McCain and Palin Are Trying to Take Political Lying to the Next Dimension
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Despite all the chatter about how "historic" Campaign 2008 has been, it is the McCain-Palin ticket that it is truly testing the limits, not of race or gender politics, but whether the United States is ready to enter into a new dimension of political lying.
Until two weeks ago, it would have been hard to believe that any political figure would have had the audacity to step into the national spotlight by telling the bald-faced lies that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has. Yet, many Americans have embraced her enthusiastically and don't want to hear anything negative about her.
Palin's most obvious lie is one that she has repeated over and over: "I told Congress, 'thanks but no thanks' about that Bridge to Nowhere." Now, however, anyone who has bothered to fact-check this claim knows that Palin supported the bridge until Congress removed the earmark and then she kept the money to use on other state projects.
Palin also presents herself as a "reformer" who can't stand earmarks or the lobbyists who arrange such wasteful pork-barrel spending -- except that she hired Alaska's top Washington lobbyists to secure millions of dollars in earmarks for her town, Wasilla, and for her state, including sending off a wish list of nearly $200 million just this year.
With the help of the lobbying firm and her annual treks to Washington, Palin secured a stunning $27 million in earmarked funds for Wasilla, a town then with about 6,000 residents. Some of Palin's projects were considered such prime examples of Washington pork that they were cited in anti-earmark reports compiled by none other than Sen. John McCain earlier this decade.
When ABC's news anchor Charles Gibson asked Palin about her past support of earmarks and her backing for the Bridge to Nowhere, Palin simply refused to acknowledge that she had made misleading or false claims about herself.
"It has always been an embarrassment that abuses of the ear form -- earmark process has been accepted in Congress," Palin said. "And that's what John McCain has fought. And that's what I joined him in fighting."
But Palin is not alone in simply denying reality. Her partner, John McCain, has shown his own ability to not blush while lying.
On the ABC-TV show "The View," McCain was confronted with Palin's contradictory record of arranging earmarks while selling herself as a reformer. McCain simply ignored the facts and declared, "not as governor she didn't."
But McCain now has his own long trail of stunning lies, both about his opponent Barack Obama and McCain's dubious reputation for clean politics. After presiding over a convention notable for its partisan rancor -- including endless mocking of Obama as a "community organizer" -- McCain said his presidency would be about eliminating "partisan rancor."
Earlier in the campaign, McCain approved ads accusing Obama of everything from causing $4 a gallon gasoline (a silly charge) to stiffing wounded U.S. troops in Germany by canceling a visit because he couldn't bring along cameras (a false accusation).
More recently, McCain and his team have blamed Obama for passing a law that would require sex education for kindergarteners and for calling Palin a "pig" when the Democratic nominee criticized McCain's economic package by saying it was like "putting lipstick on a pig."
Though McCain himself had applied the common expression to Hillary Clinton's health-care plan, Obama's use of the image was ripped from its context and twisted into a "sexist" attack on Palin.
As for the kindergarten sex-education ad, the McCain campaign had contorted Obama's support for a program that would teach young school children how to avoid sexual predators into providing them "comprehensive sex education."
When confronted on "The View" about these two dishonest ads, McCain insisted that "actually they are not lies." He then went on to argue that his own use of the "lipstick on a pig" remark was different because he was talking about Clinton's health-care plan.
Barbara Walters, one of the program's co-hosts, challenged this excuse, noting that Obama was speaking about change, not Palin.
McCain's response was that Obama "chooses his words very carefully," suggesting apparently that when McCain has used the phrase he doesn't. McCain added as his defense that harsh things have been said about him, too, and that "this is a tough campaign."
At the end of McCain campaign ads -- including others that have compared Obama to Paris Hilton and distorted his positions on taxes, health care and energy -- the voters hear McCain intoning, "I approved this message."
All of this might not be so troubling to Americans who care about the future of their democracy, except that the smears are working.
The McCain-Palin ticket is surging in the polls behind this strategy of deliberate lies and deceptive rhetoric. Many national polls now put the Republicans ahead in the presidential race and show them quickly closing the gap with Democrats in congressional races.
Not only has the lying worked well in raising fresh doubts about Obama and lifting the spirits of Republican activists, but it's had a curious impact on the national press corps, which has difficulty standing up to what might be called strategic lying that saturates the media's capacity for fact-checking and plays on the desire to appear "even-handed."
For weeks, the national press corps essentially has followed a "plague on both their houses" approach to campaign distortions, even though the McCain campaign was by far the more egregious -- and systematic -- in its pattern of misrepresentations.
