Road signs are great. They tell you where you are. And they’re especially great when they let you know you’re nowhere near where you want to be.
Take a look at this current American road sign. The Obama team produced ads accusing Mitt Romney of sending jobs overseas and a satchelful of other outrages and crimes. The Washington Post didn’t merely suggest those ads were lies; it got passionate about it. The Post, an early and ardent Obama supporter, said Obama was “blowing smoke” and awarded the “fraudulent” ads three “Pinocchios.” Undaunted, undeterred and, in fact, not even slowed down, the Obama team ran those ads in key swing states. And Romney’s poll numbers declined.
Did you get a good look? A prestigious newspaper that had endorsed Obama trashed those campaign ads as lies. Obama’s team ran them anyhow. And Romney got hurt. Somehow that doesn’t sound like “home” to this American. It sounds more like Germany’s Weimar Republic, between the World Wars, that elected the late Adolf Hitler. Doesn’t it seem that Romney should have some recourse beyond the weak and pitiful cry of “foul”?
This is definitely a hole in our hull. This scenario represents a sudden deterioration in Obama’s political ethics for which our system has no answer. Oh, Romney can shout “Liar!” and demand apologies and try to get the great American public to understand the nature and scope of the injustice here, but none of that guarantees Romney will wind up where he would have if his opponent had not knowingly foisted false information upon the voters. That persistent American demand for a “solution” starts notions of a Rube-Goldberg parade of special “panels” and boards and courts that must approve all campaigns ads to weed out blatantly false – stop! Stop in the middle of the sentence! It’s futile. When ethics sink so low, no police mechanism or legislation is going to help.
I can’t suggest a remedy. All I can do is emphasize what a rotten shame it is. I believe this deterioration took place since the last presidential election. I believe that if either candidate’s team in 2008 had been told that a major newspaper – on its side! – had denounced the ad as a lie, that would have been the end of it. Nobody would have dared pursue the placement of toxic ads against that kind of headwind. Shame sometimes gallops to the rescue.
It reminds me of “welfare” when I was a child, which, in my part of the South, was called “home relief.” There was welfare, but there was little or no welfare cheating. It was not an issue. The assumption was broad and deep across the land that needing public support bore such a stigma, no one would lie and pretend to such a need falsely. Again, that was shame jumping in and relieving the community’s need for extra policemen and giving us a boost in the budget. It’s a nice attitude. What ever happened to it?
What about dirty, lying political ads in those ancient days? I just don’t remember any. There were the standard “reminders” that a certain candidate was not white or not Christian, but what we know as the negative ad was too rare to bear mention. There seemed to be an attitude that you should point out your own good qualities and not disparage an opponent by pointing out his weaknesses. How quaint!
It would be great if the negative ads all backfired; a lot of things would be great, like everybody lying to exit-pollsters. But, like many mountain highways in South America, I see no guard rails here. If any lie, no matter how obvious or widely exposed, can make it from the campaign drawing board to the TV studio to the air with no accountability, nothing but arrogant pride in a hatchet job well done, I fear our system, already under pressure from ineligible voters, may lose whatever confidence still remains. This is more than an attack on Romney. This is an attack on America.
They say a truth dashed to earth will rise again. Trouble is, a lie will do the same thing. And when the political lies are cost-free, tell as many as you like; the victim is thrust into defense, not by the sparkling wit of the liar or his command of the issues, but merely by the liar’s willingness to lie.
By today’s standards, Adlai Stevenson’s political injuries at the hands of his opponent, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, were slight indeed, and whatever “lies” were told about Stevenson are long forgotten, but that doesn’t mean Stevenson wasn’t steamed at the time. Nor does it diminish the elegance of Stevenson’s rebuke of the Eisenhower campaign.
In the heat of the presidential battle, Gov. Stevenson said to his foes, “If you don’t quit lying about me, I’m going to start telling the truth about you!”