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Guest Commentary

Nixon knew the public wants to be lied to; Branstad follows suit

7/9/2014

Predictably, if Richard Nixon were around today he would endorse Gov. Terry Branstad’s bid for — yawn — yet another term in office. No news there.

The reason for the endorsement might cause a stir, however. Nixon’s support would not be based on party loyalty. Rather Nixon would be impressed that Branstad knows how to lie; that attribute, in Nixon’s eyes, is central to making it in politics.

Nixon said as much to one of his advisers — attorney Leonard Garment. Garment was a rarity among Nixon aides because he was a Democrat and honest and well-respected, before and after President Nixon resigned in disgrace.

When Garment assisted in Nixon’s third or fourth political comeback — in supporting GOP candidates in the 1966 Congressional campaign — Nixon advised him: “You’re never going to make it in politics, Len. You just don’t know how to lie.”

Garment died just about a year ago, July 15, 2013, and Nixon’s assessment of Garment’s lack of a political future was revisited in the obituary.

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But the insight, of course, is centuries old.

Louis XI of France, 1423-1483 and king 1461-1483, recognized: “…one who cannot dissemble does not know how to rule.”

That quote is from a 16th century essay by the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who also wrote,

“…once the tongue has got the knack of lying [say in the fourth or fifth term of office], it is difficult to imagine how impossible it is to correct it.”

And how do you define a lie when the truth itself is elusive? Montaigne again:

“There are a thousand ways of missing the bull’s eye, only one of hitting it.”

To get back to today’s practical politics, Nixon’s advice could be paraphrased, “You’re never to make it in politics, Len. You just refuse to tell people only what they want to hear.”

Nixon might have added: “Tell the truth and the press and the public will punish you.”

If you doubt that, consider instances such as these:

                  • How the Iowa news media make the presidential campaign trail a figurative hell for any candidate who questions the value of the Iowa caucuses or doesn’t outright praise the process.

                  • How the press in general ridicules any office holder or a candidate who dares to admit, “I was wrong about that controversial issue and I’ll do my best to make amends.”

                  • How voters will reject any candidate who says it will take years to solve a social problem or that taxes will have to be levied if the public wants… (fill in the blank).

Small wonder that King Louis XI and Nixon shied away from being truthful.

Skip forward more than 500 years from Louie, and you have Branstad promising 200,000 new jobs in Iowa and raising everyone’s income 25 percent — not eventually, but within a few years — and evading any responsibility for state government problems by playing dodge ball and saying, “I don’t micromanage.” And, for the most part, the press lets him get away with it. Recently, however, he has been called into question for contradictory statements about hush money paid to fired state employees.

Branstad’s an easy target, much as many politicians are for those who keep track of what public officials say and what they do.

But you might rework the old joke about “Q: How do you know a politician is lying? A: His lips are moving!”

How about: “Q: How do you know the public doesn’t mind being lied to? A: Read the ‘urban legends’ they send one another on the internet.” Or, “Q: How do you know when the local TV news is on? A: Everyone is laughing!”

For my part, I can assure you that reading this column and, even better, Civic Skinny will make you informed and knowledgeable about everything! And, if elected… CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.          

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