|Huey Long—the infamous Louisiana politician of the Thirties—once promised a certain constituency in an election campaign that he would deliver a public works project to them if elected. When he failed to deliver the project after he was elected, he was asked why. His reply: “I lied!”
Long’s admission was brutally frank. It was the kind of honesty that worked well for Long. Why is it so difficult to work for many of those in public office today?
The typical strategy is to tell people what consultants and pollsters say the public wants to hear and when the facts prove differently, to keep repeating the same words in the hope that repetition somehow will make it right. But there is a terrible price to be paid for this political “spin” game—the lost trust of the people.
Just consider some of the following examples:
- Watching Congressman Gary Condit struggle over the last several months to dodge the truth of his relationship with a missing intern has been tortuous—for him, his family and his constituency. While all of his bobbing and weaving has fed a ravenous media circus, it has detracted from the true victim of this situation – Chandra Levy – and gradually destroyed the public’s trust in the congressman.In a blitzkrieg of recent interviews aimed at restoring his reputation, his continuing failure to apologize or admit to the obvious only further damaged his credibility. This was a case where trying to spin away from the truth only made the truth that much more apparent. Why was it so difficult for the congressman to admit to the relationship early on, apologize to his family and his constitutency, sympathize with the intern’s family and fully cooperate in every way with the authorities? Was it shame, embarrassment, the damage to his career, the hope that the mystery over the missing intern would be quickly solved, the belief that “stonewalling” would eventulaly force the media to other news or all of the above? Whatever the reason, the congressman is playing a political and personal price for trying to “spin” rather than tell the truth.
- President Bush promised during the campaign and in his State of the Union address that the nation had a big enough surplus to pay for both guns and butter. He said the $5.6 trillion projected surplus would more than cover a $1.8 trillion tax cut, increased defense spending, a missile defense system, provide additional funding for education, a prescription drug plan, farm programs, expanded health coverage, reform for federal retirement and Medicare programs and still leave enough to pay down the debt without touching a dime of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. In less than six months, economic facts have virtually wiped out the president’s promise. The Congressional Budget Office now reports that because of the tax cut and a weakened economy, the surplus outside of Social Security is virtually gone and that in this fiscal year alone, some $9 billion will have to be borrowed from the Social Security trust fund to meet budget requirements. That means there is no way the president or Congress can fund all of the additional spending they want without further borrowing from Social Security or finding other ways to pay for their programs. Those are the facts. But you wouldn’t know it from the political spin. The president has vowed that neither the economic slowdown nor the evaporating surplus will deter him from increasing the military budget, beginning work on a missile shield or increasing spending on education—all of which he says can be done without touching Social Security. The Democrats are also trying to figure out how to pay for education, prescription drugs, a patient bill of rights, farm programs and other non-defense spending without touching Social Security, raising taxes or cutting defense. The simple truth is that neither the president nor the Congress can afford what they want. Both must make some very tough decisions that may not be politically popular. But instead of being honest with the American people about the reality they are confronting and working together to resolve this huge fiscal challenge, the spin in these next few months will be for both sides to play the blame game until they are forced by the threat of a government shutdown or economic crisis to finally reach a budget agreement. Each side will say they won, but both will have lost further credibility with the American people.
- With the lights dimming in California and gas prices jumping in other parts of the nation, it is obvious that this nation has failed to effectively address its energy needs. In the 1970s, an oil embargo quadrupled oil prices, gas lines appeared, gas prices skyrocketed from 25 cents a gallon to more than $1, and stations refused to sell more than 10 gallons to a single customer. The crisis forced sacrifices from all Americans along with steps to increase production, energy efficiency, alternative energy sources and conservation. But as oil supplies increased, the United States went back to many of its old habits. Speed limits and thermometers went up, fuel efficiency went down, incentives and research money for alternatives were reduced, and large homes, computers, high tech industries and sports vehicles drove energy demands up. The result 30 years later was another energy crisis. But when the president’s press secretary was asked whether the president would be asking citizens to change their lifestyles, given that we consumer more energy per capita than any other nation, he said “That’s a big no.” and when the governor or California first addressed this issue, he said that consumers would not have to pay increased energy costs. The political spin was that lifestyles would not have to change, but the reality is that an energy crisis changes lives whether we like it or not. We cannot produce and consume our way out of this crisis. The key is for the nation’s leadership to acknowledge that reality and promote a balanced plan of production, alternatives and conservation. It will demand sacrifice from all of us, and that is a fact no words can hide.
The point is that whether the issue is scandal, tough budget or energy challenges, campaign reform, Social Security, health care or foreign policy—our leaders would do far better to be frank with the people than to try and spin their way out of trouble.
As our parents did, we try to teach our children to be truthful. Our very democracy is dependent on a strong relationship of trust between the people and their leaders. But in recent years, whether because of lost values or the ease and speed of modern communications, a bad example is being set for future generations by those who tell people the political message rather than what is really happening.
This may provide some short-term political gains, but ultimately, the nation pays a terrible price. Huey Long decided to tell the simple truth when he said he lied in his campaign. It might just be that telling the simple truth can work to restore both our politics and our democracy. Lord knows, it’s worth a try.
LEON PANETTA, is a former congressman and White House Chief of Staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.