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Voters think even our first president lied

Public distrust of government reaches back centuries, with Americans saying George Washington and Abraham Lincoln weren't always truthful while in office.

February 28, 2010|By Johanna Neuman and Mark Milian
  • Almost 75% of voters think George Washington lied while in office, a poll finds.
Almost 75% of voters think George Washington lied while in office, a poll… (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)

This month marked the 278th anniversary of George Washington's birth. The father of our country, born Feb. 22, won plaudits from historians for declining a third term as president, along with the wigs and titles that would have marked the presidency as a continuation of British royalty.

Though usually viewed as a fable, the story of Washington as a youngster chopping down a cherry tree has been handed down for generations, a way for parents to teach their children that nothing is more important than telling the truth -- as Washington reportedly did in the face of his father's anger over the fallen tree.

But it turns out that general American public distrust of politicians has been in evidence for a long time. Or maybe recent data just show that today's disgust with Washington (the town, not the man) is starting to affect the reputation of earlier giants. Either way, a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 74% of voters think the father of our country lied while in office.

And Washington's not the only one. According to the poll, 71% think Abraham Lincoln lied while in office. That's Honest Abe, the man who didn't charge the widow of a Revolutionary soldier for helping her get her pension, even paying her hotel bill and giving her the money to buy a ticket home.

What to make of this insipid cynicism? "It's all part of a rich tradition in American history -- the belief that politicians are not always telling the truth," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "Whether it's based on cynicism or realism, or a little of both, it's an indication that Americans think that our government has been broken for many, many years."

With public distrust running high -- even the popular President Obama's public approval ratings have dropped below 50% in some polls -- a majority also thinks that what's broken can be fixed. Maybe that's the legacy of politicians offering hope.

Engaging youths in government

Between episodes of "SpongeBob SquarePants" and Jonas Brothers records, the Obama administration is hoping the young ones will hop on their Internet-connected iPods or netbooks, and surf to USA.gov.

To promote the website directory, USA.gov is offering $2,500 to whoever submits the most creative and entertaining video about the benefit of USA.gov.

The site contains sections tailored to specific ages and demographics -- kids, teens, parents, seniors, etc. Those pages are broken down into specific topics.

Teens can learn about bad-weather driving techniques, how to calculate their school grade-point average, and bicycle safety. Hot topics in the kids category include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Alamosaurus. So, that's what kids are talking about on the playgrounds these days.

USA.gov is much like the curated Yahoo Web directory of the early days of the Internet. In other words, it's not the most cutting-edge idea.

David McClure, associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Communications, recorded the video, which asks others to record their own videos. Dressed in a suit and tie and sporting a mild hint of enthusiasm, he asks that before recording your 30- to 90-second video, you "take a look around" the site. Probably a good place to start.

"We're capitalizing on the YouTube generation's propensity for sharing and creativity to engage the public in a fun and unique way," McClure said in a statement. He goes onto say that "thousands of people" go to the site daily, but doesn't mention how many thousands.

The contest was announced Monday, but it hasn't exactly blown up to Jonas-like proportions. Fewer than 400 people had watched McClure's video by Monday afternoon, and only six people had joined the YouTube group to express interest in maybe submitting a video someday, who knows, perhaps.

Kids, you have until April 2 to embarrass yourself in a public, online forum. And if you're the only one who submits a video, those are pretty good odds at winning the $2,500.

mark.milian@latimes.com

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