“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Bill Clinton
“No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.” Barack Obama
These statements were both blatant untruths. If one could definitively measure long-term effects, which is a virtual impossibility, a case might be made that such open and obvious untruths have a harmful impact on the health of the republic, increasing permanently the levels of distrust and cynicism. But in the short term– and our politicians think in the short term–the deceptions can work for the political leaders in question. Big lies have often succeeded. Perhaps the only modern innovation is that the lies work when everyone knows that the deception took place–—though some without using the word lie. Moralists can rant and rave about the immorality of such actions, but it does not change results.
Bill Clinton, his lie notwithstanding, finished his term as president and now is lionized by a large part of his party and much of the public. His lie bought precious time and he eventually escaped. It was well-executed, with a look directly into the camera and a finger wave (the equivalent of a “period”). Recall that after this statement his wife sought to turn things back on his accusers, calling the charges against her husband the product of a vast right-wing conspiracy. When later there was irrefutable forensic evidence of the lie, the master and a few of his supporters parsed matters to give a refined definition of sex. The details of this spin are too distasteful to recount here, but it was surprising how many, especially of the youth, came to embrace this view as truth.
The Obama lie has almost been admitted, for the most part, as noted, without embracing the word lie. One of his defenders, Steny Hoyer, conceded that his statement should have been “caveated” (which is the 2013 equivalent to “parsed”). But the rest of the spin points are more interesting—the moralist might say disturbing. They amount, basically, to a defense of lying because the outcome will be good. This was the gist of Mr. Carney’s defense yesterday. Many people will not be able to keep their current health care plans, but the substitutes from which they will choose will be better. In addition, not that many people are affected by the lie—less than five percent of the population—so it’s not important enough to endanger Obama care. In other words, it is not the lie that matters, but only its real effects, and since the effects are not big enough, realist supporters of Obama can dismiss the importance of this issue.
Ultimately, of course, the real justification for dismissing the significance of the lie is that the end justifies the means. The lie was necessary to assure passage of the bill, and the bill is good: it will assure that those who do not have health care will now have it. So there is no reason to dwell too much on the lie itself. Reading between the lines, this argument is exactly the one implicit in the lead editorial of the Washington Post today. It has a first paragraph weakly admitting the misdeed, but then goes on to contend that Obamacare is ultimately a good thing and will be acknowledged as such by the public.
The Machiavellian maxim that the end justifies the means, embraced by some privately while usually condemned publicly, is now becoming openly acknowledged public morality. The putative progenitor of the highest morality has proven to be the nation’s greatest corruptor.