Summer reruns: Greatest lies of past campaigns!

TUESDAY, JULY 17, 2012

The Post feigns information: Below, we’ve spoken of feigned confusion. Two Sundays ago, the Washington Post, in the Outlook section, gave its readers some feigned information about our past White House campaigns.

The children like nothing more than repeating their favorite campaign stories. In this shaky presentation, Aaron Blake lets us recall the three biggest “lies” in White House campaigns, dating to 1964.

This text appeared in the hard-copy Post. On-line, results may differ:
BLAKE (7/8/12): Political whopper hall of shame

Despite the proliferation of fact-checking, the political lie is as old as the political campaign, and some of our most notable—and successful—politicians have made some well-documented flubs that will continue to tarnish their legacies. Here are three that stick out.
Blake uses the term “political lie;” he says he has three which stand out. But go ahead—check his list! Do you really think those are the three biggest campaign “lies” of the past 48 years?

To what extent are these exercises false, fake, confederate, feigned? For Blake’s first example, he recalls Candidate McCain saying this in 2008:

“The fundamentals of the economy are strong.”

That statement probably hurt McCain. But Blake explicitly says this: “It’s not clear that he knew that what he was saying was false.”

In what sense then was this statement a “lie?” We’re now reduced to just two lies in the past 48 years!

(Question: Was “Read my lips, no new taxes” a lie? We wouldn’t know how to answer that question. But that’s what Blake explicitly calls it. What makes him so sure?)

As we pondered Blake’s list, we asked ourselves what we would regard as the biggest campaign “lies.” It’s hard to know when someone is lying. But if we were forced to offer examples of flat-out lies, our thoughts would turn to some primary campaigns—and to names like Dole and Bradley.

Beyond this lies an awkward fact, a fact the press corps will never confront:

The biggest whoppers in modern campaigns have tended to come from the press corps itself! One example, of many:

Did Candidate Muskie really cry on the campaign trail in 1972? Maybe not, David Broder said, though not till many years later.

If not, Broder’s original claim to that effect was simply astounding—and it helped re-elect Nixon! But scriveners like Blake erase such moments when they craft their lists.

Rachel Weiner composed a companion list. She listed three cases where “pure honesty on the campaign trail” harmed three White House contenders.

(Hard-copy headline: “Truth in politics, not always a winner”)

Weiner's examples are reasonable—though she conflates the notions of “pure honesty” and “truth.” (If a candidate says what he honestly thinks, that doesn’t mean it’s the truth. Note her statement by Candidate Goldwater.)

She also says this, about Michael Dukakis saying he doesn’t support the death penalty: “Answering honestly wasn’t what doomed Dukakis; plenty of other politicians opposed the death penalty. It was answering without emotion.”

So now we’re down to two examples where “answering honestly” hurt!

That said, it’s summer rerun season. Your “journalists” love reciting their favorite tales, much as 8-year-olds may enjoy their favorite Bible stories.

Such features kill time, but they’re rarely based on anything real. Beyond that, the press corps’ misconduct, which has been vast, never makes these lists! It's an established rule of the guild:

Newspaper readers must never be told where the real whoppers are!


  1. Your “journalists” love reciting their favorite tales, much as religious fundamentalist may enjoy their favorite Old Testament Bible stories.

    Fixed that for you.

  2. Drives me crazy, people's (all kinds of people's) use of the word "lie" these days. An intentional, active, knowing misrepresentation of what one actually believes to be true: that's a lie. I was taught that by my family, my kindergarten teacher, and so forth.... It was a lesson driven home because lying was considered REALLY REALLY BAD. So bad that you never called someone else a liar unless you could be absolutely sure you were correct and could substantiate the charge. (And even then, you only so charged them publicly if there were a good reason to do so.) So bad that it was very important to distinguish lying not just from being incorrect but also from intentionally misleading others (gray area there -- that gray area is what's occupied by a lot of politicians' claims about one another and one another's positions, I suspect). In casually bandying about the word "lie" we diminish the moral opprobrium that should attach to the act of lying.