About once a week, I wake up in the morning, drink a cup of coffee, and read a poem or two. I like poetry: wit and emotion condensed into a few words. This morning I read Sheenagh Pugh’s poem, Sometimes and it made me think about our country and its presidents. Pugh wrote:
“Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse . . .
A people will sometimes step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care …”
Pugh seems wistful about electing an honest man—and well she might be. Honesty in politics is almost as scarce as thrift in politics. I realize our country was founded on wonderful myths about integrity and honesty like the one in which George Washington disobeyed his father and chopped down a cherry tree. He confesses his deed by saying: “I cannot tell a lie.”
George Washington is ancient news though, and the new normal seems like an abnormal: lie—and get by. Sadly, presidential lying has a long and depressing history. Some rationalize that we set the bar too high, characterize-wise, for our presidents. Others say that politicians would never get anything done if they didn’t occasionally tell a white one (or red, or blue one). FDR and JFK both hid and lied about infidelities in their marriages. Nixon lied about Watergate. Ronald Reagan lied about the Iran-Contra affair (though some historians give him a pass due to his “forgetfulness”). George W. Bush exaggerated the Iraq threat and promoted the lie about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. The list goes on.
It is refreshing though, when someone somewhere in politics steps up, and tells a painful truth. I felt this way during the recent presidential debates, when candidate Pete Buttigieg told Rachel Maddow, “I couldn’t get it done…” referring to being the mayor of a city that needed more Black police officers, especially in light of a recent officer-involved shooting of a black man there. I’m not sure why Buttigieg’s confession struck me as an act of courage, whereas former president Jimmy Carter’s admission that he was responsible for the 1980 failed hostage rescue in Iran simply seemed like ineptitude.
Actually, I don’t expect more from my president than I expect from myself, and according to research, some inadvertent or harmless lying happens daily for most humans. I think it becomes an issue when there’s too much intentional lying, or there is a risk related to a specific lie. In this regard, we have a problem with our current president.
There’s been numerous polls tracking the number of lies President Trump tells on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. At some point, presidential lying crosses the line from benign political misdirection to charlatanism—a con man playing the American people. In fact, it was a president, Abraham Lincoln, who reminded us: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time—but you can’t fool ALL the people ALL of the time.”
Then there’s the all-important issue of the lie’s importance. Lies that divide us as a nation, or get us into foreign wars, two problems George Washington foresaw as threatening our democracy, can be especially harmful. Trump this past week lied when he questioned whether four U.S. congresswomen were really “American.” Washington would say this increases our divisiveness. Trump also twisted the truth and set the stage for a foreign war with Iran. Another George Washington no-no. Trump accused Iran yesterday of violating a nuclear deal that his administration withdrew from last year. Even though Iran was faithful to the deal up until that point. If George Washington is our founding father, Donald Trump is the confounding one.
The policies of my president are important to me, but so is his or her person. I want to trust and be proud of the president of our country. I want someone in office who not only has moral courage, but is moral. Am I asking for too much? Maybe. And the sad reality is, I only have one vote to make things better. In this, I again find comfort reading Sheenagh Pugh’s poem:
“Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.”