Honesty Counts

Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & E & lt;/span & very politician worries about the last-minute story that will ruin his or her chances at election. Back in the summer of 1884, just months before the presidential election, Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child -- pretty much the worst-case scenario in politics. As news spread, panic swept through his Democratic Party that their nominee wouldn't recover. A party official sent a desperate message, asking for Cleveland's advice on how to spin the scandal.

"Tell the truth," was the only message Cleveland's telegraphed reply contained. While denying paternity (and historians agree), he admitted to paying to support the boy in question. Still, he won the election. It's hard to say whether his candor as a candidate won him the presidency, but he certainly exhibited a level of honesty rarely matched by later presidents.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & Y & lt;/span & es, it's a sad, well-documented fact that American presidents have taken to lying to the people they serve. Sure, they always seem to find defendable reasons, but they are still lies. As philosopher Sissela Bok argued in her 1978 book, Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life, even small lies create an overall cultural acceptance of lying.

With a steady stream of self-serving lies dating back to Richard Nixon (Jimmy Carter is the exception), it's not that surprising to find ourselves faced with this current spectacle. It seems like all the major players in the Bush administration have been caught in costly, obvious lies -- from the ones that launched the war in Iraq to the ones that tripped up Scooter Libby to the ones that have recently been coming from the nation's top law enforcement official, Alberto Gonzales.

Maybe people are fed up and will seek out a president who tells the truth in 2008. That's what happened after Nixon. With Watergate still bitter, a 1975 poll showed that 69 percent of Americans said they felt they had been lied to over the preceding decade. Carter ran on honesty, saying, "I will never tell a lie. I will never make a misleading statement. I will never betray the confidence any of you has in me." And that stand won him the presidency.

In a similar Washington Post/ABC News poll from last fall, that number has crept up again, to 70 percent saying their leaders' ethics and honesty were not so good or poor. Maybe we're ready for a replay of the 1976 election, as honesty is the best antidote to these cynical times.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & iding the truth has been a bipartisan exercise, and George W. Bush's fabricated case for war, his "I'm a uniter, not a divider" catchphrase and even the real cost of the Medicare drug benefit are only the latest in a long line. We all know about Bill Clinton's lies under oath, but not as many may remember that George H.W. Bush consistently denied knowing anything about the illegal Iran-Contra deal; however, just before he lost to Clinton, it was revealed he, in fact, participated in key meetings. Ronald Reagan had a similar problem with Iran-Contra (even though, to his credit, he later admitted to the facts), and he also had a knack for embellishing his biography. Richard Nixon dug a deep pit of lies -- and kept digging.

The common thread among these lies is that they were concocted to cover the butt of the man telling them. That's a decisive break from previous presidential lies, which were told as part of often-misguided war planning (as in Lyndon Johnson's reliance on the Gulf of Tonkin incident to escalate in Vietnam, even though he ordered American troops to provoke it) or to hide a health issue (as when John Kennedy denied having Addison's disease).

I can abide a lie told for the good of the country (as in the massive disinformation campaign surrounding D-Day), and I at least understand the idea of keeping health issues private. But when the lying is only for the good of the politician, then we have a clear violation of the public trust. Bok might say that the lies dating back to Franklin Roosevelt's era set the table for this generation's more self-centered lies.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & o I can't help but go back to the forgotten but distinguished career of Grover Cleveland. Once elected, he kept his own counsel, contradicting his own party's passions and vetoing more bills than any president before him. His independence cost him, and despite winning the popular vote, he lost in the Electoral College in 1888. He retook the White House in 1892 and again went his own way, parting with his own base over economic policy. He did things for the good of his country, not for his own good or the good of his party. His honesty was a predictor of independence and selflessness.

It's also worth pointing out that presidential lying has never worked for the men in office. All of them have been exposed, leading to even more trouble. As Clinton found out, the cover-up is always worse than the crime -- he was impeached for lying about Monica Lewinsky, not for adultery.

And the odds are only getting longer for the politicians, in this era when anybody with a video camera can post the truth to YouTube and when governmental leaks are at an all-time high, creating a legion of Deep Throats.

When Cleveland chose telling the truth over covering it up during his first campaign, his character showed through; consequently, he was the only Democrat elected president between 1860 and 1912. With that in mind, we should all watch this bunch of presidential candidates carefully over the next year. Despite their meticulously scripted campaigns, clues to their characters will emerge. We can only hope the honest politician has not become extinct.