Fibbing officials earn our distrust

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

August 11, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Perjury is a legal term meaning that someone has knowingly stated a falsehood while under oath.

Slander and libel are legal terms, too. They mean that someone has uttered or published a deliberate falsehood about another person such that his or her reputation is damaged.

Heaven forbid that I ever accuse state officials of perjury or slander or libel without mountains of evidence and a $100-an-hour attorney at my elbow. That's because the law is complex and far too convoluted for a simple soul like me.

But lying is not a legal term.

It is something we can all understand.

Detecting lies is a matter of experience and common sense -- of scoping out those guilty shifting eyes, the sly insincere smiles, the stories that just don't add up.

And that's why I say that some members of the Schaefer administration appear to be liars through and through.

They lie routinely and carelessly, apparently without any sense of shame or remorse.

Worst of all, they lie about things that aren't even worth lying about.

I came to this sad conclusion in light of the Frank Traynor affair.

Now, if you are an ordinary person with bills to pay and mouths to feed, the details of the Frank Traynor affair probably slipped right by you.

In the real world, the issues involved in the Frank Traynor affair are so trivial as to be practically non-existent. It is the classic insider controversy -- of importance only to the press and government officials.

In a nutshell, what happened is this: a Schaefer administration official got caught lying to the press. He was obnoxious. He was removed from his post.

Then, another Schaefer administration official, when asked to explain why the first official was removed, lied about the reason.

Neither official committed perjury, which is a legally indictable offense, because neither was under oath.

And the second official might claim that she didn't exactly tell a lie.

But when your neighbor or your child answers a straightforward question with evasions and double-speak and tortured language that seems to suggest one thing while actually saying another, you don't stand on technicalities.

You look them in the eye and you say, "You're lying to me."

That's what I'm doing here. I'm looking these officials in the eye (metaphorically speaking) and I'm saying you piled lie on top of lie on top of lie -- and over the most trivial of issues. The fact that the issues were trivial makes it worse.

Last month, a reporter learned that the governor had hoped to receive a call from President Bush during a news conference in Annapolis and the call didn't come through. Frank Traynor, the governor's press secretary at the time, denied that this was true. Later, the governor and the White House confirmed the story.

Caught in this senseless falsehood, Traynor then told a reporter to kiss his (expletive). He was relieved of his duties as press secretary late last week and assigned to do some sort of study of Maryland Public Television.

But the governor's acting press secretary, apparently learning nothing from the experiences of her predecessor, tried to put a happy face on Traynor's removal, claiming that this study was an exciting project that he had been itching to tackle for some time and implying that Traynor's transfer had nothing to do with his earlier behavior.

Sources later blew the whistle on this senseless and transparent little lie.

What does this have to do with you and me and the price of bread?

I'll tell you: We are in the midst of a prolonged national malaise. Many of us -- most of us -- distrust politicians, distrust the press, distrust officials be they in the public sector or the private sector.

Many of us have lost faith that we will ever hold public officials accountable to the truth again.

Fewer people vote each year. Fewer people bother to participate in public forums at which these matters are aired and debated. When the cry goes out for the public to get involved, fewer and fewer people bother to answer the call.

Politicians, ever ready to capitalize on a trend, have been promising to restore our faith in government. But you don't restore our confidence by engaging in senseless little fibs. We can't be energized and motivated if we have to spend our mental energies sifting through a mountain of falsehoods.

The governor and his aides might claim that they are public officials and, therefore, subject to a different standard of truth.

Well, I disagree.

We will never have a government we can trust until we hold officials to the same standard of honesty that we apply to our friends and neighbors, the same standard that we teach our children.

We have to get rid of the liars once and for all.

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