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Promises, Promises : Can you use 'politician' and 'truth' in the same sentence without laughing? Think about it. We are annoyed when they lie . . . and when they're honest. No wonder we hunger for fresh faces.

August 02, 1995|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They break their word--and frequently. They promise not to raise taxes, then raise them. They vow that "our boys" will not fight in foreign wars, then deploy them. They swear they would never, ever womanize, then shrug haplessly when we find Donna Rice in their Washington townhouse.

Politicians ask us to trust them, to rely on them, to believe in them. Then they treat our faith cavalierly, scarcely blinking when they break their promises, peddling excuses rather than asking for forgiveness.

Campaigns have become virtual pledge-a-thons. Striving to please everyone, candidates commit to balance the budget, shrink the deficit, fix the health-care system, reform welfare and put more cops on the streets. They know the hard realities of partisan politics may preventthem from fulfilling many of these vows, but they promise, promise, promise anyway--because polls and consultants tell them that's what we want to hear. And because we, the people, tend to forgive--or, more often, forget.

Indeed, history shows that voters often reward candidates who make appealing--if unrealistic--promises. By contrast, politicians who dispense more honest--and less optimistic--predictions for the future tend to suffer for their candor at the polls.

Voters may bear some blame in this waltz of deceit: As long as we keep rewarding bad behavior, we're likely to get more of it.

Recently, Gov. Pete Wilson joined the broken promise club, reneging on his pledge to complete a second term as governor. Just 11 weeks after his $2-million inaugural celebration, Wilson declared he has a "duty" to run for President and formed a committee to help him do so.

As he travels the campaign trail, the governor has already faced questions about why he changed his mind and whether he broke his word. Will voters ratify his thinking or exact revenge come election day? It's hard to say. What's more engrossing, in any case, are the broader causes and consequences of promise-breaking.

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Some observers believe voters expect candidates to tease them by saying things they don't really mean. Campaigns, says Democratic Party strategist Bob Mulholland, "are like dating. You say a lot of nice things when you're going out, then you get married and suddenly the guy gets fat and starts drinking Old Milwaukee beer. It's just the way things go."

Others, however, say such conduct breeds distrust. Each time a political vow is betrayed, they say, it nicks the people's collective faith.

Sissela Bok is a Harvard ethicist and author of "Lying: Moral Choice in Public & Private Life" (Vintage, 1990). She believes public officials, with their high profile and sworn oath of office, have a special responsibility to keep their word and protect "society's fragile climate of trust."

"When our leaders break their promises," Bok says, "it adds to the cynicism and sense of disappointment people feel about politicians and government in general."

Our nation's deepening cynicism has been abundantly documented. It dates from the 1960s and '70s, when the Vietnam War and Watergate began eroding the public's belief that government could be trusted. Confidence in government has remained relatively low ever since, dipping still further in the 1990s.

"There is a very deep public frustration with the political class," says Everett C. Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. "People want politicians to say what they mean, mean what they say and keep their promises. They want . . . candor and honesty."

Analysts say this public disenchantment has nourished the term-limits movement, which aims to fill Congress and statehouses with "citizen legislators"--people seen as separate from the gray blob of predictable, double-talking "career politicians."

It also has given life to protest candidates such as Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. Despite his political inexperience, Perot offered a fresh, plain-spoken style and managed to capture nearly one in every five presidential votes in 1992--a remarkable feat. Gen. Colin Powell, who is enjoying a flurry of support for a potential presidential candidacy in 1996, is another beneficiary of public exasperation with the status quo.

"The Perot phenomenon . . . was like a collective scream for help from the people," said the late political consultant Duane Garrett, whose credentials include Walter Mondale's 1984 run for President. "People are hungry for someone new, someone sincere, someone who won't lie to them. Perot--and the Colin Powell boomlet--are evidence of that."

Texas Treasurer Martha Whitehead might be another example. In her bid for reelection last fall, the Democrat made what might be one of history's most bizarre campaign promises: She vowed to abolish her own job if returned to office. The pledge was dramatized in a remarkable TV ad. One moment, Whitehead stood in front of the Texas Capitol building; the next, her image vanished as she promised to wipe out the treasurer's office.

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