know that the administration appears to have kept even the knowledge of the existence of these studies from the American public for political purposes. How ironic it is that just days before these disclosures, the president and the GOP used pictures of Bush on September 11th for political fundraising. Have you no shame, Mr. President?
My hope is that personal honor will prevail. No, I do not expect that honor to come from our president. I do expect it to come from others. Someone did have the courage to leak the memorandum that exposed the Bush Administration's lie. I hope that person, no matter their previous participation in the coverup, has been liberated by this action. I hope others have the honor and dignity to disclose the truth. Let the sun shine on our democracy. Tell the truth and shame the devil.
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