A cynical old joke goes like this…
Q: How can you tell when a politician is lying?
A: Their lips move.
After decades of spending way too much time covering politics, I can testify that politicians often move their lips without lying. Many are honest and straightforward.
The number of truth-tellers declines if we rule out those occasions when candidates fudged or evaded or half-truthed their way through an answer to an awkward question. Bill Clinton famously (and under oath before a grand jury) defended a former lie about his relationship to Monica Lewinsky (“there is nothing going on between us”) on the grounds that “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” If you strain, you can take his point, but it is the point of a liar torturing a technicality to cover his tracks.
So I don’t want to get carried away in either direction. But I do believe that if we bring a reasonable expectation of honesty or straightforwardness to the exercise of listening to politicians, the level of straight talk in the current discourse involving the Republican presidential field is approaching some sort of historic low.
The news media often abets this trend by not making a big enough deal of the lies, half-truths and evasions. Half-truths and evasions are huge categories, especially in the very important area of policy proposals. Journalists need to insist on straight answers about the gaping holes. The reasons they don’t do this as much as they should are complicated and above my pay grade. But it would help if they thought that was what the public wanted.
If Donald Trump and Ben Carson want to float tax plans that would dramatically reduce government revenue while simultaneously complaining about the deficit and the debt, they need to be grilled and grilled until they explain which hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of spending and benefits they are going to eliminate to pay for those tax cuts without adding to the deficit.
You can say that Democrats need to be more generous with specific policy details. I’m not happy with the pace of Hillary Clinton’s release of real policy positions.
Fiorina’s breathtaking performance
All that aside (but not very far aside), I’m still a little slack-jawed at the breathtaking fact-dancing performance of Carly Fiorina on last weekend’s “Meet the Press.”
Fiorina was coming off of a surge in the polls during the CNN debate — a performance that included a dramatic denunciation of Planned Parenthood, delivered with steely-eyed disgust that oozed apparent sincerity, but was far less than truthful.
As you may have heard, the anti-abortion group that made the heavily edited videotapes of doctors talking about harvesting organs from aborted fetuses edited in some very creepy-looking stock footage of just-aborted fetuses for shock value. The footage did not depict anything involving any Planned Parenthood facilities or personnel.
Because the issue of the moment was the drive to deny government funding to Planned Parenthood (for non-abortion services), Fiorina in the debate strongly implied that the video she so vividly and graphically described (“a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’ “) was video of something that happened at a Planned Parenthood facility. No, it was stock footage, taken elsewhere, edited in.
When “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd pushed back against Fiorina, saying that in fact there was no such video (at least meaning no video connected to Planned Parenthood), Fiorina insisted she had seen it (but not mentioning that what she had seen was not taken at a PP facility). She wouldn’t — still hasn’t — conceded it, although she is very adept at changing the context when the subject arises.
Todd tried to cite a Washington Post editorial that had excoriated her for the deception. (Transcript of the whole MTP exchange is here.)
But this was when her gift for lying (while maintaining credible deniability that she had lied) really cranked up a gear. This is really the beauty part that sparked this whole post.
Instead of dealing with what the Post editorial writers had said, Fiorina threw a screwball curveball eephus pitch (yes, I know there’s no such thing). Fiorina, from the transcript:
“No, no. Well, first of all the Washington Post also claims that I am lying about being a secretary. So let’s get real. I mean, I don’t even know how to deal with that. I was a secretary part-time to put myself through college, and full-time after I graduated. The Washington Post gave me three Pinocchios for claiming that I was a secretary.
“So honestly, I don’t think The Washington Post has a lot of credibility here. This is not about being pro-life or pro-choice. It is certainly not about birth control. It is not even about women’s health. It is about the character of our nation. No one can deny this is happening because it is happening.”
This is too great. This is Marx Brothers genius. I had no idea whether she was just making stuff up at this point, so I searched the recent work of the Post’s Fact Checker (Glenn Kessler, he’s the one who rates the truth or falsity of statement with “Pinocchios”). I found the one that supposedly called Fiorina a liar about being a secretary.
It is not an examination of whether she was a secretary. It is an examination of how honest or misleading Fiorina’s frequent refrain is that she “started out as a secretary and ended up as the CEO of the largest technology company in the world.”
Kessler specifies that during summers between her college years at Stanford, Fiorina “worked secretarial jobs through the temp agency Kelly Services (then Kelly Girls)….” And that she later (after dropping out of law school) worked as a secretary/receptionist for a real estate firm where she impressed some of the bosses who gave her more responsibility and encouraged her to think about a career in business. Writes Kessler:
“It is clear that Fiorina’s experience as receptionist and secretary at Marcus & Millichap was a defining moment.”
It’s hard to reconcile these statements from Kessler’s piece with Fiorina’s statement that Kessler “claims that I am lying about being a secretary” or “gave [her] three Pinocchios for claiming that I was a secretary.”
Kessler does give her three Pinocchios, which according to his system refers to statements that are “mostly false” but “could include statements which are technically correct … but are so taken out of context as to be very misleading.”
That’s because her oft-repeated statement that she started out as a secretary and ended up as a CEO is more or less true (depending on what “started out” means, I suppose). But as a summary of her life trajectory it is highly misleading in that it is clearly intended to suggest a rags-to-riches story, which hers is not.
Life of privilege
Fiorina was born to affluence and privilege. Her father was a lawyer, then a law professor at Stanford, Cornell and Yale, then dean of the Duke Law School. He was a deputy attorney general and ultimately a federal appeals court judge. Her mother was an artist. Her childhood included time living in New York, Connecticut, California, London, Africa and North Carolina. She went to Stanford, then to law school, but didn’t care for it and dropped out. She did indeed do secretarial work during college summers and again after she dropped out of law school and transitioned to a business career.
Her business career was a huge success then a disastrous failure. Hewlett-Packard fared badly during her tenure, a lot of regular people lost their jobs. Stockholders lost their shirts. She was fired by the board. I’m sure it’s possible to argue that it wasn’t her fault, and if her candidacy continues to thrive, that story will be told more and more often.
Kessler, whom I find generally tough but fair, is simply arguing that to summarize her life as secretary-to-CEO was a case of two facts taken so out of context as to be very misleading. I think I agree, but views can differ. Kessler, to his credit, added a section to the archived version of his article acknowledging her complaints and quoting critics who felt three Pinocchios was too severe a grade.
Kessler did not give her any Pinocchios for claiming to have worked a secretary. On the contrary, he confirmed she had worked as a secretary. If she was a more honest person, she would retract what she said on “Meet the Press,” which is pretty close to a lie.