Deciding whom to believe in

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

April 09, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

I am not one to shrug it off when public officials lie.

We have seen all too well these past 12 years how private dishonesty can spoil public policy.

When President Bush made his famous slip about the date of Pearl Harbor in Baltimore a couple of years ago, he was, in fact, lying.

The gist of Bush's statement was that he was more patriotic than anybody else and that while the riffraff had let the anniversary of Pearl Harbor slip by without comment, he still held it dear in his heart.

If Bush hadn't gotten the date wrong by several months, we would never have caught him out.

When former President Reagan told Israeli officials that he had personally toured the Nazi death camps after the war, he, too, was lying.

Reagan was trying to lay claim to a special understanding, a particularly deep empathy for the suffering of the Jewish people. Unfortunately for him, it was quickly revealed that the closest Reagan ever got to the death camps was what he saw in the movies.

Both incidents may seem trivial enough, but they raise serious questions about the personal integrity of both men. A true patriot need not denigrate the patriotism of others to make himself look good. A truly caring person need not claim to have personally toured the death camps to be horrified by the Holocaust.

Sure enough, we have seen how the lack of character in the Oval Office spread like dry rot until it infected the entire Reagan-Bush administrations from top to bottom, from officials' private dealings to their conduct of public policy.

"When you take the King's shilling," said Lewis Tambs, former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, as he explained his lies to Congress during the Iran-contra hearings, "you do the King's bidding."

"Sometimes," proclaimed Fawn Hall, a White House secretary when she was asked why she destroyed evidence, "you have to go above the written law, I believe."

And it was Lt. Col. Oliver North, described by Reagan as a great American hero, who introduced the phrase "plausible deniability" to the lexicon of liars.

So, the electorate is wise not to want to make the same mistake twice, as it attempts to assess the character and credibility of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

But for the record, I don't think Clinton is the one with a credibility problem.

For instance, allegations of infidelity have dogged Clinton throughout his political career and he has always dealt with the questions firmly: "They are a matter," he said, "between myself and my wife."

But who had the credibility problem when a supermarket tabloid paid Gennifer Flowers an undisclosed, but no doubt attractive sum, to raise the issue again?

I don't think it was Clinton. I think few people believed Flowers and fewer still put their trust in the Star.

Clinton also has dealt repeatedly with the issue of his draft status during the Vietnam War, and let's face it, his behavior back then is tainted. He appears to have been a spoiled, middle-class college boy who didn't want to serve for fear that getting shot would put a crimp in his career plans.

Voters can decide to forgive him or not, based on their own views of the war and of military service. So why does this issue keep popping up over and over again? Have we heard any new revelations that challenge Clinton's basic story, which already is less than flattering?

Finally, on the eve of the New York primary came the great debate during which Clinton was forced to admit that he had puffed on marijuana as a college student in England.

There's no question that he split hairs, hemmed and hawed, ducked and dodged in answer to the question.

But who wouldn't?

Was the question relevant to his performance as governor or to his potential performance as president? What's the appropriate response to an irrelevant question, the answer to which is sure to dominate the headlines?

Not surprisingly, many voters seemed angrier at the reporter who asked the question than at Clinton's answer.

None of this is to say that we ought to put a man nicknamed "Slick Willie" in the White House. We've already had a "Slick Ronnie" and a "Slick Georgie" to deal with, much to our regret.

But we ought to be a lot more careful not to hold "Slick Willie" accountable for the credibility problems of others.

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