In 1976, President Gerald Ford, seeking re-election, campaigned on his vast and diverse experience against the one-term Georgia Governor, Jimmy Carter. In their second debate, on foreign policy, Ford made and repeated a mistake that discredited his competence. Flatly contradicting Cold War facts, Ford stated, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford Administration.”
Answering a follow-up question, Ford specified that “Each of these countries (Poland, among others) is independent, autonomous; it has its own territorial integrity.” In the opinion of many, this blunder, following his unpopular pardon of resigned President Nixon, cost Ford the election.
Ford was a moderate, not a conservative, Republican. Today’s Republican or Tea Party conservatives are more fact-free or fact-defiant, but less accountable for what would have been damaging gaffs years ago. Some accept or create fictions to support not only specific policies, but also a general re-orientation of American government. So their disregard of the truth becomes a habit of mind evident in matters large and small.
Consider the examples of prominent fabulators:
- Sarah Palin, who declared that, pursuing opportunity in the west, her hero Ronald Reagan went to college in Eureka, Calif., when, in fact, he graduated from Eureka College, in Illinois, and only later went west. Wink, wink.
- Michelle Bachman, who celebrated Concord, N.H., as the birthplace of the American Revolution – never mind that “the shot heard round the world” was fired at Concord, Mass. She then blamed her mistake on Obama’s teleprompter. Cute.
- Mike Huckabee, who, claiming to know something about Obama’s early influences, detailed a Kenyan upbringing by his father and grandfather, although Obama met his grandfather never, met his father once, and visited Kenya only as an adult. Oops.
It is easy to dismiss Palin and Bachman as bobble-heads who appeal to other bobble-heads. It is harder to dismiss Huckabee, who presents himself as an honorable, religious man, but who tells lies and then tells more lies to cover them up.
Such conservative falsifiers have their local counterparts. Recently, Jim Harbison, a political activist in Las Cruces, recently forwarded an e-mail from one Richard Harper, of New Media Markets, to Debra White, who was recently defeated for a seat on the New Mexico House of Representatives. In turn, Debra forwarded it to others and me.
The e-mail contained a picture and commentary. The picture showed legislators playing card games, reading Facebook, or getting sports scores during a floor debate. The commentary decried their failures on various issues, their short workweeks, and their large salaries:
“This picture is worth a trillion $$ House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, pictured standing, far right, speaks while colleagues Rep. Barbara Lambert, D-Milford and Rep. Jack F. Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, play solitaire Monday night as the House convened to vote on a new budget. (AP) The guy sitting in the row in front of these two….he’s on Facebook, and the guy behind Hennessy is checking out the baseball scores. These are the folks that couldn’t get the budget out by Oct. 1, and are about to control your health care, cap and trade, and the list goes on and on. Should we buy them larger screen computers – or – a ticket home, permanently? This is one of their 3-DAY WORK WEEKS that we all pay for (salary is about $179,000 per year). KEEP THIS GOING! DON’T LET IT STOP WITH YOU!”
A quick and easy check on the Internet disclosed the following information. These representatives serve in the state of Connecticut, not Washington, D.C. I doubt that they work only three days a week when the legislature is in session. They get paid $28,000 per year, not $179,000 (sic: $174,000). They do not vote on federal legislation. They do not vote on the federal budget, which starts on 1 October; health care; cap and trade; or anything else implied by “the list (which) goes on and on.”
Neither Harbison nor White checked the facts before spreading falsehoods compatible with their conservative inclinations. But they are not alone; others go farther, not just by repeating, but by deliberately misrepresenting, the facts to serve their political agenda.
On the Las Cruces Sun-News website on March 12, anonymous conservative commentator “DAV” selected parts of both the text and history of the Fourteenth Amendment to lie that it denies citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants. He omitted its first sentence: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” He omitted subsequent court decisions that apply the amendment to all people born in this country.
Typically, conservative DAV follows the Constitution only so far as it suits him.
The price of freedom
I have not discovered a new truth; politicians often abuse truth. However, of late, conservatives are guilty of most distortions, most remarkably about American history and its constituent documents. The proofs of their ignorance of, indifference to, or perversion of the truth are repeated misrepresentations of fact and repeated refusals to admit them. Truth is one of the things that conservatives do not care to conserve.
American democracy is another. Conservative contempt for truth subverts – and, I think, is intended to subvert – it. Conservatives know – I worry that other Americans do not know or care – that a robust democracy requires the consent of a citizenry informed, not misinformed, in its political decision-making.
For, despite the conservatives assault on truth, far too many Americans no longer regard its abuse as a disqualification for public office. A shrug of the shoulders and a “whatever” presage the demise of democracy.
Thomas Jefferson declared, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” That price citizens must pay, and, if they value democracy and its freedom, they must realize that that price is not cheap and easy.
They must realize that vigilance requires smarts more than strength. They must care more for the truth than do those who betray the truth and would betray their freedom. They must themselves respect truth and face the facts of the matters that affect their lives. And they must hold others accountable for their falsehoods by ensuring that they suffer Ford’s fate – rejection and defeat.
Michael L. Hays (Ph.D., English) is a retired consultant in defense, energy and environment; former high school and college teacher; and continuing civic activist. His bi-monthly Saturday column appears in the Las Cruces Sun-News; his bi-monthly blog, First Impressions & Second Thoughts, appears on the intervening Saturdays at firstimpressionssecondthoughts.blogspot.com.