Exclusive: Last week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney claimed his dad had been attacked by President Obama, who “likes to attack fellow Americans.” Yet, Romney’s verbal assault on Obama was itself a multi-layered fabrication that revealed Romney consummate skill as a professional liar, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
The guilty pleasure of watching the TV series “The Good Wife” – besides the scenes with Kalinda (the private investigator played by Archie Panjabi) – rests in the ethical ambiguities at the intersection of law and politics, a place where truth and morality are relative, sometimes useful but at other times sacrificed for profit, power or legal tactics.
Yet, the show recently introduced a new character, a lawyer-politician played by Matthew Perry who tells blatant lies. He coolly makes up conversations and circumstances that are total fabrications but also can’t be easily disproved. Even from the moral fog of her personal and professional life, The Good Wife character played by Julianna Margulies is shocked.
In Campaign 2012, Mitt Romney is the Matthew Perry character, a politician who cuts through the hazy world of political half-truths with the clarity of strategic lying. Indeed, he lies with a confidence that may be a special right of the well-connected rich who are beyond accountability.
Take for example, Romney’s response to President Barack Obama’s comment last week at a community college in Elyria, Ohio. Obama noted that he wasn’t from a rich family and needed help from others to get the education that allowed him to make his way in the world.
At Lorain County Community College, Obama said: “Somebody gave me an education. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Michelle [Obama] wasn’t. But somebody gave us a chance. Just like these folks up here are looking for a chance.”
Obama made no mention of Mitt Romney or his father, George Romney, who was a successful auto executive before going into politics. But some TV commentators suggested that the “silver spoon” remark created a contrast between Obama and the well-to-do Mitt Romney, who then responded to Obama’s comment on Fox News show, “Fox & Friends.”
“I’m not going to apologize for my dad’s success,” Romney said, looking coolly into the camera. “But I know the president likes to attack fellow Americans. He’s always looking for a scapegoat, particularly those that have been successful like my dad.”
Romney added, “This is not a time for us to be attacking people, we should be attacking problems. And if I am president, I will stop the attack on fellow Americans. I’ll stop the attack on people and start attacking the problems that have been looming over this country.”
In those few sentences, Romney displayed a depth of dishonesty that I have rarely seen in nearly four decades covering politicians at the local, state and national levels. Not only did Romney invent Obama’s attack on George Romney, but extrapolated that non-existent assault into a pattern of behavior and suggested that Obama was some monstrous alien who “likes to attack fellow Americans.”
Then, Romney asserted that the very idea of attacking people was wrong and destructive – though he and his backers have just spent millions and millions of dollars in TV ads to attack and destroy his Republican rivals. Plus, Romney’s false claim that Obama’s was disparaging George Romney and was attacking successful people was itself an attack on Obama and Obama’s character.
Speaking with a smile and detached demeanor, Mitt Romney had just revealed why Americans should be alarmed at the prospect of electing such a cold-blooded liar to the Presidency. That skill could be put to any purpose, from demonizing individuals to taking the nation to war.
‘Everybody Does It’
Yes, I know the pushback, the cynical view that all politicians lie. Some people even suggest that it’s a good idea to have someone who’s at least good at it. But it’s not true that all politicians lie, at least not in this thorough and calculating a manner.
There also are qualitative differences in political lying. There are garden-variety lies – such as half-empty promises to woo a crowd or half-baked attempts to hide some personal indiscretion – and then there are deliberate and premeditated lies that can destroy a rival’s reputation or get lots of people killed. Voters would be wise to differentiate between gradations of lying.
I first came to appreciate that distinction more than three decades ago while working in the Washington bureau of the Associated Press. President Jimmy Carter, for all his faults as a political leader, had done a reasonably good job of living up to his promise never to lie to the American people, a pledge that he made in the wake of Richard Nixon’s historic lying regarding the Vietnam War and Watergate.
In the late 1970s, to puncture Carter’s sanctimony, AP’s White House correspondent Michael Putzel committed himself to proving that Carter had lied about something at least once, but never could make a particularly convincing case.
Our attitude toward presidential truth-telling changed in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor who had at best a casual relationship with the truth. Much of Reagan’s rhetorical repertoire apparently was drawn from right-wing myths gleaned from Reader’s Digest.
Some of his remarks were simply laughable, like claims that trees caused a large share of the world’s pollution, but others were dangerously misleading, like suggestions that peasants challenging oppressive oligarchs in Central America were somehow a threat to the United States and deserved brutal repression.
At the AP, we had grown so accustomed to Carter’s quaint idea about sticking to the truth that we were taken aback by Reagan’s ease at telling falsehoods.
After his first presidential news conference, there were so many factual errors that we put together a fact-checking round-up to set the record straight. However, we discovered that we were entering a new political world where Reagan’s misstatements and lies were to be given much greater latitude than those of other politicians.
