Bob Woodward thinks that, in politics, sometimes it's OK to lie. He cites an instance in which Barry Goldwater deceived the press about the content of a conversation he had with Richard Nixon.
Just imagine, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in bed with a lie! What next? Santa Claus a myth?
The commenters on Woodwards piece were as shocked as I'm sure you are. Like a condemning chorus in a Greek tragedy, they proclaimed lying an absolute evil.
Let us dismiss that peanut gallery. Nine out of ten people who post comments on blogs that have not the panache of this blog are either bitter, beaten, bored, angry, hateful, drippy, obsessive, compulsive, or hopelessly insecure. The remaining 10% are just people who have no freaking clue how mind-blowingly stupid the things they write make them appear! Sweet Jesus. If these are our best and brightest we are doomed, doomed, doomed. Make no mistake...
And true to form, Woodward's trailing pack of clucking Mrs. Grundy's get it exactly wrong. Lying in politics is no crime. In fact, it is a foundational prerequisite for effective governance in a democracy. This I shall shortly illustrate with mathematical certainty.
But first, I cannot allow Mr. Woodward's scurrilous defamation of the venerable craft of lying one's ass off to go unchallenged. This lie he selects as his example, this pedantic, pedestrian little misdirection, is no more representative of the awe-inspiring canon of political lies than a platypus is of mammals or Joe Lieberman is of Democrats. In a world of Rembrandts and Picasso's, Woodward offers dogs-playing-poker as a basis for disparaging art.
And it's inexcusable because really, of all people, who knows lying better than Bob Woodward? Given his sordid, lifelong entanglement with this seductress, he ought to of recused himself from the topic entirely. Or did he just forget to mention that, yes, he does have some passing acquaintance , but only through love, sex, marriage, joint parentage of numerous mixed-race offspring, divorce, and purely coincidental hookups (twice!) in the stall of the men's room at CBGB's. Oh, and she donated a lung and a kidney to him in '86.
To betray this complex if debauched mistress after she bestowed upon him so much professional success demonstrates weakness of character. And ironically, his disavowal is a lie in itself. For lies are good. And so are liars. Follow the track of my irrefutable logic now, but be warned: you will be wiser when we reach our journey's end, but by then soap and water will have lost all power to make you feel clean.
I begin with an indispensable premise: A lie is only a lie if the teller knows they are lying. This is why insanity is a defense and also why Fox News anchor Chris Wallace looks so unconflicted when he speaks. Unfortunately, this precept is of little practical use for identifying lies in the wild, where they survive and thrive only in shades of gray. The black and white ones have long since been hunted to extinction by wives who, I'm sorry to say--and contrary to our half-hearted protestations--actually are less important to us than a silly basketball game.
So if all lies are lies by degrees, by what criteria are we to distinguish the inoffensive fib from the monstrous whoppers contrived to conceal the highest crimes that our rulers commit? Like torturing innocents. Or slaughtering civilians. Or being fellated in an alcove of the Oval Office.
The criteria are two. The magnitude of a lie is a function of the speaker's critical thinking ability and their humility. You see, a conscious lie--and all lies must be conscious--can be told only by someone with enough critical thinking skills to see the element of falseness amidst the partial truth of what they say. And the more nuanced the topic, the more intelligence is required for the speaker to grasp why at least some facet of what they have said is--may I be blunt?--bullshit.
But it's not enough to have the smarts to recognize you are full of shit. You have to be inclined to consider the possibility to begin with. This is where humility comes in. For only those accepting of their own fallibility can admit error, thus converting an inoffensive thought into an insideous lie.
Let us consider a non-political scenario painfully familiar to husbands and boyfriends.
"Do these pants make me look fat?"
You know your partner is now an armed, unexploded grenade. Would that she had asked you of your secret life of serial murder or inquired about your consumption of fetishistic pornography.
A simpleton might respond reflexively, his vocal chords providing an unintermediated account of the inverse image at that moment rendered upon his retinal membranes. Perhaps he offers up some suicidal gem like, "I don't think it's the pants," insuring that henceforth, his relationship with his children will be conducted entirely on alternate weekends. Regardless, whatever he says will be the truth as he sees it, for he has not the powers of introspection required for artifice.
But let us rewind our scenario and replace our dullard with a sharper tool. Like a chess master manipulating a mental image of a board, he instantly tracks each possible permutation of play to conclusion. His mind swirls with Sophistry, finding in the most minute cracks of his prison walls a potential handhold for escape. What exactly, he ponders, constitutes "fat?" Perhaps the blame may be squarely laid upon the pants themselves? What possible opportunities for extrication abide in the gulf between looking fat and being fat? Is this a trick question, a test of honesty? If so, how overweight must he suggest his spouse is to retain his credibility without discomposing the fragile underpinnings of domestic tranquility?
These factors and others--wind speed? currency exchange rates? viscosity?--they weigh internally in less time than required for a cycle of a hummingbird's wings. And then they whisper something in their dear one's ear that causes her eyes to well with tears of love.
Those words, those brilliant, irresistible, evasive words they utter before slipping inconspicuously away to catch the fourth quarter of the aforementioned basketball game... are they a lie?
To know we must look beneath thick layers of skin and fat, beneath the membrane covering the ribcage, into the thoracic cavity, where pumps the heart. (Alternately we can insert a probe into the vein of the thigh and access the heart that way, but it takes longer and is not covered by insurance.)
Is it the heart of an arrogant fuckhead? If so, look no further. The arrogant can speak only truth, for they are infallible--just ask them. No matter how patently flimsy their ploy, their conscience is unstained, for they believe that they shit cookies that cure cancer.
But if our heart belongs to someone humble and self-effacing, some pitiful self-loathing doormat who is a case-in-point for why nobody wants to read The Lives of the Saints, they can undoubtedly give you ten good reasons why what they said was not wholly true.
And as paradoxical as it seems, it is a fact that a statement which is 99% true is also 100% lie.
Call engine company number 2. Somebody's pants are on fire.
And so we are left with only one possible conclusion, one that runs counter to all intuition and which is liable to make us want to curl up into a fetal ball under the stairs: Only the best people lie. The brilliant. The humble. And the more brilliant and humble they are, the more they lie.
Perhaps this can be conveyed more effectively in graphic form:
Study the chart. Internalize it. Print it out, ball it up and store it in your urethra so that years from now, when you are languishing in prison for the perverse crimes you have committed and which I don't even want to know about, you will have something worthwhile that you might be reading if only it wasn't hopelessly lodged in your penis.
But in the meantime, remember, lying is good. Liars are good. And never more so than in politics. So the next time you are alone in the voting booth, ready to play your inconsequential part in this futile charade we call democracy, give your vote to the biggest liar on the ballot.