Last week, candidate Hillary Clinton was asked by CBS's Scott Pelley if she has always told the truth. Her answer was less than straight-forward. She said she had always tried to tell the truth. Some, including many a conservative and Republican operative, as well as mainstream media like the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, immediately pounced on the response as an act of equivocation, a parsing of words. (For that, her husband Bill Clinton, is the poster child -- he who in 1998 said "depends on what the meaning of "is" is.)
The Washington Post headline read "Hillary Clinton's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad answer..."
Now, no one can quarrel with the observation that Hillary has a trust problem. A small minority of New Hampshire voters said they trusted her. But I would like to take the hazardous position of defending her response -- and no, I am not a Hillary supporter -- at least, not yet.
What Hillary said is she has always tried to tell the truth. The correct answer, her critics argue, is "Yes, I have always told the truth." But had she said that she would, in my view -- and I suspect, many others -- have lost all credibility. Why? Because no one always tells the truth, and especially not politicians. This is not a cynical view, it is a realistic one. Non-politicians are constantly lying, if for no other reason, to spare the feelings of loved ones and friends, to conceal a dreaded diagnosis, to minimize a spouse's weight gain. But "white lies" are lies. (And who among us has not lied for other, less noble reasons of self-interest?) Were I asked the Hillary question, I hope I would have had the courage to respond as Hillary did, that I have always tried. But the truth is that I have not always told the truth. Twisted as it may sound, such an admission may not be a sign of deceitfulness, but of honesty.
Particularly in the political arena, the occasion -- nay, the demand -- to lie is constant. Giving in to it is but one measure of spine and character. But leaving it at that is too simplistic a view. The absolute truth-teller in politics is doomed from the get-go. We celebrate a politician's vision, one who can articulate broad ambitions and lofty goals, and we penalize those who are mired in details and candid in handicapping their chances of success. And we extol those who possess the diplomatic trait -- but a part of diplomacy and negotiation is often the ability to gain advantage without showing one's entire hand. The bluff, familiar to every card player and pol, is an act of posturing that is well short of truth.
We have a phrase for those who do not "mince words," a phrase which itself telegraphs a certain bluntness and lack of civility. We call them "brutally honest." It is a trait that suggests the speaker is offensive and insensitive to those he or she addresses. In the public realm, such brutal adherence to truth alienates others (I will get to Trump in a moment,) obliterates the chances for compromise and reconciliation, and leaves lingering resentments.
And when we speak of lying we usually limit our discussion to talk of crimes of commission -- saying something false, a fabrication. But truth-telling involves more than the absence of a lie -- it necessarily calls for a responsibility to provide a full and honest response. Withholding vital information or proper context from citizens is itself an act of deception. Such crimes of omission are common among politicians. Honoring matters of classification and national security, privacy, personnel issues, and a host of other concerns -- not to mention that rarity, good taste -- often means a politician will "skirt the truth" -- a lovely and delicate term that means something other than truth itself. Amazing the number of synonyms and euphemisms we have developed to draw distinctions between outright condemnation and flexibility when it comes to truth-telling. Most politicians have the wisdom and good sense not to respond honestly to inquiries that are out of bounds. Those of a certain age may remember Jimmy Carter confessing to Playboy magazine back in 1976 that he had committed mental adultery many times -- what today would be called "TMI."
I am not defending Hillary Clinton. That is something she can do for herself -- or not. What concerns me is the creation of a bogus standard, one that is unattainable in both the private and public realm, and one which ironically invites lying and misrepresentation. Demanding that a politician swear to a lifetime of fidelity to truth does nothing but set the stage for inevitable disappointment and disillusionment. The slick are rewarded, the honest penalized.
What we ask of them is that they always try to tell the truth, that that is their default position. But to ask them to unfailingly and indiscriminately utter the truth in all its full glory on all occasions is to ask them to commit personal and political suicide and to sacrifice all prospects for comity and bipartisanship. Another self-sanctimonious politician is the last thing we need. They may appeal to the smug and hypocritical, but ultimately they do not usher in an age of candor -- just more rancor and disharmony.
Which brings me to Donald Trump. Perhaps it is his willingness to blurt out whatever comes into his combed-over head, his contempt for the feelings of others, his willingness to lay waste to the landscape as he vents his true feelings (although the trueness of those feelings leaves many, including myself, in doubt) that is his appeal to voters who mistake rudeness for candor. The scourge of political protocol and verbal restraint, he is the embodiment of that fantasy figure -- the political truth-teller. To that class of citizens who crave candor above all else in a candidate -- and I do mean all else -- perhaps Trump is The Man. To me, he is a caricature of the truth-teller, someone who has parlayed the middle finger into a campaign promise. And, I fear -- or is it, I hope? -- the biggest liar of them all, cloaked as he is in the mantle of the One True Honest Politician. Ask him if he has always told the truth, and I suspect -- depending on the day -- he would not hesitate to say "yes" -- if that is what we want him to say.
Credit Hillary that she did not.
I am not oblivious to the dangers of my own argument. It opens the door to putting the ends above the means, to lying for the greater good, to leaving truth in the hands of the beholder. But alas, that door has always been open, and for good reason. We are human. That is not an excuse, it is a condition. There's a reason that fact-checkers like Politifact and those of other major news organizations are fully employed - and why no candidate has fully passed muster. There is also a reason why citizens have developed what the writer Ernest Hemingway once called a "shock-proof B_ _ _ S _ _ _ detector." As citizens, we have learned to bake such liberties with the truth into our assessments, to discount them as we do when we hear an ad. I do not condone such license-taking and I shudder to start separating out the acceptable lies from the unacceptable, but I also do not want one candidate held to a standard that no other can pass or to set a verbal trap for anyone with half a conscience.
As for Hillary's answer, I would not say it was the most artful, ("artful" too can be code for ambiguity and dissemblance) but it did get at something of the complexity of the issue. It is a complexity that is toxic on the campaign trail, and particularly to Hillary who inadvertently raised it in her response. But to insist upon the simplicity of a statement that she never lied, comforting as it may be to some -- and preposterous as it would have been to others -- is not the outcome we should seek from those running for office. Perhaps the correct question is the one we should ask of ourselves -- have we always told the truth, the full truth, and what would our own lives look like if we had?