Our fact-checking drew a fierce counterattack not only from Reagan partisans but from many conservative AP-member newspaper publishers who were politically sympathetic to him. They didn’t want AP undermining the new president, and those right-wing publishers had the ear of AP’s general manager Keith Fuller, who shared an enthusiasm for Reagan.
So, after Reagan’s second news conference, which was replete with more mistakes and misstatements, we assembled another fact-checking piece – only to be informed by AP brass that the story was being killed and that future endeavors of that sort were not welcome. There also was a school of thought that Reagan wasn’t really lying; he just lived in a world of make-believe, as if that was somehow okay.
However, as the Iran-Contra scandal unfolded in 1986-87 – and Reagan was caught in bald-faced lies about trading arms for hostages – I sometimes thought back on that earlier decision by AP executives to give Reagan a wide berth in truth-telling and wondered if our tolerance of his earlier deceptions might have been a factor in his later ones.
Tightening the Reins
The U.S. news media’s attitude toward truth-telling changed again after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. One senior news executive at a major U.S. newspaper told me that it was important for the press, which right-wing attack groups had long accused of having a “liberal bias,” to show that we would be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.
So, top U.S. news outlets – led by the Washington Post and the New York Times – took off after the Clinton administration over a string of minor “scandals,” like Whitewater, Troopergate, the Travel Office firings, etc. The comments of Clinton administration officials were put under a microscope looking for any contradictions, lies and perjury.
Though the Clinton “scandals” mostly turned out to be much ado about nothing, President Clinton finally got caught in a personal whopper when – under questioning – he insisted that he didn’t have “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton’s lie was of the type that a guy tells when cornered by an embarrassing indiscretion and is trying to weasel out of it.
Yet, the media’s war on Democratic honesty continued. When Clinton survived an impeachment trial in the Senate, the Washington press turned its guns on Vice President Al Gore. During Campaign 2000, reporters were determined to substantiate a narrative that “Lyin’ Al” was a “serial exaggerator.”
To make that case, some reporters – including at the Washington Post and the New York Times – made up quotes for Gore, all the better to clarify his supposed tendency to make things up. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Gore v. the Media” or Neck Deep.]
A very different standard was applied to George W. Bush, who was something of a media darling during Campaign 2000 as he doled out cute nicknames to the reporters on the trail. Bush was treated more like Reagan was, as journalists excused him when he made verbal gaffes or he simply said stuff that wasn’t true. The populist patrician got the benefit of every doubt.
That pattern carried over into Bush’s presidency with major news outlets hesitant to challenge Bush’s dubious claims, even about life-and-death topics such as his bogus assertions that Iraq was hiding WMD stockpiles. Even after that casus belli was debunked – following Bush’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq – the major news media resisted calling him a liar, preferring to blame faulty U.S. intelligence.
Continued Double Standard
That enduring double standard – to be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican – persists to this day, as “fact-checkers” go softer on GOP falsehoods than on Democratic distortions. In the face of outright lies by Republicans and questionable comments from Democrats, the media’s frame is that both sides are about equally at fault.
Thus, even as the Republican presidential campaign was littered with prevarications and made-up facts, major “fact-checking” operations sought to protect their own “credibility” by balancing any criticism of Republicans with examples of supposed Democratic “lies.”
For instance, PolitiFact turned the accurate Democratic claim that the Republicans were seeking to “end Medicare as we know it” into the 2011 “lie of the year.” But the fact is that the Republican House plan would have transformed Medicare from a fee-for-service program into a voucher system in which the elderly would be given subsidies for private health insurance.
Though that, indeed, would “end Medicare as we know it,” PolitiFact burnished its “non-partisan” image by making a truth into “the lie of the year.” Apparently, the fact that Republicans were keeping the name “Medicare” for the revamped program was enough for PolitiFact.
Similarly, the Washington Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler got argumentative on Sunday, giving two “Pinocchios” to President Obama’s statement that “the majority of millionaires support” the Buffett Rule, a change in the tax law which would require people earning $1 million or more to pay a rate at least equal to middle-income Americans.
To support Obama’s comment, the White House cited an article in the Wall Street Journal, which, in turn, cited a survey of millionaires undertaken by the Spectrem Group, which does market research on the affluent. Spectrem’s survey found that 68 percent of responding millionaires backed the idea of the Buffett Rule.
Yet, in attacking Obama’s comment, Kessler noted that the Spectrem group surveyed people with $1 million or more in investments. Kessler made a big deal out of the fact that the Buffett Rule would apply to people making more than $1 million a year, not people holding $1 million or more in net worth.
“So Obama — and the Wall Street Journal — are mixing up two different types of millionaires,” Kessler wrote.
But Obama and the Wall Street Journal were not “mixing up” the millionaires. They were simply reporting that a survey of wealthy people, worth more than $1 million, favored the Buffett Rule, which is named after investor Warren Buffett who does make many millions of dollars a year and says it’s unfair to charge him a lower tax rate than his secretary.
In the “two-Pinocchio” condemnation of Obama, Kessler went on to make some technical arguments against Spectrem’s methodology and faulted Obama for not including caveats about the survey in his brief reference to it in his speech.
