Today, Salon.com’s Nicholas Thompson looks at recent examples of US-Presidential truth-tampering and decides that lying about war is worse than lying about sex. Many, certainly on this side of the pond, will agree with him that lying about the reasons for the sanctioned killing of human beings is actually lying in a league of its own.
But however much I believe that Mr. Thompson is theoretically right, I am not so sure about the political viability of his analysis.
After all, Mr Bush is President of a country, some states of which still criminalise ownership of sex toys and in which it is possible to seriously question the privacy of homosexuals – a case recently debated publicly following remarks of a US Senator and now settled by the US supreme court – in favour of their privacy.
Notwithstanding the annual San Franciscan group-masturbate-a-thon and Candice Bushnell’s “Sex and the City”, notwithstanding even unionised lap-dancers, in America, freedom of speech does NOT entail “obscenity” – but it does protect the depiction of violence.
It is certainly interesting to debate the cultural origins of this American particularity, but whatever the reasons – including the American media -, the fact remains that the American public has a special way of dealing with the sexuality of its public figures, above all the President.
A few weeks ago, I met Amber, a 20 year old Texan student currently pursuing an language study exchange programme in Bonn, the former West German capital. She adamantly defended the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq, and a lot of other things (excluding their tax and educational policies – because that’s where she is personally affected…). It wasn’t too long before we crossed the Clinton line – after all, it was the week of Hillary Clinton’s book release. Amber explained to me that she would always hate Bill Clinton for dishonoring the American Presidency by having sex with Monica Lewinsky – and also, because he lied about it. How could she, she wondered, trust such a politician?
Trust – the magic word when it comes to lying.
After hearing what she said about lying presidents, I couldn’t help but wonder if it were different for her if she was lied to about other things, say, the war on Iraq – if the President had decided he had to adjust the story to sell it to the public but if he *believed* he was doing the right thing for the country? [which is basically the story US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, floated a few weeks ago].
And you know what, Amber said – yes, that would be less grave, as long as he believed he was doing *the right thing* for the country. She is right, of course. But this realisation has to be put differently to become useful in a political analysis- as long as most of his electorate trusts (or pretends to trust) that the President was *doing the right thing*, lying about the reasons will be forgiven and called leadership. And having sex with an intern can never be the right thing to do, however smart your PR people are. As Clinton realised, fighting this battle was pointless.
We might not like it, but in politics, sex, lies and dossiers are never judged by their factual truth, or by their moral gravity alone – these things matter if, and only if, they allude to electoral ramifications. This US administration knows that, however nervous some of their recent statements, however unpractical the unfolding drama around David Kelly’s death in the UK.