Lies and Name Calling

The 2012 election season is just getting under way, and already it’s a pretty sorry mess. What I find so dispiriting is when otherwise intelligent people lie with a straight face–and no one in their party feels compelled to call them on it.

I’m not talking about name-calling, or looking at a set of economic data and interpreting it differently than I might, or interpreting legislative votes in ways that a reasonable person might consider unfair. No, I’m talking about lies.

But first my usual digression back to the past. . . .

Elly Peterson was not a rabid partisan–certainly not by today’s standards. But there were at least four periods in her life when she was called on to stir up her audiences with negative images of her opponents. The first was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, and she was assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee. The second was the same year, when she ran for the U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. Phil Hart of Michigan. Although she had a great deal of respect for Hart, she managed to find some points on which to challenge him, including his ties to Johnson. The third was when she served as co-chair of ERAmerica, and was called on to counter Phyllis Schlafly and other opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment. The fourth was in 1982, when she opposed her party’s nominee for governor of Michigan, Richard Headlee.

I began my research of Peterson’s life in 2005, and reviewed her first stint at the RNC relatively early in my research. I found that during that period she had directed the preparation of what she called “Mabel cards,” postcards that Republican women could send to their friends, with bullet points that criticized Johnson administration policies.  In my first draft, I wrote that one version suggested Johnson’s “economic policies amounted to socialism. ”

Rereading what I had written a few years, and a new president later, I thought, “Whoa, did she call Johnson ‘a socialist’?”  The context had changed quite a bit in the ensuing years. So I dug out my notes, and decided to include a fuller quote, namely that one card had likened a Johnson quotation—“We are going to take all the money that we think is unnecessarily being spent and take from the ‘haves’ and give to the ‘have nots’ that need it so much”–to the words of Karl Marx. At least in this case, the recipient of the card could judge for herself, even if the context for the Johnson quotation was not made explicitly clear.

But that’s different, say, from asserting  that Lyndon Johnson was born in the Mexican Territory, and thus not eligible to be president.

Last month, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl said on the floor of the Senate that abortion was “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does. After fact-checkers set the record straight, Kyl’s staff said that th speech “was not intended to be a factual statement.” 

A few days ago, Newt Gingrich announced he was running for president and then sat for an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox. Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post subsequently dissected all of the lies and half-truths the one-time history professor shared with his audience, ultimating awarding him four “Pinnochios” for his performance.  What I found most appalling was the effort to turn Attorney General Eric Holder into a boogeyman for alleged ties to terrorists, including “writing papers for them.” The lies were so breathtaking that Kessler had to guess at what tenuous connection Gingrich was trying to make. At best, it appeared that Holder might have worked for a law firm whose lawyers had provided representation for defendants charged with terrorist crimes.

Last time I checked, the right to representation was one of the principles embodied in our form of democratic government.

We can count on outlets like PolitiFacts, and fact-checkers with mainstream media and late-night comedy news hosts to shine a spotlight on this kind of stuff. But sure would be nice if some of the Defenders of Freedom spoke up about it occasionally.

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Filed under Politics and Journalism, Republican Politics

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