But is this fair “fact-checking,” when a politician accurately cites a survey by a credible research organization? Or is it just another example of mainstream journalists trying to show phony “balance,” that is, to avoid accusations of the old “liberal bias” canard?
Beyond the question of fairness, the trouble with this style of “journalism” is that it indirectly benefits the politician who tells the most egregious lies. After all if you’re going to get nailed for saying something that’s actually true or just slightly off the mark – when PolitiFact or Glenn Kessler is trying to show off some artificial “objectivity” – you might as well lie through your teeth.
You might even get some grudging respect, as Romney did from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, for being a persuasive liar.
“Among the attributes I most envy in a public man (or woman) is the ability to lie,” Cohen wrote. “If that ability is coupled with no sense of humor, you have the sort of man who can be a successful football coach, a CEO or, when you come right down to it, a presidential candidate. Such a man is Mitt Romney.”
Cohen cited a Republican debate during which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused Romney’s SuperPAC of running dishonest attack ads. Romney claimed that he hadn’t seen the ads but then described – and defended – the content of one.
Cohen wrote: “Me, I would have confessed and begged for forgiveness. Not Romney, though — and herein is the reason he will be such a formidable general-election candidate. He concedes nothing. He had seen none of the ads, he said. They were done by others, he added. Of course, they are his supporters, but he had no control over them. All this time he was saying this rubbish, he seemed calm, sincere — matter of fact.
“And then he brought up an ad he said he did see. It was about Gingrich’s heretical support for a climate-change bill. He dropped the name of the extremely evil Nancy Pelosi. He accused Gingrich of criticizing Paul Ryan’s first budget plan, an Ayn Randish document. … He added that Gingrich had been in ethics trouble in the House and [Romney] ended with a promise to make sure his ads were as truthful as could be. Pow! Pow! Pow! Gingrich was on the canvas.
“I watched, impressed. I admire a smooth liar, and Romney is among the best. His technique is to explain — that bit about not knowing what was in the ads — and then counterattack. He maintains the bulletproof demeanor of a man who is barely suffering fools, in this case Gingrich.
“His [Romney’s] message is not so much what he says, but what he is: You cannot touch me. I have the organization and the money. Especially the money. (Even the hair.) You’re a loser.”
But is such imperious lying really a good thing for a democracy? Should any politician feel that he has the right – and the invulnerability – to lie at will? Does the country really need a president who might convincingly tell the people that, say, Iran has WMDs justifying another war, or that some unpopular group of Americans represents a grave threat to U.S. security?
Shouldn’t convincing lying – at least on important matters – be a disqualifier to lead a democracy, not something to be admired?
In Romney’s previous career – as a corporate raider – lying may have been a part of the job, in lulling a company’s long-time owners into complacency or convincing some well-meaning investors that massive layoffs won’t be necessary. Then, wham-o, the company founders are out, their loyal workforce is on the street, and the company can be “reorganized” for a big profit.
Arguably, Romney learned his skill as a liar from those days at Bain Capital – and he has put it to good use as a politician, taking opposite sides of issue after issue, from abortion rights to global warming to government mandates that citizens buy health insurance to whether stay-at-home mothers “work” or not.
Indeed, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted on Monday, Romney’s whole campaign is based on a cynical belief that Americans suffer from “amnesia” about what caused the nation’s economic mess and that they will simply blame President Obama for not quickly fixing it.
To illustrate the point last week, Romney staged a campaign event in Ohio at a shuttered drywall factory that closed in 2008, when Bush was still president and was watching the collapse of the housing market which had grown into a bubble under Bush’s low-tax, deregulatory policies.
Krugman wrote: “Mr. Romney constantly talks about job losses under Mr. Obama. Yet all of the net job loss took place in the first few months of 2009, that is, before any of the new administration’s policies had time to take effect.
“So the Ohio speech was a perfect illustration of the way the Romney campaign is banking on amnesia, on the hope that voters don’t remember that Mr. Obama inherited an economy that was already in free fall.”
Krugman added that the amnesia factor was relevant, too, because Romney is proposing more tax cuts and more banking deregulation, Bush’s disastrous recipe. In other words, Romney’s campaign is based on the fundamental lie that the cure for Bush’s economic collapse is a larger dose of Bush’s economic policies.
And the jaded retort that “all politicians lie” is not good enough. Nor that lying is somehow an admirable skill for a politician. There is something special about Romney’s lying, distinct even from Reagan’s loose connection to the truth or Clinton’s sleazy lies about his infidelity or Bush’s disregard for facts. Romney’s lying is more calculating. It’s professional.
Just as viewers of “The Good Wife” can distinguish between the corner-cutting of the typical lawyers and pols, from the brazen lying of the Matthew Perry character, American voters should be wary of a skillful, conscience-less liar like Mitt Romney.
[To read more of Robert Parry’s writings, you can now order his last two books, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, at the discount price of only $16 for both. For details on the special offer, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.