Michael Kinsley, the former editor of this magazine, once observed (in Slate) that different presidents embrace different styles of lying. George H.W. Bush’s lying style “derived from his core belief that politics and real life are separate realms. This derived in turn from the cherished preppy-snob distinction between life and games.” Bill Clinton’s lying style was a combination of seduction and athletic challenge (his most famous lie, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” was “a daredevil triple back-flip off the high board”). George W. Bush lied out of laziness. “If telling the truth was less bother,” Kinsley wrote, he’d do that instead. I once argued that Bush’s lies weren’t really lies at all; instead, they conformed to Harry G. Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit (as outlined in his seminal work, On Bullshit). In Frankfurt’s construct, bullshit is actually more dangerous than a lie because a lie, like hypocrisy, is a sort of tribute vice pays to virtue. A lie at least acknowledges, implicitly, that there is this other thing we all agree to be the truth, from which one chooses, for whatever reason, to depart. Bullshit, on the other hand, springs from a conviction that there is no such thing as truth. A “lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are” is, Frankfurt wrote, “the essence of bullshit.”
Obama isn’t much of a liar or bullshitter, a fact that may connect to his weakness in a few other political skills: backslapping, cajoling, bullying, etc. His style of lying is a sort of modest exaggeration. In last week’s presidential debate, for instance, he said he had a plan to cut the budget by $4 trillion, but that included $1 trillion in cuts already achieved during his presidency. Whatever. When it comes to lying, Obama is a bit of an amateur.
If Mitt Romney becomes president, his greatest contribution might be to revive the tradition of baldfaced presidential lying. Indeed, the closer we get to election day, the more astounding the lies become. “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda,” Romney told the Des Moines Register earlier this week. This lie led to something I don’t recall ever seeing before: A flat-out contradiction from the candidate’s own spokesperson. “Governor Romney would of course support legislation aimed at providing greater protections for life,” Andrea Saul e-mailed National Review. TNR’s Amy Sullivan has defined Romney’s lying style as “gaslighting,” a feminist term (derived from the movie Gaslight) to describe the way men maintain power over women by telling them black is white, up is down, etc. That’s very good. Also very good is Peter Coy's observation, in Businessweek, that Romney turned last week's debate into a version of Monty Python's “Argument Clinic” sketch by substituting untruthful contradiction for actual argument.
But I would add that Romney’s lies, increasingly, aspire to be Whitmanesque, as in Walt Whitman’s “Song Of Myself“: ”Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself/ (I am large, I contain multitudes).” Yeah, I’m a liar. So what?
My evidence is Daniel Henninger’s defense of Romney in the Wall Street Journal ("Obama And The L-Word"), wherein Henninger flat-out says that calling your opponent a liar should be out of bounds in all political discourse:
The Obama campaign’s resurrection of “liar” as a political tool is odious because it has such a repellent pedigree. It dates to the sleazy world of fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s. It was part of the milieu of stooges, show trials and dupes. These were people willing to say anything to defeat their opposition. Denouncing people as liars was at the center of it. The idea was never to elevate political debate but to debauch it.
Wow. The measure of Romney’s mendacity is his allies’ new argument—not that Romney isn’t an outrageous liar; that ship has sailed—but that politicians should never, ever call each other on it when they’re being, well, liars. When they do so, they aren’t merely uncivil. They’re fascist. Henninger here updates Epimenides's famous paradox ("All Cretans are liars; I am a Cretan; therefore I am a liar") into the nonsense syllogism, "Stalin was a thug. Stalin called people liars. Therefore anybody who calls anyone a liar is a thug." Or something.
I’d point out that the Journal editorial page had no trouble calling Bill Clinton a liar back in the day—indeed, under a somewhat-unhinged Bob Bartley, published multiple volumes on the Whitewater scandal dedicated to that proposition—but I worry that calling somebody a hypocrite is now also, under the new rules, the rhetorical equivalent of goose-stepping.