July 15, 2003
Love all, trust a few, do wrong to
none, says the poet. Wise counsel. I especially like trust a
few. It implies that you cant trust most people too far. You
always have to be discriminating about reposing your faith in others.
People who demand your trust
rarely deserve it. Trust has to be personally earned, and that takes a
while. Not that you should assume the worst about everyone, of course, but
positive trust is a special thing.
One reason is that telling the
truth is an effort. It can even require skill. Take journalism. Its
hard to get a story completely accurate, even if the reporter wants to.
Ive read articles about myself, by no means hostile, in which many
of the facts were wrong. Sometimes my portrait was more favorable than
it deserved to be!
Or, to come to the point, take
government. Men who have power, and want to keep it, have special
reasons for concealing the truth and for outright lying. Why should we be
surprised when they deceive us?
We are naturally inclined to
trust those whose general political philosophy we agree with, but this can
be a serious mistake. Misleading your enemies is part of the game of
politics, and when you address the general public you may have to deceive
your friends in order to deceive your enemies.
The Bush administration,
sounding uncomfortably like its immediate predecessor, is now insisting
that it didnt mean to mislead us about Saddam Husseins
military capacity in order to win support for war on Iraq. Maybe not, but I
find it hard to be patient when President Bushs national security
advisor tries to minimize the level of pre-war hype. The memory of her
mushroom cloud talk is still fresh.
The administration was
exploiting the shock of the 9/11 attacks to create a demand for
pre-emptive war. Those attacks were so unexpected that
we didnt know what to expect next. If we had enemies who could
destroy our greatest skyscrapers, what else might they be capable of? A
sudden nuclear attack didnt seem out of the question.
The administration made the
most of it and won our trust on the cheap. It was good psychology.
Exaggerated fear makes you eager to trust those who offer to protect you.
The Depression and Pearl Harbor made most Americans willing to trust
Franklin Roosevelt, the most gigantically mendacious president this
country ever had.
Thomas Jefferson observed that republican government is based
on mistrust jealousy of those in power. And
the more power they have, the less you should trust them. The idea that
democracy ensures trustworthy rulers is hopelessly naive.
Republicans know this when the
Democrats rule, and vice versa. But when their own party comes to power,
the same people who thought Bill Clinton lied with every breath are
willing to give George W. Bush the benefit of every doubt.
Granted, Clinton was a special
case. He was the political version of Professor Harold Hill, the Music Man,
who lied so inventively that it finally became a form of mass
entertainment. Literally. Joe Kleins novel Primary
Colors captured Clinton perfectly in Governor Jack Stanton, and it
gets funnier with the passage of time.
Partly this is because Clinton,
out of power, seems relatively harmless. And he never got us into a major
war. That wasnt his style, given his record during the Vietnam era.
Besides, nobody ever trusted
Clinton to begin with. They might be briefly bewitched by him, especially
young women, but long acquaintance with him didnt lead to the
gradually growing assurance that his word was his bond. FOBs
friends of Bill were thick on the ground, but CWFBs
character witnesses for Bill remain pretty scarce.
Clinton is the only president who
will be remembered chiefly for his comical lies: he didnt inhale,
didnt have sex with that woman, couldnt define
is, and joined the civil rights struggle as a nine-year-old in
Arkansas. He has earned a special niche in Bartletts.
In this respect Bush is more
insidious. He doesnt have the kind of glibness that sets off warning
bells, and his life hasnt been notably marked by deceit and
But it isnt just flagrantly
wicked men we should be slow to trust. Power tempts even the best of
men to take liberties with the truth.