Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Truth and Politics

As a "goo-goo" (good government) type, I have always been amazed and appalled at "that's just politics." Last Sunday's NYT Magazine's Bill Clinton profile is a case in point. He reflects on calumnies of past campaigns, including his own infamous diminishment of Obama's South Carolina win with the observation that Jesse Jackson also won there, and says "that's just politics." He can easily forgive lies and distortions by others on the same basis, and be friends afterward. Hillary said the same thing when she observed during the campaign that "now the fun part begins." Lies the public will swallow. I just stand stunned, amazing, saddened, and angered. But then, I'm a goo-goo.

Tocqueville observed in the 1830's that the process of electing senators and presidents indirectly - the state legislatures the Electoral College did it in his time - was a good one. The general people will be swayed by demagoguery, he observed; the more sophisticated legislators will be more fact-based.

Enter modern communications, and enter direct elections of senators and the decline of the Electoral College. What we have now is just what Tocqueville feared. Willie Horton and the "values" election of 2004 are a cases in point, but indeed I guess most campaigns are.

One of the things that the media loved about Obama was that he treated the people "like adults." Some of this is probably just the reflection of George Bush, who couldn't help being patronizing as he explained down to people, although it's not unlikely that quite often he was one of the least-nuanced people in the room. But I have to think that much of Obama's strategy was sincere un-demogoguery. I think he really has been just saying what he thinks and explaining complexities and avoiding easy labels, as he did last week in the Guantanamo speech.

In today's NYT Tom Friedman says that Obama's tactic in the Middle East is to tell the truth, and to urge Middle East actors not to say one thing in private and another thing in public. He is not seeking to control events, but to help steer the world's ship in a more positive direction by being truthful, and letting others do what they will with it. It's the better angels of our nature strategy.

Hope it works. There will be lots of nay-sayers pointing to the radical views of Iran, the Taliban, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah, not to mention the unthoughtful nature of the Arab street. They might be right. But the truth tactic certainly appeals to goo-goo's like me. It makes us a better people.

Budd Shenkin

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