Friday, November 02, 2007

A Legacy of Unnecessary Lies

The fourth basic precept of Buddhism is a simple promise not to lie. I vow to abstain from lying. Simple. Unequivocal. One may parse the definition of a "lie" in one situation compared to another, but there is at least a bold and clear statement of a direction. I will not lie, because the lie does more harm than good; it leads to suffering.

It's the kind of bright line politicians are loath to draw, and that is one reason we get so frustrated with them, or give up on them altogether.

When I look back on the presidency of Bill Clinton, I see a tragedy. I view his governance and his legacy as being tarnished by one whopper of a lie, told under oath. A lie that was not necessary in the first place. It was the decision to lie that turned a tawdry indiscretion into an event of enormous consequence, when the country had to endure the spectacle of a President being impeached because he lied about a blow job. My liberal friends out of principle (and bias)blamed the Republicans for this alone; but what of the stupid, unnecessary lie that armed them?

Clinton was (and is) so personally popular, he could have pulled off a mea culpa (as he had done during his first presidential campaign) that honored the truth and made the blow job go away. In a matter of weeks, the media would have moved on to other stories and Clinton would have to answer only to his family, not the Congress, for his cigar breaks.

Instead, he lied and you remember the rest.

Presidents lie and sometimes presidents do the right thing by lying or at least by being evasive. We accept that a president might not be in a position to tell us, for instance, details about diplomatic negotiations or national security. If a lie is justified by some greater good, by and large people are going to be flexible and forgiving. It is the stupid lies, the lies that are not necessary, the lies that are overtly oafish and self-serving, that hobble a leader.

I think of this when I consider Hillary's answer to a question about archival materials. A clumsy, reflexive, slippery lie about the national archives and Bill Clinton's request that the letters he and Hillary wrote to each other during his presidency be withheld until 2012. She was asked if she and her husband would withdraw the request and allow the documents to be released; she said, "It's not up to me." She could have said no. Or yes. Either answer would be an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and resolve, and return to the important issues.

Instead, the listener groans as one evasive answer, one clumsy dodge that wasn't necessary, over a peripheral issue, opens up a deeper conversation. Her political rivals cannot be faulted for asking a legitimate question: haven't we had enough of this?

I certainly have. I have had too much of this. No more, please.

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