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Fornigate, Part II

[whitespace] Politics is a confidence game

By Bob Harris

HERE'S SOMETHING unexpected: Bill Clinton's recent troubles may have diminished him in the eyes of some Americans, but opinion polls show that most of us actually couldn't care less. Even though most think he hasn't been entirely honest, Clinton's approval rating is at an all-time high. What exactly does that mean?

Looking more closely, the polls also show that Clinton's numbers went down only while his denials were carefully worded. "The charges I have seen are untrue" certainly sounds like there might be something we don't know yet. However, once his denials became absolute, the approval ratings began to increase, rising dramatically after a State of the Union address that refused even to acknowledge the scandal's existence.

The number of people who believe that illicit sex took place has remained fairly stable. So Clinton hasn't changed anybody's mind, though he has changed how they feel about what they think. The only logical conclusion: we really don't mind when politicians lie. The only thing we do mind is when they do it unconvincingly.

Nixon, for example, was popular when he lied confidently. Look at the old newsreels. In the 1950s, he seemed to truly believe his congressional opponents were communist fellow travelers. Boom, bang, instant VP. But later on--about the time he claimed to have a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam (when in fact some of his aides were actually trying to derail peace talks)--he seemed to believe his own baloney less and less. Watch his face. By the time of the resignation speech, you could see in his eyes that even he knew there was hardly any point in pretending anymore. And so off to San Clemente he went.

JFK, on the other hand, was terrific. In the 1960 debates, Kennedy accused Nixon of being soft on Cuba, knowing full well (having earlier received a CIA briefing himself) that Vice President Nixon was in the loop on the CIA's secret anti-Castro programs. No way could Nixon respond--hey, here, look at all this secret stuff we're doing--so JFK nailed Nixon with a false charge, looked good doing it, and we've loved him ever since.

(That said, the current cottage industry in linking Kennedy to Marilyn Monroe, Sam Giancana, the Sasquatch, and assorted other sordid trysts isn't to be trusted, either. If you follow the footnotes on these claims closely, you'll find that they're mostly facile repetitions of never-proven charges made 30 years ago and claims of "witnesses" like Judith Campbell Exner, whose stories grow larger and more detailed as years pass--precisely the opposite of genuine human recollections. However, following footnotes isn't something many writers often do.

Similarly, virtually no evidence other than her say-so exists to support Monica Lewinsky's story, but the press and public continue to act is if everything has already been proven.

Fair enough. Clinton wanted to be just like JFK; he's finally getting the rest of his wish. If Hillary ever wears a pink pillbox hat, the first thing Bill should do is duck.

Ronald Reagan? Same deal: He could look us right in the eye and claim that 80 percent of air pollution came from trees, that Jimmy Carter never debated Gerald Ford, or that Grenada was a threat to national security--and say it all with such sincerity that it had to be true. Sure, Trident nuclear missiles can be recalled after launch. Sure, the Panama Canal Zone is U.S. soil. Sure, the Contras were the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers. Sure, the congressional ban on aid to the Contras was never intended to apply to something like, oh, aid to the Contras. ...

We loved that lying buffoon so much we've renamed Washington National Airport after him.

George Bush broke records for popularity during the Gulf War, when misplaced patriotism allowed him to lie with absolute confidence: Kuwait was a democracy; the U.N. coalition was more than a fig leaf for U.S. policy; Iraqis really ripped babies from incubators; smart bombs and stealth airplanes really work; and the war wasn't ultimately about oil. We tied ribbons and sang songs and gave people dirty looks if they didn't play along.

But Bush lost our confidence when he lost his own. He never really seemed to believe that the tax hike he approved wasn't really a reversal of his "read my lips" pledge; that the best way to create jobs is by cutting the tax on capital gains; or that Dan Quayle was actually qualified for the job. And so off to the golf course he went.

This preference for leaders who can (a) tell us what we want to hear, even if it's illogical or just plain false, and then (b) seem to be speaking the truth, even when we're already certain they're being dishonest, might explain why voters reward not the clearest thinkers but the most delusional.

So what the latest polls actually reveal isn't anything unique. All it means is that we've decided that Clinton is officially in the major leagues. We don't actually believe what he's saying is true, but he says it so convincingly that we like having him as our leader.

Which leads me to make you this promise: From this day forward, I promise that I will lie to you on a regular basis. But I also promise to do my personal best to make sure you feel good about the way I do it.

It's the least I can do to earn your trust.

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From the February 12-18, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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