By: Sid Salter
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius advises his son departing for his university schooling: “To thine own self be true.”
As the animosity between embattled President Donald Trump and the media continues to roil, Trump’s Twitter storms and other patently false pronouncements have produced a rather breathless narrative about the scope of Trump’s litany of whoppers, falsehoods, half-truths, self-deceptions, and outright lies.
Worse still in the days since the Nov. 3 general election that the media (and a growing number of GOP officials) roundly projects the incumbent president to have lost in both the popular and electoral vote is Trump’s apparent decision not to engage with the White House press corps at all.
The gaggle of reporters there shout questions at Trump’s turned back – and he keeps walking. That’s been the case in recent days whether the topic of the questions is the COVID-19 pandemic, the contested election, or the stalled transition and “peaceful transfer of power.”
Any rational analysis and the services of a reasonably dedicated fact-checker can quickly decipher that President Trump struggles with the truth. But the hyperbole surrounding public scorn over Trump’s fabrications underscores and ignored the history of the U.S. presidency.
Let’s take a bipartisan White House trip down Memory Lane, with a pass through the Rose Garden and the West Wing:
“I am not a crook,” said President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. He was a crook.
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky,” said President Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. Uh, huh…
“We’re building the wall as we speak,” Trump Tweeted. “MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL. We are already building and renovating many miles of Wall, some complete,” he Tweeted. The truth is, the wall hasn’t progressed a great deal, and Mexico isn’t paying for it.
President George H.W. Bush said: “Read my lips: no new taxes!” and promptly raised taxes.
President Barack Obama said of the Affordable Care Act: “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” Not so much.
President Lyndon B. Johnson said: “We still seek no wider war.” LBJ won the election against Goldwater but expanded the Vietnam War exponentially as part of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
President John F. Kennedy lied about his health, his sexual conquests, the missile gap, Vietnam, the speed with which he pursued civil rights, among other things. President Ronald Reagan lied about Iran-Contra. President George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Even President Jimmy Carter lied about relatively benign things like his occupation, saying he was a “nuclear physicist and a peanut farmer.” He was neither. Carter held only a bachelor’s degree in science, and he owned a peanut warehouse.
The point is that politicians lie and often. The public has become somewhat jaded to political lies to the point that there is a less than subtle expectation that politicians lie.
But there are differences in the subject of these lies. Lying about sex seems less a problem between a public official and his constituents than an issue between two people in a marriage.
But lying about taking the country to war, lying about criminal activities committed to maintaining power, betraying the taxpayers’ public trust rather than a spouse’s trust, those are acts that have led to impeachment, resignations, and convictions of politicians at the level just under the presidency. Most believe Nixon would have been convicted had he gone to Senate trial in his impeachment.
Lying to the taxpayers about substantive issues, particularly in the age of social media, is to juggle political dynamite. Trump is learning that lesson – or should be.
But in the context of the stalled transition from the concluding Trump presidency to the coming Biden presidency, it seems that the most unfortunate and damaging lie is the one that impedes President Trump from turning over the mantle of presidential leadership to his successor.