Indeed, it seems that the McCain strategy included preemptive berating of the news media for "bias" as a way to scare journalists away from taking note of how McCain's strategic lying was reshaping the electoral landscape.
It took the New York Times until Sept. 13 to publish a comprehensive story about McCain's cynical approach to politics.
The Times story noted that McCain's "strategy now reflects a calculation advisers made this summer -- over the strenuous objections of some longtime hands who helped him build his 'Straight Talk' image -- to shift the campaign more toward disqualifying Mr. Obama in the eyes of voters."
The Times added that "for all the criticism [of the lies and distortions], the offensive seems to be having an impact. It has been widely credited by strategists in both parties with rejuvenating Mr. McCain's campaign and putting Mr. Obama on the defensive since it began early this summer."
Times columnist Bob Herbert made a similar point in a Sept. 13 op-ed, writing: "While watching the Sarah Palin interview with Charlie Gibson and the coverage of the Palin phenomenon in general, I've gotten the scary feeling, for the first time in my life, that dimwittedness is not just on the march in the U.S., but that it might actually prevail."
Beyond the studied anti-intellectualism -- even anti-realism -- now surrounding the McCain-Palin campaign, there is another longer-term question of whether McCain's current behavior is just a "campaign mode" aberration or whether he ever deserved the favorable depiction as a "maverick" and a "reformer."
Though McCain has bucked his party on some high-profile issues, such as campaign finance reform and earmarked spending, his actual record reveals him to be a doctrinaire conservative with his own checkered past on ethics.
McCain, in effect, reinvented himself as a "reformer" in the 1990s after he got caught in the late 1980s in a savings-and-loan influence-peddling scheme with Cindy McCain's business partner, Charles Keating.
Even in recent years while cultivating his reform image, McCain -- as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee -- has maintained cozy relationships with business lobbyists and, indeed, stocked his campaign staff with many of the insiders he rails against.
Yet, because of his long history of flattering press clippings -- he once called the journalists on his "Straight Talk Express" his "base" -- McCain seems to always expect gentle treatment, regardless of his actions. That confidence has enabled him to get away with stating the opposite of obvious truths and suffering little consequence.
For instance, when the New York Times published an article on Feb. 21 describing McCain's relationship with a telecommunication lobbyist, his campaign issued a statement declaring that "John McCain has a 24-year record of serving our country [in Congress] with honor and integrity. He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists, and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election."
McCain issued this statement despite the clear public record about his role as one of the so-called "Keating Five," senators who did favors for savings-and-loan wheeler-dealer Charles Keating.
In 1987, Keating wanted to frustrate oversight from federal banking regulators who were examining his Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. At Keating's urging, McCain wrote letters, introduced bills and pushed a Keating associate for a job on a banking regulatory board. McCain then joined several other senators in two private meetings with federal banking regulators on Keating's behalf.
Two years later, Lincoln collapsed, costing the U.S. taxpayers $3.4 billion. Keating eventually went to prison and three other senators from the Keating Five saw their political careers ruined. McCain drew a Senate reprimand for his involvement and later lamented his faulty judgment. "Why didn't I fully grasp the unusual appearance of such a meeting?" he wrote in his 2002 memoir, Worth the Fighting For.
But some people close to the case thought McCain got off too easy -- and actually may have been the senator most deeply entwined with Keating. Not only was McCain taking donations from Keating and his business circle, getting free rides on Keating's corporate jet and enjoying joint vacations in the Bahamas -- McCain's second wife, the beer fortune heiress Cindy Hensley, had invested with Keating in an Arizona shopping mall.
In the years that followed, however, McCain not only got out from under the shadow of the Keating Five scandal but found a silver lining in the cloud, transforming the case into a lessons-learned chapter of his personal narrative.
Nevertheless, years later when the Times article questioned just how ethical the "new" John McCain really was, McCain lashed back with a categorical statement that was categorically untrue, saying he had "never done favors for special interests."
When one considers how other recent presidential candidates, such as Al Gore in 2000, were treated for perceived misstatements about their personal records, it's striking how effectively McCain has escaped serious criticism for lying -- and how he has sustained his reputation as a supposed "truth-teller."
So, perhaps, the current pattern of McCain approving dishonest ads and embracing a calculated strategy of false statements about Barack Obama shouldn't come as a surprise.
McCain now seems to have located a soul-mate in Sarah Palin, who shares McCain's assuredness in making public statements that are clear-cut lies and then insisting they are absolute truth.
The only remaining question is how well this strategy will work.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.