Friday, January 29, 2016

why doesn't granny goodness' staggering mendacity matter?


WaPo |  Calling someone dishonest is one of the most serious political insults in the United States. The country has been obsessed with its politicians' honesty at least since President George Washington's first biographer popularized the tale of him hacking at the trunk of a cherry tree. "I cannot tell a lie," a young Washington supposedly said when confronted about the damage.

Now, with less than a week until the Iowa caucuses and with Bernie Sanders advancing in the polls, Hillary Clinton still hasn't been able to clear away the accusations of dishonesty that have clouded her campaign. At the Democratic presidential town hall on Monday, a Sanders supporter noted that it's a reason Clinton has struggled to attract young voters: "I've heard from quite a few people my age that they think you're dishonest," he said.

Here's the thing, though: There was no cherry tree. Washington's biographer apparently fabricated it. "The great founding myth of American political integrity, chopping down the cherry tree, is, in fact, itself a lie," said Martin Jay, a historian at the University of California at Berkeley and author of a book called "The Virtues of Mendacity."

That's the real lesson of the tale of Washington's cherry tree: Americans might just be overly attached to the ideal of a scrupulously honest president. Especially at a time of intense polarization in Congress, recent experience suggests that the direction of public policy will have little to do with whether the Oval Office's next occupant really believes what he or she says on the campaign trail.

"It's necessary, in politics, to have a certain willingness to bend the truth," Jay said. "You're not electing the pope."