The Age of Post-Truth Politics
As a child, I was taught that American presidents were paragons of truth-telling. My first grade teacher told us children that George Washington never told a lie—even as a child. The story of young George saying “I cannot tell a lie,” and confessing to his father that he had cut down the family cherry tree, made a lasting impression on us children about being truthful. Why? Because this fib-free child grew up and became the great American Revolutionary War hero, and then our first president, and revered “father” of our country. His independence-fighting heralded and his slave-holding hidden. What a contradiction! The first president supposedly could not tell a lie, and the current Republican candidate for president cannot tell the truth. Being truthful and the presidency are often matters of convenience not character.
Before children become victims of the status quo’s brain-washing, their innate, innocent, spontaneous honesty prepares them to readily spot the lies of a two—faced person. The presidential campaign desperately needs that kind of child-like clarity about lying. Such clarity would have sunk Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in Florida. A personal story from my childhood leads to what I believe is his biggest and most dangerous lie, which should disqualify him from ever becoming president.
In the early 1930s, when I was around eight years old, my family could not afford a telephone; so I delivered a note from my father to an older man who lived a distance in the neighborhood. The note stated that, as planned, my father and mother would visit the man that evening. The man invited me in, read the note, and then made a telephone call to a friend. As I sat in the same room, he told his friend that he really did not care for my parents, and would join him as soon as he could get rid of them. It was as if he thought that my being a child prevented me from understanding what he was saying. I was shocked by his words, and was not taken in by his smile and his message the he would be happy to see my parents that evening.
I went with my parents to the man’s home. And in front of him and them, I told my father about the telephone conversation with his friend: that he really did not care for them or their visit. As a child, this painful and enraging truth was important to tell, so that my father and mother would know how the man really felt about them. That truth was met with a severe scolding from my father—who later realized the man was not a trusted friend.
Mitt Romney is like that older man in my childhood, except that Romney’s lie is so outrageous and dangerous that his presidential candidacy should have sunk in Florida. Where, at a fund-raising event, in a comfortable moment of assumed privacy, speaking from his unguarded heart, he shared his true belief with a like-minded ultra-rich audience:
There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. . . . 47% who are with him, who are dependent on the government who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. These are people who pay no income tax. . . . And so my job is not to worry about these people. I’ll never be able to convince them that they should take personal responsibility for their lives. (“Mitt Romney Video Transcript: What Exactly He Said that Is Getting People Angry,” By Elisa Sanchez, www.enstarz.com, Sept. 19, 22012)
Then, closer to election day, Mitt Romney has tried to stem this hemorrhaging, campaign-devastating lie that exposes him for the unqualified immoral opportunist he is. At campaign rallies and in a TV ad, he repeatedly smiles and says,
There are so many people in our country who are hurting right now. I want to help them. I know what it takes. . . . I care about the people of America, and the difference between me and Barack Obama is I know what to do. (“Romney, Obama descend on battleground Ohio,” The Daily Caller. Sept. 27, 2012)
In the face of the widespread devastation of Hurricane Sandy, this is the anti- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) presidential candidate who, campaigning in Ohio, fakes the collection, from individuals, of donations for massive victims, when their terrible losses and misery cry out for the collective power of government. This cynical pretense of caring for the hurricane victims is merely a continuation of lies that have paved Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign from the beginning.
It would be so easy to do a content analysis of the many ways in which numerous media call Mitt Romney a liar: “a coat of whitewash,” “transfigure himself into any shape desired by an audience in order to achieve power,” “disingenuous,” “flip-flopped,” “mislead,” paper over,” “Convenient Mitt.” And that’s just one New York Times editorial. (“The Moderate Mitt Myth,” Oct. 13, 2012)
Just as telling are the titles of many news stories and columns that reveal the Etch-a-Sketch, post-truth politics embodied by Mitt Romney’s campaign for president. Shocking here is the fact that telling the truth is not a condition for winning a presidential debate. Mitt Romney was widely believed to win the first debate hands down—and fingers crossed. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite makes this point in the title of her Washington Post article: “Lie to me, please: Truth was the real loser of first presidential debate,” Oct. 4, 22012)
Posturing overshadows perceptivity. Style trumps substance. Falsehoods become more convenient than truth. Greatness is devoid of goodness. American democracy is in serious moral decline.
It is here that our children can help us. Jesus was reported to deeply value their truth-discerning power. In a section of the New Testament aptly called “True Greatness,” his disciples asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Italics added). Matthew 18: 1-4)
The innate, natural, humble, innocent honesty of children prepares them to know whether or not another child, or adult, is telling the truth. The ones who tell them the truth become good friends. Those who lie to them are never to be trusted. The ways of a child are wise indeed, and to be reclaimed and emulated by us adults
Trust is a matter of truth. American democracy desperately needs a new motto: In Truth We Trust.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, has recently been published and is available on Amazon.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.