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May 25, 2009

The Art of Political Prevarication

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Here's a hypothetical: A major politician holds a news conference on a very sensitive topic – the use of enhanced interrogation tactics to elicit information from enemy combatants and terrorists. In the course of the press event, a reporter asks this nationally known public figure a specific question about whether or not they were officially briefed on this subject while the tactics were actively being employed.


The public figure tells the reporter that they had no knowledge of this practice, and even goes so far as to suggest that the intelligence agents – doing any briefings the public figure attended – might have purposefully avoided the issue.


After the media disclosure, the head of the intelligence community issues a statement that indicates that his agency does not mislead people like that politician, and stresses that the record of those conversations includes proof that the politicians were told about the enhanced tactics being employed on a particularly nasty terrorist to help "improve" his recollection.


In a schoolyard or workplace, this kind of behavior is called what it is: a lie.


Not in politics, though. No one connected to this hypothetical story can bring themselves to accurately and succinctly describe the behavior.


Sadly, this isn't a plotline for a political novel. This latest pundit of prevarication is none other than Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., CA), our esteemed Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives.


Speaker Pelosi has a problem. She most likely was made aware that water-boarding was being employed on the most dangerous enemy combatants and jailed terrorists. This disclosure occurred in the flurry of activity following September 11, 2001, back when it was both necessary and seemingly acceptable to take whatever steps were necessary to protect Americans from further attack.


Since then the national landscape has changed. An unpopular president, the executive who allowed the use of these tactics, was term-limited out of office. Both of the national party candidates for president, John McCain and Barack Obama, made a solemn promise to end prisoner torture. Both announced that this tactic of forcing water into the face and throat of a restrained prisoner to simulate drowning constituted torture in their opinions.


Speaker Pelosi represents what is arguably the most liberal congressional district in the United States (San Francisco). No doubt that most, if not all, of her constituents would tell you that they would never support any candidate who knowingly allowed these practices to continue.


So Madame Speaker probably knew, much earlier than previously suggested, that the CIA and military intelligence agencies were employing these tactics. As a politician concerned with re-election in a liberal district, she couldn't have her constituents thinking that she hadn't acted appropriately and taken an aggressive stand against these techniques as soon as she first became aware of them.


So, the obvious choice is to lie, to blame someone else and proclaim innocence.


Were George W. Bush and his alleged cowboy ethic still in power, Madame Speaker would likely escape much scrutiny. Liberal voters would assume she was the victim of ongoing conspiracies, having bought that argument every other time it was offered up.


Don't believe me? How about Rep. Barney Frank (D., MA), Sen. Chris Dodd (D., CT) and the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac federally subsidized mortgage mess? The comic duo of Frank and Dodd blame the economic collapse of the federally insured home loan programs on the Bush Administration and GOP-controlled Congress' desire to reduce oversight. The truth, as reported by the mortgage banking industry and housing advocacy groups, is that Congressman Frank and Senator Dodd's effort to get everyone who wanted one qualified for a federally backed mortgage was the real culprit.


Republicans are far from blameless. One might even say that the GOP wrote the playbook on creating a difference between what a politician says and what they actually do.


The Bush Administration swept into office under the rubric of compassionate conservatism. No one really knew what that meant in 2000, but the intervening years have illuminated the promise. No Child Left Behind, The War on Terror, and the Medicare Part D prescription drug initiative demonstrated that compassionate conservatives set historic spending records, expanded social spending, and made foreign policy decisions that would impress the Crusaders.


Even the current crop of Republican political leaders in the Congress are stymied. Given the chance, both House Minority Leader John Boehner (R., OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., KY) lack the intestinal fortitude to call Speaker Pelosi a liar.


They spent all day Sunday May 17th on the talk shows trying to invent new ways of saying she wasn't being honest short of actually using the words. It makes us wonder whether they lack guts, or they're really afraid of calling someone else a liar fearing the name might stick on them, too.


So, how does a lying liar in Congress get away with that behavior?


In Washington, people no longer speak English. They speak political English, a language derivative that is all but unrecognizable outside the DC beltway.


Without a language guide, most Americans are lost when it comes to the difference between what federal leaders say and what they really mean.


Here are some examples:


DC-speak phrase: I was not fully briefed on the scope of the program.


Interpretation: They told me exactly what was happening, how often, and to whom, but at the time I didn't realize how angry my core voters would be about this.


DC-speak phrase: We need to ensure that the tax code is fair.


Interpretation: We have plans to dramatically expand social programs. We were elected to spend more general tax dollars to help people without means, so that suggests that people who have accumulated wealth and success will just have to pay more. For Republicans who read this, insert: Millionaires already bear an unreasonable burden of taxation. The only way to make taxes fairer is to shift the burden away from people of wealth. Don't worry; with all the money they save on lower taxes, they'll invest in their communities.


DC-speak phrase: The American people have spoken, and this is what they want.


Interpretation: The unions, special interests, and large-scale donors that traditionally support us have determined that this is important to them. For you Republicans, simply insert "the business community, energy and defense contractors" at the beginning of this sentence.


DC-speak phrase: No decisions have been made about whether we need a government-controlled health insurance product. All options are on the table.


Interpretation: We'll need a government-controlled option to force employers to provide all workers coverage, including the chronically lazy and undeserving. For my Republican friends, replace that with: Any government-run health insurance product is a logical step toward socialism, and you'd better prepare yourself and your family for bread lines, toilet paper rationing, and communal farms.


French President Charles De Gaulle probably said it best: "Since a politician never believes what he says, he is quite surprised to be taken at his word."


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