A warning for manipulators and liars
There are consequences facing those who mislead, as history shows
In an era of duplicity and coverups, could anyone qualify for memorializing in granite? (Photo by Jéan Béller on Unsplash)
Famously, the political strategist James Carville hung a sign in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters in 1992, with the main message he thought the candidate and his followers ought to stress: “The economy, stupid.” That’s still what voters seem to want to hear about, although lately I’ve come to think that candidates need a different reminder, maybe rendered in Latin so that it might be perceived as profound. Like this: Vorpious de liporius octo. In English, it’s familiar: “The coverup is worse than the crime.”
Better to fix problems when they’re revealed, right? Consider the lessons of the Watergate scandal, which arguably wouldn’t have blown up and forced Richard Nixon’s resignation if there hadn’t been millions of dollars in a slush fund used, in part, to buy the silence of the Democratic headquarters burglars and their handlers. Or think of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, which the Russian leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, didn’t mention until three weeks after it happened, after radiation had poisoned countless people.
Or the most tragic coverup of recent history, surely: In 1953, a survey of scientific literature by a tobacco industry scientist laid out the link between cigarettes and lung cancer. Every tobacco executive knew that their products were killing people, but it wasn’t until 45 years and millions of cancer deaths later that the tobacco companies, under extreme pressure from 46 state attorneys general, finally conceded the facts and agreed to pay billions of dollars to the states — every year, as long as cigarettes are sold in America — to compensate for health care costs.1
Sure, it’s only human to want to diminish the reality of your own misdeeds and duplicity. So you might think that we shouldn’t be too hard on politicians who try to shift our attention away from who they really are in order to protect their jobs, and maybe even their delusional self-respect. But maybe a better approach is to pay a lot of attention to the shape-shifters and reward those few people in public life who forthrightly stand up for what they believe, especially if they face regrettable consequences in their political careers. Let’s just for now lay aside her voting record and offer gratitude to Liz Cheney for her brave candor.
On the other hand, consider the example of Blake Masters, an ultra-nationalist and an admirer of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s views, who drew on an endorsement from Donald Trump to become the Republican U.S. Senate nominee in Arizona. Apparently it was only after winning his primary that Masters noticed the significant voter backlash to the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. That’s got to be why his campaign web site has just been scrubbed of his extreme anti-abortion views — including his support for a constitutional amendment declaring a fertilized egg to be a person (which could make even the so-called “Plan B” birth control cause for a murder charge). NBC News caught the flip-flop, though, and now Masters faces two hard tasks: explaining what he had called his “100 percent anti-abortion” views in a state where voters support abortion choice by a 5-to-3 margin, and also why people should trust a candidate so eager to conceal what he thinks on a crucial issue.2 You kind of want to talk to the guy: Hey, Blake, stand up for what you believe, and let voters make a choice.
Deceit isn’t just wrong; it’s also impractical. Secrets are too hard to guard in politics. When the most notorious of the Watergate burglars, G. Gordon Liddy, was asked by a reporter about the Watergate coverup, he quoted Poor Richard’s Almanack, where wise Ben Franklin had noted, “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”3 Yet that message seems to have eluded even those who profess devotion to the concepts of the Founding Fathers.
For example, it has just tripped up the very clever Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, who is traveling the country these days to support some of his party’s candidates — while, more importantly for DeSantis, showcasing himself as a potential 2024 presidential candidate. Organizers of events featuring DeSantis in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Arizona initially announced that journalists would be barred if they wouldn’t adhere to some heavy-handed restrictions, like only interviewing attendees approved by the event organizers, and giving the sponsoring organization, a right-wing group called Turning Point Action, access to whatever the journalists had recorded, as well as “the final say on all matters” of coverage.4
A lot of pushback followed, like the angry column written by the editor of Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer, Chris Quinn, who said the restrictions were “the kinds of policies you’d see in a fascist regime.” Some journalists said they would simply not cover the events, and others vowed to do what reporters often must when politicians try to conceal their actions — that is, get the information, anyway, by pushing harder. Take it from this former political writer: There are always folks eager to unload what they saw and heard behind the doors that were slammed in reporters’ faces.
Anyway, since DeSantis surely wouldn’t want to be seen as a latter-day Mussolini, the media restrictions eventually were ignored, mostly, and the events got lots of coverage. But the failed coverup makes you wonder about whether the bid by DeSantis and his cohort to manage the public’s view was worth it: In an effort to stop the broad range of citizens from learning how candidates sell themselves to the conservative faithful, DeSantis added to his growing reputation as a repressive reactionary.
A lot of politicians nowadays figure they can get away with misleading voters by insulating themselves behind grievance. It is a practice best observed in Donald Trump, of course, but now adopted by countless candidates at all levels, mostly on the right: an insistence that any exposure of their duplicity is untrue, or that it’s a result of a biased media. Today’s media ecosystem is populated with partisan players who happily deliver distorted messages to their revenue-producing niche of the public. Fox News will not report about the effort to suppress reporting at DeSantis rallies, nor will Wall Street Journal editorials take note of the shifting rhetoric on abortion among Blake Masters and his ilk.
And the local press corps can’t much help. People have always trusted their local newspaper more than national media, but newsrooms around the country have been so decimated by the digital revolution that there are simply fewer journalists around to hold officials’ feet to the fire, and fewer citizens paying attention. Some politicians find that it’s thus easier to simply ignore the press.
