More honesty and fewer Pinocchios
In the recent election I voted for Pinocchio, and so did you. Some of the Pinocchios had noticeably longer noses than others. Some of us knew we were voting for Pinocchio, some didn’t, and some didn’t think it mattered or that little could be done. But the reality is, it matters a lot. We need more honesty in politics.
The political arena is a microcosm of society. I came to recognize that when I worked on Capitol Hill for 25 years, the last six of those serving as chief of staff for the Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives. Five-hundred and thirty-five members reflecting thousands of constituencies across the nation. Some of these members I held as heroes — those who over and over again at important times embraced the truth when some would consider it difficult to do. Others, in varying degrees, manhandled the truth until the truth stood for what they wanted it to stand for at any given time. They were magicians with facts. Some of these magic acts were done cleverly, some clumsily. But I saw also that the heroes were not immune to roughing up the truth. To them as well as to their colleagues, the following thought could prevail: If a little or a lot of truth shellacking is what it takes to keep me in office so I can do the things to keep this country strong, well then, maybe the truth needs to be bent a bit. Besides, relevant guidelines or Ethics Committee regulations don’t specifically bar me from doing that. These are some of the justifications that buffet the truth in the halls of the powerful.
A recent article about former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke of how O’Connor, through the nonprofit she founded, sought to “promote the teaching of civics to students.” She explained “how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and unique form of government, and participate actively in their communities.” Chief Justice Roberts told how “she serves as a role model not only for women, but for all those committed to equal justice under the law.”
“Equal justice under the law” cannot exist in a culture that sees honesty as a malleable commodity, easily honed to advance one’s argument without regard for the truth. Indeed, on some matters in a complex world, the truth might at first be elusive. And, legitimately, there can be different starting points to find the truth. However, in that search which involves the building of one truth upon another, the different searchers must respect the sincere efforts of others and not claim that theirs is the only way to truth. A lack of respect, civility and resorting to ad hominem attacks strangles the truth and feeds a system which worships zero-sum outcomes. Such outcomes serve only to undermine our foundation of equal justice under the law.
We all have some Pinocchio in us. But as the wooden-puppet boy found out about lying, there can be severe consequences. Truth that is missing in today’s public discourse, be it government, the media, or informal discussions, must find a way to reclaim its place as the only rightful moderator of the type of civics O’Connor envisions. Let’s help by watching our noses grow smaller.
Rich Garon is an author and the former chief of staff for the Committee on International Relations in the House of Representatives. Garon now spends much of his time working with the homeless, and all proceeds from his latest novel, “Lee Fitts,” will be donated to the Bill Mehr Drop-In Center for the homeless in his local community outside Washington, D.C. For more information visit www.richgaron.com.