The Big Lie: America and the Culture of Deceit the Truth Gets Twisted All over the U.S. Map

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton signs a tough welfare reform bill and liberal Democrats holler they've been double-crossed by a president who volunteered for George McGovern and counts John F. Kennedy among his political idols. In an emotional convention speech, Vice President Al Gore denounces teen-age smoking without mentioning he once grew tobacco himself.

Republican candidate Bob Dole promises to reduce taxes by 15 percent while balancing the federal budget - the kind of supply-side shuffle he ridiculed for years in the U.S. Senate. His running mate, Jack Kemp, abandons longstanding support for affirmative action upon accepting the GOP vice presidential nomination and barely offers an explanation.

No surprise that Americans view public officials with suspicion - a Harris poll earlier this year revealed that only 10 percent of the country has a "great deal" of confidence in congressional leaders, for instance - but Washington isn't the only place where the truth gets twisted like ankles in the National Football League. Newsweek columnist Joe Klein denied for weeks that he wrote the best seller "Primary Colors" under the name Anonymous, only to recant when evidence that he did proved overwhelming. Actress Brooke Shields once sermonized about virginity but since has posed topless for a national magazine and bragged about affairs with pop singer George Michael and others. Craftiness has become so ingrained in American culture that it sometimes seems the norm - respected social psychologist Leonard Saxe cl aims a "pandemic" of deceit is sweeping the country - and people can't be blamed for wondering who is worthy of their confidence. "Wherever you turn there's a headline about crime or corruption," says Saxe, who teaches courses in psychology at the City University of New York graduate school and social welfare at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. "It seems weekly we have a congressman or corporate executive or sports figure on trial." Jail and prison populations are huge compared with a generation ago, and Saxe is convinced that the number of inmates - nearly 1.5 million, according to U.S. government figures - confirms that integrity is in eclipse. So many Americans accept dishonesty as a way of life that Saxe is writing a book on the subject of lying. But the psychology of deceit is not a simple matter, nor does every indiscretion carry equal weight. Small lies sometimes oil the gears of everyday existence - "Of course you still look great in a bikini, dear!" - and human beings are apt to adju st accordingly. No one really thinks telephone solicitors care if you have a nice day or that the boss expects an answer when he mumbles, "How are ya?" in the corridor. There is a need for governments to keep state secrets and newspapers to protect troop movements and teachers to praise inept students and undertakers to say the deceased looks peaceful and doctors to promise the shot won't hurt. That used-car salesman is just not at liberty to confess the muffler has a hole patched with Dubble Bubble. "As you grow up, you have to learn to be a bit wary of what is said around you," says Sissela Bok, a Harvard ethicist and author of a highly praised 1978 volume, "Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life." Still, it's disheartening work. "The fact that you do see a number of people who look straight in your face and say one thing, and then it turns out they didn't mean it, is very troubling." Nowhere does dishonesty seem more exposed than in public life. Politicians - especially in an election campaign - often leave the impression they will say anything to win votes, even if it means betraying fundamental principles, disguising intentions or walloping the opponent with false accusations. "Apparently, we have reached the point in the politics of this republic where if you dupe the people, or frighten the people, it is acceptable, to keep the party in power," said Sister Joan Chittister, executive director of Benetvision, a Roman Catholic organization in Erie, Pa. …