When Untruth Undermines Democracy
Truth is the lifeblood of democracy. Without honesty, the foundations of consensual government crumble.
If the Internal Revenue Service acts unlawfully, our voluntary system of citizens computing their own taxes implodes.
Yet Lois Lerner, one of the IRS’s top officials, would not answer simple questions about her agency’s conduct during congressional testimony, instead pleading the Fifth Amendment. Any taxpayer who tried that with an IRS auditor would end up fined and in court.
Almost everything that IRS officials have reported about the agency’s unlawful targeting of conservative groups has proven false. IRS malfeasance was not limited only to the Cincinnati office, as alleged, but followed directives sent from higher-ups in Washington. Top IRS official Lois Lerner confessed to the scandal only through a rigged and preplanned public query by a planted questioner, designed to pre-empt an upcoming critical inspector general’s report. There is legitimate dispute over both the number and purpose of former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman’s visits to the White House and nearby executive office buildings, but he did his credibility no good by snidely remarking to Congress that he might also have visited for an Easter egg roll with his kids.
Attorney General Eric Holder — who had already been held in contempt by the House of Representatives for declining to turn over internal Justice Department documents in the prior “Fast and Furious” scandal — swore to Congress that he had no knowledge of any effort to go after individual reporters. But Holder had earlier done just that, signing off on a search warrant to monitor the communications of Fox reporter James Rosen. In other words, the attorney general of the United States under oath misled — or lied to — Congress.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was recently asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) whether the National Security Agency collected the phone and email records of millions of ordinary Americans. Clapper said that it did not. That, too, was an untruth. Clapper’s supporters argued that Wyden should not have asked such a sensitive question in public that threatened the needed secrecy of the program. But Clapper did not demur or request a closed session, instead finding it easier to deceive, later dubbing his response as the “least untruthful” answer possible.
Washington reporters and spin doctors argue whether newly appointed National Security Advisor Susan Rice knowingly lied when she wove a yarn about a single video-maker being responsible for spontaneous violence that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. Yet no one disputes that her televised fables — as well as those of both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — were untrue, and demonstrably so, at the time. Yet Rice was promoted, not censured, following her performance.
Last November, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked point-blank whether the administration had altered CIA-produced intelligence memos to fit the administration narrative of a spontaneous riot in Benghazi. Carney answered unequivocally that the administration had made only one stylistic change. That, too, was not accurate. In fact, there were at least 12 different drafts that reflected substantial ongoing changes by the administration of the original CIA talking points.
Former EPA Director Lisa Jackson created a fake email identity — “Richard Windsor” — to conduct official business off the record. But Jackson did not just stop with that ruse. She turned Richard Windsor into an entirely mythical persona, her own alter ego who supposedly took online tests and was given awards by the EPA — a veritable Jackson doppelganger who was certified as “a scholar of ethical behavior” by no less than the agency that the unethical Jackson oversaw.
Deception is now institutionalized in the Obama administration. It infects almost every corner of the U.S. government, eroding the trust necessary for the IRS, the Department of Justice, our security agencies, and the president’s official press communiqués — sabotaging the public trust required for democracy itself.
What went wrong with the Obama administration?
There is no longer a traditional adversarial media in Washington. Spouses and siblings of executives at the major television networks are embedded within the administration. Unlike with Watergate, the media now holds back, believing that any hard-hitting reporting of ongoing scandals would only weaken Obama, whose vision of America the vast majority of reporters share. But that understood exemption only encourages more lack of candor.
There is also utopian arrogance in Washington that justifies any means necessary to achieve exalted ends of supposed fairness and egalitarianism. If one has to lie to stop the Tea Party or Fox News, then it is not quite seen by this administration as a lie.
Barack Obama swept up an entire nation in 2008 with his hope-and-change promises of a new honesty and transparency. That dream is now in shambles, destroyed by the most untruthful cast since Richard Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, Ron Ziegler and John Dean left Washington in disgrace almost 40 years ago — after likewise subverting the very government they had pledged to serve.
(Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book, “The Savior Generals,” has just been released by Bloomsbury Press. You can reach him by e-mailing: [email protected].)
Victor Davis Hanson