LYING IS LEGAL IN POLITICS
There’s only one politician in American history that supposedly never told a lie, and he earned his rep early on. According to legend and to children’s book author Bella Koral, when George Washington was about six years old, he chopped down one of his father’s prized cherry trees that had been shipped over from England. When asked, “George, do you know who chopped down my cherry tree?” the future Commander in Chief replied, “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my little hatchet.” Rather than become angry, young George’s father said, “That was my favorite tree, but I’d rather lose a thousand trees than have a son who lies.”
Washington went on to lead our nation into independence, establish a Bill of Rights, voluntarily set term limits, and, so far as we know, he never told a lie. How then did we go from being led by such an honest politician to being victimized by candidates who will say anything in order to get elected?
The fact is that lying in a political campaign has become commonplace. So much so that the Supreme Court is poised to rule that political lies are protected speech. Last week the high court heard arguments from U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verilli, and others, that an Ohio law that criminalizes lying in a political campaign is unconstitutional.
Currently, Ohio and 15 other states have made it illegal to communicate lies through political advertising, however, it seems that very few folks from either party are happy with those laws. The aforementioned Solicitor General, for example, who speaks for the Obama administration, has argued that lying in a political campaign is protected under the first amendment. Said Verilli in defending political liars, “Petitioners have sufficiently alleged that a credible threat of prosecution will chill them from engaging in deceptive speech relating to elections for public office.” Are you kidding me? That’s like arguing that we shouldn’t make robbing a bank illegal because it would discourage criminals from stealing money. Mr. Verilli has obviously never been the target or victim of political slander and libel. Many others have.
In the Fall of 2010, for example, the North Carolina GOP ran an attack ad against Democrat House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, saying that the incumbent was soft on crime, and, “Thanks to Hugh Holliman, death row inmates can leave prison early and move in next door to you.” In fact, Holliman was tough on crime, supported the death penalty, and even attended the execution of the man who raped and murdered his daughter. But the damage had been done to Holliman’s reputation, and he lost the election. Fast forward to this year’s primary battle for the GOP 6th District nomination, and Bruce VonCannon is suing a PAC, which supports Phil Berger Jr., for running an ad that said VonCannon is a banker for the Chinese. Things never change.
I suppose it’s possible that the conservative Supremes will uphold Ohio’s law against lying, but it’s not likely. Failure to do so, however, will have a catastrophic effect on our society, as explained by AlterNet’s Eric Zuesse. “The idea behind this law is that any democracy in which lying in political campaigns isn’t penalized by severe penalties, won’t remain a democracy much longer, but will instead descend into a Kleptocracy – the theft of elections themselves.”
SCOTUS has already allowed corporations and unions to donate huge sums of money to a single campaign, and the Court recently ruled that individuals can now donate the maximum amount of money to as many campaigns as they wish. Those decisions, coupled with a possible ruling to strike down the Ohio law, will give millionaires and billionaires free reign to shape the national conversation, and elect candidates who serve their interests.
Back in 2010, I called on State legislators and Congress to criminalize political lying, but only a handful of states have attempted some kind of reform. What’s lacking is federal oversight. If he wanted to, President Obama could create an inter agency commission consisting of the FEC, the FCC, and the FTA, which would govern, monitor, and penalize any campaign or candidate found guilty of transmitting lies through print, speech, or broadcast. After all, we already punish TV pitchmen who lie about their product (Kevin Trudeau just got ten years in prison for making false claims about his weight loss pills.) Of course, political hacks will argue that there’s a difference between lying about a weight loss pill and lying about a candidate, but there’s not. They are both products to be marketed and sold to the detriment of competing products, but that process should be done honestly. When it’s not, those responsible should be punished and chopped down to size. Alas, there’s never a boy with a hatchet around when you need him. !
JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).