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Lying in Public Life: Just Whom Do You Trust?

October 30, 1994|Sissela Bok | Sissela Bok is the author of "Lying: Moral Choice in Public & Private Life" (Random House)

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Election campaigns across the country are focusing, as never before, on lying. As voters confront the volleys of accusations and counteraccusations about fraud, broken promises and outright lies, many are tempted to throw up their hands. With trust in politics and politicians at an all-time low, and much vile campaign rhetoric eroding what little trust is left, it is easy for voters to conclude that all candidates are equally untrustworthy, that no distinctions can be made with respect to lying in politics and that the best thing to do may well be to follow the bumper-sticker advice: "Don't vote. It only encourages them."

The Virginia Senate race between Charles S. Robb and Oliver L. North casts the voters' bewilderment into sharp relief. Most know of the congressional and judicial record of North's lying during the Iran-Contra scandal, and most are familiar with allegations that Robb lied about his relationship with a former Miss Virginia and about attending parties where drugs were used.

After being pummeled by conflicting TV ads, many voters have decided both men are equally untrustworthy--and equally unsuited for public office. In one poll, asking voters if they could trust either North or Robb to tell the truth, virtually the same percentage, about 58%, said they doubted either would tell the truth.

It is natural that a campaign where lying is daily imputed to each candidate should end generating such levels of distrust. Distrust of politicians is no different from distrust of anyone else: It stems from the suspicion that their word cannot be trusted--that they will lie and break their promises as long as they think they can get away with it.

Suspicions about lying turn out to be central to everything else that candidates propose. Once their word is in doubt, none of their campaign promises--about taxes, health care, crime, or any other issue--can be taken at face value.

But however dismayed voters may be, they should not rush to conclude that no distinctions can be drawn between candidates with respect to their capacity to tell the truth. Instead, voters need to take certain questions into account: Is there a difference between lies that have been proved and lies that are only suspected? Does it matter if what is at issue is a single lie or a great many? Should deceit about a candidate's private life be thought as serious a handicap as deceit about conduct in public office? And are lies told under oath to cover up for violations of the law especially egregious?

These questions should be debated for they have clear answers that matter for purposes of voting.

A moment's reflection shows the absurdity of imagining that all candidates for public office are equally duplicitous and thus equally untrustworthy. While it is not always easy to resolve all questions to do with lying, some are too fundamental to the democratic process to be ignored.

Clearly, voters ought to weigh differently allegations that have and have not been proved. It is important to be careful in a climate in which the national media increasingly disseminate innuendo and unfounded rumors, and in which some political consultants encourage candidates to make exaggerated or completely unfounded accusations on the grounds that the election will be over before voters will learn all the facts.

An important distinction can be drawn, too, concerning the degree to which deceit has been shown to be a candidate's practice rather than a temporary lapse. Voters need only consider their own lives to acknowledge that everyone can make mistakes when it comes to truthfulness. They may be unsure about what is and is not a lie, and doubt that minor white lies matter much. They may feel caught by surprise in a situation where a lie seems unavoidable or be swayed by poorly understood temptations and a failure to think ahead.

But it is another matter altogether to make the deliberate choice to be someone who deals with others through deceit; even more so when doing so involves numerous dealings with a great many persons over a long period of time.

What about the significance of the sheer amount of deceit in which a candidate has engaged in the past? From the point of view of voters, any deception in public office undermines trust. When public representatives or Administration officials arrogate to themselves the right to lie, they take power from the public that would not have been given up voluntarily.

And deceit in campaigning cuts at the roots of what we mean by democracy and by its being founded on the consent of the governed. But when the deceit by public officials reaches proportions such as those that have come to light in the Watergate or the Iran-Contra scandals, there is reason for special caution on the part of voters. The resulting damage to public trust and to democratic institutions is deeper still and more lasting. So is the damage to the nation's reputation internationally.

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