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 Power and Trust 

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 can’t 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. It’s hard to get a story completely accurate, even if the reporter wants to. I’ve 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 didn’t mean to mislead us about Saddam Hussein’s military capacity in order to win support for war on Iraq. Maybe not, but I find it hard to be patient when President Bush’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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.

[Breaker quote: Who deserves our trust?]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 Klein’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t inhale, didn’t have sex with that woman, couldn’t define is, and joined the civil rights struggle as a nine-year-old in Arkansas. He has earned a special niche in Bartlett’s.

In this respect Bush is more insidious. He doesn’t have the kind of glibness that sets off warning bells, and his life hasn’t been notably marked by deceit and betrayal.

But it isn’t just flagrantly wicked men we should be slow to trust. Power tempts even the best of men to take liberties with the truth.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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