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
"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
"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
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. …