Can Legitimate Public Policy be Founded on Prevarications?

September 29th, 2006

On the matter of Bill Clinton’s recent Fox News interview, a statement from an old pastor comes to mind. Asked if he believed in deathbed conversions he said, No, he reckoned people died just as they lived. Likewise, in Clinton’s political afterlife he’s instinctively re-employing his best defense in times of trouble: crafting manifest prevarications on his role in the War on Terror. His claims have been meticulously examined and roundly rejected like the whopper about building a plan to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan, which, alas, no associates seem to recall.

It is certainly fair to ask whether Bill Clinton’s truth-stretching matters now, but of course it does. Anytime a well-known person, and especially a public official, tells a deliberate falsehood and it is discovered it removes a little more substance of belief in open discourse regarding key issues. If the typical American comes to conclude all elected persons routinely dissemble, it would greatly undermine public confidence and obliterate the very logic behind creating a democracy. In fact, if all politicians lie, why listen to any?

For Clinton, it is perhaps another stone in the fortress he toils to construct, Sisyphean style, around his legacy. But for all others, including legions of rabid fans, a new Bill brawl has boiled over. Fascinatingly, the spat doesn’t seem to revolve around accusations he fibbed, but instead whether Chris Wallace and Fox got “owned” by the randy debater. This recalls one of the saddest casualties of Clinton’s White House years. Beforehand there was a naïve belief that “Truth” existed independent of any human, and could be discovered with diligence and care, and that it was the duty of responsible citizens to find this, if possible. After Clinton, the question was whether a claim was “plausible” in the way lawyers mean when trying to create a reasonable defense, which recognized all known facts. We are stuck with a new ethical yardstick for public statements, gauging plausibility instead of veracity.

Demagogues move public opinions through emotional appeals dependant on half-truths and prevarications. This approach can work short term, but a notable recent novel (Imperium, by R. Harris) on Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of Rome’s great statesmen and its most powerful orators, recounts the life of a man who distrusted cheap political theatre. Cicero, who valued rhetoric and public speaking above any other discipline, taught there were three fundamental elements of a persuasive speech: pathos (passion), logos (logic), and ethos (ethical reasoning), and each part was equally important not simply for persuasion, but also for the benefit of the hearers. Future politicians of both parties would do well to examine the Ciceroean model and make sure they do nothing to damage their image as truth-bearers while communicating publicly. After all, what exactly is leftover in a politician’s speech when it has been purged of any sense of honesty, save entertainment?

By Kelly O’Connell J.D.; M.P.P.