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We Hold This Truthiness to Be Self-Evident

Cable hosts and politicians are increasingly making statements with no foundation in the facts. As with Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, the truth may soon catch up with them.
 
 
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There's an old saying that politicians use statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost -- more for support than illumination. Increasingly, it seems all manner of facts and figures are manipulated, massaged or just plain made up to fit an existing set of beliefs, regardless of the actual truth.

Last fall, Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central's Colbert Report , came up with a word to describe this phenomenon: "truthiness."

"I'm not a fan of facts," he pronounced, in his best, Bill O'Reilly-like persona. "You see, facts can change, but my opinions will never change, no matter what the facts are."

"Truthiness" touched a nerve. The American Dialect Society proclaimed it their 2005 Word of the Year, and a Google search turns up 2.5 million references to "truthiness," from play-by-play analyses of the president's State of the Union Address and NSA shenanigans to attacks on James Frey's pseudomemoir "A Million Little Pieces."

Now, even columnists, those ink-stained knaves of the media, have stolen, er, embraced it as a subject. Truthiness, after all, is what we're all about.

Colbert explained further in a recent issue of the satirical newspaper The Onion, itself a bastion of truthiness: "It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the president because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true? "Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true ' There's not only an emotional quality, there's a selfish quality."

In politics, manifestations of truthiness are nonstop, ranging from the childish to the insidious. The Feb. 4 New York Times reported that aides to New York State gubernatorial candidate William Weld had "significantly altered" two newspaper articles running on Weld's website, removing anything that was perceived as negative: cutting paragraphs, headlines like "Campaign May Be Down, But Weld Certainly Isn't" and such phrases as "dogged by an investigation."

Although the Times could find no evidence on other campaigns' websites to support his claim, Weld spokesman Dominick Ianno insisted, "every other candidate is doing the same thing." Now that's truthiness.

A front page article in that same day's Washington Post detailed problems Wikipedia, the popular internet encyclopedia written and edited by volunteers, is having with congressional staff members and other government employees tampering with its website entries.

An intern removed a reference to Massachusetts Congressman Martin Meehan's pledge to limit his service to four terms. He's now in his seventh. Someone changed venerable West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd's age from 88 to 180. Another claimed Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn "was voted the most annoying senator by his peers in Congress." And those are just three of the more benign examples. Wikipedia had to block certain Capitol Hill email addresses to prevent further vandalism, or, if you will, petty truthiness.

But when it comes to truthiness in the third degree, preparations for the trial of former Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby for perjury and making false statements are providing a mother lode of factual phantasmagory.

The judge wanted the trial -- centering on Libby's leak to journalists of Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA agent to discredit her husband Joe Wilson -- to begin in the fall. Libby's lawyer's claim to a scheduling conflict has moved it to next January, two months, conveniently, after the midterm elections.

Although Libby claimed he first heard about Plame's identity from NBC's Tim Russert, the Feb. 4 Washington Post reported Libby "acknowledged to investigators that [Vice President] Cheney told him in mid-June 2003 about Plame's CIA role and said she helped send her husband on a mission to Niger to determine whether Iraq was seeking nuclear material from the African nation."

Libby also claimed he never mentioned Plame during a July 7, 2003, luncheon with then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Fleischer testified otherwise.

The defense being prepared for Libby seems to center around the contentions that many in the press already knew about Plame's identity before he leaked it to reporters and that the contradictions between his testimony and that of others are simply due to work-related stress and forgetfulness. A court filing contends that, "Mr. Libby was immersed throughout the relevant period in urgent and sensitive matters, some literally matters of life and death

"In the constant rush of more pressing matters, any errors he made in his FBI interviews or grand jury testimony, months after the conversations, were the result of confusion, mistake or faulty memory, rather than a willful intent to deceive."

Ah, wake up and smell the truthiness. That could be perceived as a plausible explanation, the Los Angeles Times wrote on Feb. 4, "but it could also suggest to a jury that he is self-important and thinks that top government officials somehow have less responsibility to be honest than ordinary citizens. The argument boils down to 'I'm too busy to tell the truth,' said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who is a professor of criminal law at Fordham University Law School in New York, adding that a jury would probably have trouble with that defense."

Libby's defense team is asking for 10 months of notes, emails and documents gathered by the prosecution from Vice President Cheney's office, 10,000 pages worth. Such materials, from May 2003 through March 2004, will, they maintain, prove Libby's workload, heavy responsibilities and importance.

Among those documents are the highly confidential Presidential Daily Briefings, which raises an interesting question as to why Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald wanted them in the first place, whether they contain anything about Joe Wilson's trip to Niger or Valerie Plame.

What's more, responding to the Libby request for information, Fitzgerald informed the defense that not all of the White House's 2003 email was properly archived. According to the New York Daily News , Fitzgerald wrote "that many emails from Cheney's office at the time of the Plame leak in 2003 have been deleted contrary to White House policy." A truthiness-heavy flashback to Nixon's secretary Rosemary Woods and the infamous, "accidentally" erased 18 minutes of tape is as inevitable as it is irresistible.

Meanwhile, as it silently ticks away in the background, we forget that Fitzgerald's grand jury continues to meet once or twice a week, quietly weighing evidence that will or will not lead to the indictment of Karl Rove.

In the end, truthiness may set him free.

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York. Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers