Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lying (Not) Under Oath

This post is not about the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation and trial currently being conducted in Washington. Frankly, I find it all fairly dull. This is also not a "Republicans Are Liars" post -- what I am about to write applies to any party and any politician, whether it's the Clinton White House or Shrub's.

What this post is about, however, is honesty, and why you have to start legal proceedings against someone before you can get them to speak under oath.

In a column from John Dickinson, writing on Slate.com about the testimony yesterday of former White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer, comes the following comment:

Only moments before Ari's surprise disclosure, I had been trying to figure out what my lede would be for today. I enjoyed seeing Ari have to answer questions under oath, which he never had to do in the White House briefing room. As a reporter, I'd always tried to put him in the witness box, and he always climbed out.

And it made me think -- why don't we make the White House Press Secretary give press conferences under oath? Currently we're pretty much admitting that we know he's lying to us, or (at best) spinning things to such a dizzying degree that the truth can barely stand up. There ought to be some sort of "binding oath" we can apply to government spokespeople without having to go through the entire rigmarole of a full court trial, one that you can actually be fined or jailed for violating just like you were in front of a judge. Call it a "Working Trial Oath" -- make the spokesperson put their hand up and swear to "Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth", and then if they don't, find them in Contempt of Truth.

Granted, you can lie without actually lying, as anyone who's ever watched a Senate hearing can attest to. And if it weren't for some lying, society as we know it would completely fall apart ("Uh, take out the trash? Why, yes, yes I did take the trash out darling ... "). But still, there ought to be some way to get the people who work for us in our government to be forced to tell the truth without having to drag their ass into a courtroom.


Anonymous said...

So, do you really believe that he will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth now that he is under oath? I propose that to some the oath has no meaning, other than criminal charges can be brought, but even then the truth can be twisted. I think I will continue to monitor what people DO rather than what they say.Yet, in their defense, we have become a culture whereby every word uttered is recorded and will come back to haunt any politician. We do not allow anyone to voice an uninformed or "off-the-cuff" remark. Indeed, heaven help the person who, through the course of time, actually changes his/her mind on an issue. I was not a John Kerry supporter, but I never understood why anyone would treat what Kerry said 30 years ago as if it was the same position he holds today. It might be, but I hope that time lets him refine his beliefs. An essay we read while studying the Old Testament was labeled "A culture of grace." In essence it holds that 3000 years ago people could look up to and admire their leaders for the good things they had done, yet still understand that they were full of weakness and did horrible things (Read the life of King David as an example, or St. Peter). Isn't that the sign of intelligence- to hold two conflicting viewpoints in your mind at once? My point I am trying to make is that moderate, thoughtful people who want to enter public service as a politician must find it difficult to reach the higher ranks of office when you have to consider every word as being etched in stone.
Sorry I went off the subject.

Jeff Hebert said...

My point I am trying to make is that moderate, thoughtful people who want to enter public service as a politician must find it difficult to reach the higher ranks of office when you have to consider every word as being etched in stone.

I agree with everything you said in that post, but I think you're missing the point I was trying to make. My goal is not to pin someone down on a position so that they can never change it, my goal is to make it so that if someone makes a statement they know to be false, there's an actual penalty to pay. That's a very, very different thing than changing a position -- you're entitled to your own opinions, just not your own facts.

For example, if the Press Secretary says "The President has not considered anyone else to serve as Secretary of Defense," then two days later we have a new Secretary of Defense, the Press Secretary lied to us. What happens as a consequence? Nothing at all. He gets up the next day and starts telling us things we're expected to believe all over again.

When you're under oath you're held accountable for statements of fact -- if you say something is so or happened in a certain way, and it didn't, you get fined, thrown in jail, or both. There is no such penalty for government agents doing the same thing in public, we just sort of shrug off bald-faced falsehoods as par for the course.

Again, this has nothing to do with debate, with figuring out your stand on an issue, with making people "etch their opinions in stone", or anything else -- I'm just saying I find it ludicrous that when it comes to statements of fact, the only time we as a culture hold people responsible for lying is if they're under oath, and it would be nice if we could get to that state without having to press charges on someone first.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's kind of humorous that the only time someone is trusted to tell the truth is often when they are charged with a crime and somehow it's expected that now all of sudden, because of a few mumbled words repeated verbatim at prompting over a book that apparently meant little to the person, they will now actually be completely honest. Oh, wait, that's not funny at all is it.

I like the idea of people in a position of trust and influence being held responsible. Such an oath of veracity should also apply to the media. If a story is not factual it should be clearly labled as editorial. And any media outlet/personality presenting editorial as fact should be punished.