By: Dave Dodson, Contributor to the Laramie Boomerang and former candidate for U.S. Senate
I was 12 years old when my sister and I walked into the South African hotel lobby with our parents and saw Richard Nixon’s face on every news magazine. My family may have been the last Americans to learn the President of the United States had resigned, as we’d been on a college study trip and had no access to news for weeks. When I asked my mother why he quit, she told me: “Because it’s not OK to lie and be President.”
For a month, we had been visiting countries led by dictators and strongmen, who routinely lied to their public, which likely drove her to answer as she did. Still, it would be decades later, when my professional life had me to operating around the world, including Honduras, Burundi, and Zimbabwe, that I realized her response had come not from a place of morality, but from a place of patriotism.
Only after I had experienced working within authoritarian governments first hand did I appreciate that what separated my country from tyranny were two fragile democratic experiences: fair elections and a respect for the truth.
I am convinced a democracy cannot survive without both.
I worry today because only a generation after learning of Richard Nixon’s resignation, my 8-year-old daughter asked me why President Bill Clinton, who had been impeached for perjury, was in so much trouble.
For reasons I don’t fully understand, my generation had begun to view the value of truth-telling through a partisan lens, and up and down the streets of America the explanations offered to our children depended solely on party affiliation. While politically convenient at the time, by doing so we unknowingly inched away from democracy.
I understand that there is an enormous temptation to lie in politics. In 2018, I ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Wyoming, where I not only experienced the pressures in my own contest but that of the other political races taking place around me. New to politics, I nonetheless quickly caught on to how small adjustments to the truth were judged principally on their utility to the campaign.
That’s how Bill Clinton’s defenders justify his perjury to this day. Recently, my three daughters and their mother listened to Gloria Steinem speak. When asked by the moderator if she had second thoughts about her defense of Bill Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky, the feminist icon said that she had none because the affair was consensual.
Whether one believes there can be such a thing between a 22-yearold intern and the President of the United States, Ms. Steinem’s response nonetheless breezed past the part about lying. Meanwhile, no one in the audience seemed to mind. In that short span of time between my parent’s generation and my own, we’d changed.
Which is why commentators that once cried for Bill Clinton’s impeachment now repeat that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has found “nothing,” despite five members of the Trump campaign having been found guilty of lying to our institutions of government, including the FBI, Congress, and a grand jury. In an attempt to create a partisan advantage, as a country we have become comfortable with, and weaponized, lying.
That’s a serious issue because while democracies don’t die a natural death, they can be killed. We know this because my parents and grandparents watched with horror as dictators twice destroyed European democracies, in every case truth being the first casualty. Strongmen and tyrants exploit the truth because they know it is both fragile and sometimes neglected.
My generation is dangerously close to institutionalizing lying as an acceptable political tool in the same way the dictators of Europe did a few short years ago. While the temptation for lying will never subside, it is our patriotic choice as citizens whether or not to accept it.
Sometimes we become lazy or distracted at the moment that the lies from our own side seem less damaging than the uncomfortable truth. But there will never be a shortage of evil waiting to exploit our carelessness.
That is why as patriots if we do not always stand for truth, especially in those times when it is most inopportune for our particular side, we will not have done for our children what our parents did for us.