Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he wonders what happened to the truth. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
“Thanks but no thanks for that bridge to nowhere” is a crowd-pleasing one-liner that Sarah Palin has flaunted verbatim in countless speeches since her nomination acceptance address. But these are indisputable facts. 1. In 2006, she supported the bridge to nowhere. 2. She never said no thanks to the 230 million dollars promised by Congress, to be spent on something else. 3. By the time she said no, Congress had officially killed the ear-mark project. 4. She continues to support the larger of two bridges to nowhere (in Anchorage). So actually, Palin meant, “thanks, but no thanks; sure, why not.” But then we have become so accustomed to imprecision and verbal infelicities that we have been quick to miss, and therefore exonerate, what is often deliberate omission and ambiguation calculated to deceive.
This is the same strategy George Bush frequently deploys. Consider these fateful words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Like Palin’s statement, this line in the 2003 State of the Union address is calculated to deceive in this one sense: both Palin and Bush knew full well that there was another side to the story to be told that would qualify the certainty of their claims. Yet the use of declarative, unqualified, and unequivocal language insinuated such certainty. Because style not substance, omission and not outright fabrication communicated such deceptions, both these statements are not formally false. But that is not to say that they were strictly dedicated to the truth.
Sarah Palin has told crowd after crowd that she put the Alaska Governor’s plane on ebay. Formally true again – she did just that. But she sold the plane via a private broker, and one would not have thought that from the sassy way she performed that punch-line. Falsehoods beget more falsehoods. “You know what I enjoyed the most? She took the luxury jet that was acquired by her predecessor and sold it on eBay — and made a profit!” John McCain declared in Wisconsin at a campaign stop last Friday. Well, the plane was sold at a loss.
Palin’s supporters will want to give Palin the benefit of the doubt; it’s routine politics they say. But isn’t this exactly what irritated conservatives about Bill Clinton and his elastic relationship with the truth? If Palin’s supporters say, lighten up; I say, as George Orwell said, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” If American democracy was created by the eloquent penmanship of Thomas Jefferson, the careful argumentation of the Federalist Papers and the precise wording of the Constitution, American democracy may well see its end in the crowd-pleasing, hair-raising zingers our contemporary politicians so slickly feed us. Let us get back to basics. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help us God.