On a radio show the other day, it fell to me to introduce Robert Scheer, a longtime icon of the Left (he was an editor of Ramparts in the 1960s and ’70s), now a columnist and contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times and The Nation.
The script called on me to mention–O.K., plug–his latest book: The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq.
I did as instructed–but I just couldn’t help myself. I adlibbed a little.
I said: “And rumor has it that Mr. Scheer is now working on a sequel: ‘The Five Biggest Lies Roosevelt Told Us About Germany.’ Yes, it turns out there is no evidence that Hitler had anything to do with Pearl Harbor.”
Scheer did not appreciate the gentle humor I intended. He went into a bit of a rant, accusing me of suggesting he was soft on Hitler and pointing out that it was American right-wingers of the 1930s who supported Hitler, evidently confusing my brand of conservatism with that of Charles Lindberg (whom I hardly even knew).
But the point is that Scheer is hardly alone on the left in accusing President Bush, Republicans, and conservatives not just of being misguided or wrong or even ignorant–but of being liars, people who intentionally say things they know to be untrue.
In fact, this has become a central theme of the Left. On Amazon.com you can find Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.
There’s also Joe Conason’s Big Lies: The Right-wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth.
And, of course, there’s David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception.
And let us not forget ex-conservative Kevin Phillips’s American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, and Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. (You may recall that “Weapons of Mass Deception” was one of Senator Kerry’s quips to President Bush in the second presidential debate. My guess is that Rampton & Stauber will not accuse him of plagiarism.)
In fact, the main theme of the Kerry campaign to date has been that Bush has “not been straight” with Americans,” has not “leveled” with Americans, has “misled” Americans: that’s he’s a lying liar telling lies, to put it bluntly, which few on the left have been reluctant to do.
I don’t know whether this is an effective tactic. Maybe it appeals to “the base,” or to women or to “security moms” or to Floridians or some other designated demographic. But it should be obvious that the reflexive calling of one’s opponent a liar pretty much forecloses the possibility of having a serious debate.
I suggested as much to Scheer. He responded by angrily recalling that Republicans accused President Clinton of lying.
He’s right on that. But there’s some interesting history to relate. I was the communications director for the Republican party during Clinton’s final term. I recall very distinctly that the party chairman, Jim Nicholson, for the longest time refused to use the “L” word in regard to Mr. Clinton or to let GOP spokesmen use it. It was a matter of respect–not for Clinton (who drove conservatives batty) but for the office he held.
I’m not sure Chairman Nicholson (now our ambassador to the Vatican) ever did call Mr. Clinton a liar but after it was proven that the president had indeed lied–even under oath–the word became harder to avoid.
Now it is true Clinton’s lies concerned his sexual relations. Scheer and others argue that lying about such matters is not the same as lying about war and peace. Leave the sex-is-O.K.-to-lie-about argument aside, and consider this: The charge that President Bush has lied about matters of war and peace is flatly untrue.
The most obvious example is regarding weapons of mass destruction. President Bush, we now know (thanks to Bob Woodward, among others), was told by George Tenet, his director of Central Intelligence (also President Clinton’s) that it was a “slam dunk” that Saddam Hussein continued to have WMDs.
Surely, to relay that to Americans is not to tell a lie. To charge that it is a lie…well, that is a lie because those making the charge are smart enough to recognize the difference between a President believing his top spy (which Bush did) and making things up (which Bush did not do).
As Jonah Goldberg has pointed out, if President Bush was lying–if he knew there were no WMDs, then how did he think he would not be found out after the invasion? A good liar would at least have planted a little anthrax or VX under the mattress at one of Saddam’s palaces.
Or take what the president said about Saddam’s efforts to purchase “yellowcake” uranium in Africa. The president cited British intelligence–which stood by their conclusion then, which stands by their conclusion now, and which has since been backed up by two independent studies. British intelligence could have been wrong. Bush may have made a mistake to worry that the evidence they had found meant that Saddam was reviving his nuclear-weapons programs. But no lies were told.
This creates a quandary. When Scheer charges that President Bush is lying, should I respond by saying: “No, you’re the liar!”
To which he would probably reply: “No you!”
To which I’d retort: “No, you’re the one.”
“Liar, liar, liar …”
“Big fat dirty liar telling lying lies…”:
You see what I mean?
What’s more, those on the right could say that Senator Kerry is lying when he says that Gen. Eric Shinseki was fired (he wasn’t), that he says he hasn’t changed his position on Iraq (of course he has), and that he has a plan to eliminate U.S. dependence on foreign oil (no one does).
But, for the most part, those on the Right have refrained from such language.
I’d like to take this opportunity to propose to Scheer and my other friends on the left that they consider opening their minds to the possibility that those who disagree with them have come to their views honestly, that they see the world differently, that they have made alternative judgments based on sincere–if flawed, by the lights of the Left–interpretations of reality.
It is good and proper for Left and Right to ague about facts and analysis and the policies they suggest. But we can’t do that if one side is calling the other side “Liars!” all the time.
And if you persist, occasionally, we’re going to bite back–as I did the other day to the profound annoyance of Scheer and, I understand, many radio listeners. (This show was broadcast on NPR stations. I suspect talk-radio audiences might have responded differently.)
I make this proposal in all sincerity. Do you believe me? Or do you think I’m fibbing?
–Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.