This hits close to home: Recent court-ordered redistricting has put my home in Upstate New York into the congressional district of Elise Stefanik, the ambitious third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House, who has for years avoided talking to reporters from every legitimate news outlet in her district. Some journalists have resorted to digital posting of questions they would ask Stefanik if only she would talk to them.5
Between the hiding and silence by the likes of Stefanik, the media management attempts by DeSantis and his crew, and the duplicity of the deep Trumpists like Masters, it’s hard to imagine how rank-and-file voters can hope to get a full and fair understanding of the people asking for their support on Election Day. So it means voters will have to rely on images crafted by campaigns and partisans, because the candidates are too scared of voters’ reactions to be honest with them.
Political activity has always involved some management of candidates’ reputations. But today’s political climate is deeply disappointing to a kid who grew up patriotic in the shadow of Mount Rushmore. We didn’t memorialize in granite people who manipulated their public face or scurried away from contact with citizens. It’s tragic to think that so many citizens are now willing to entrust our republic to the hands of the cowardly sorts who are purveyors of convenient falsehoods.
There’s some hope, to be sure, in the fact that the best efforts of the manipulators often can’t overcome the aggressive reporting that goes around their barriers. It brings to mind the famous 1966 Esquire article by Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” surely the greatest celebrity profile ever written. Because the singer refused to speak to Talese, the writer spent three months following Sinatra everywhere, observing everything he could see and interviewing everybody who intersected with Sinatra. Talese produced an insightful profile that is still studied in journalism schools everywhere.6
It shouldn’t take that kind of effort to cover the key players in a democracy — those who want to represent us in Congress or lead us from the White House. We’ve regrettably gotten to the point where many of our public officials have cast aside the warning of James Madison about the basis of a democracy. A year before our Constitution was ratified, in 1788, the so-called Father of the Constitution wrote, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to farce or tragedy, or perhaps both.”
That is the risk that’s presented by those politicians who try to manipulate public information, conceal their actions and shut out the public. If America is to avoid becoming a farce or a tragedy, we will need not only journalists who are more clever than the deceptive politicians they cover, but also millions of voters who will rise up and refuse to tolerate the abuse of their trust by the prevaricators and pretenders who aspire to represent and lead them. Politicians who cover up who they really are and what they believe are committing crimes against democracy. So let’s ferret them out. Maybe we need a slogan to aim at those running for office: Potes currere sed celare non portes. I am reliably told that it translates thus: “You can run, but you cannot hide.”
THE UPSTATE AMERICAN is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Fort Collins, Colo. (Fort Collins Coloradoan, coloradan.com)
Jacksonville, Fla. (Florida Times-Union, jacksonville.com)
Indianapolis, Ind. (Indianapolis Star, indystar.com)
Welfleet, Mass. (Cape Cod Times, capecodtimes.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Sorry, kids: Is this the end of snow days?
The school board in Fort Collins has adopted a resolution allowing the school district or individual schools to implement remote learning in the event of inclement weather, according to a report by Bethany Osborn in the Fort Collins Coloradoan. But the superintendent says it’s not a precursor to lots of teaching kids by computer, and there still may be days when school will be cancelled altogether due to snow. It’s just that state law requires a certain minimum number of instructional hours, Superintendent Brian Kingsley said, and if there’s an extended closure — due to a multi-day storm, say, or a Covid outbreak — then remote learning would keep the school calendar on track. "We've learned a lot through the global pandemic on how to leverage technologies in a creative way," Kingsley said.
Controversy over Confederate monument prompts renaming
Since 1915 — a half-century after the failure of the Confederacy’s attempt to overthrow the U.S. government — Jacksonville has had a large Monument to the Women of the Confederacy, in what used to be called Confederate Park. The city’s mayor has vowed to take down the monument, which would cost an estimated $1.3 million, but there has been a lot of community controversy. According to reporting by Hanna Holthaus in the Florida Times-Union, the latest step is a resolution approved by the City Council to rename the $500,000 line item in the mayor’s budget — so that instead of specifically allocating funds for “removing” the monument, the money will be available for “removal, relocation, remaining or renaming determined by the council.” The council’s finance chair says the goal is “a conversation so we can all feel good about what direction we take.”
One reason for Midwest humidity: corn sweats
This is scientifically true, according to reporting in the Indianapolis Star by Sarah Bowman (which is to say that it’s not something my Uncle Eugene, a Hoosier farmer, made up to pull my leg): corn sweats as it hangs on the stalk. It’s a process called evapotranspiration, which is an exhalation of water, kind of like the way a person breathes. That is, the water the plant draws from the soil is excreted through its leaves into the surrounding air. All plants do it, actually. One acre of corn, Bowman reports, can release 4,000 gallons of water a day. Indiana has more than five million acres of corn and soy each under cultivation just now. No wonder Corn Belt summers are muggy!
Restoration will bring tourist revenue
Officials are celebrating the launch of an environmental restoration project that’s called the largest of its kind in the Northeast, involving six miles of waterways. As reported by Denise Coffey in the Cape Cod Times, the $70 million Herring River restoration, two decades in the planning, will restore degraded salt marsh, improve river and water quality, and potentially provide hundreds of acres for shellfish harvesting. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was on hand, calling it “the federal government at its best,” and declaring, “This is working in harmony with the world.”
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
For those who enjoyed last week’s essay on how marketing of churches and political causes has gotten a bit beyond what’s reasonable, here’s a view not far from my neighborhood just now. It’s a pretty fun message.
Second chances for some thoughts
It has been 18 months since the launch of The UPSTATE AMERICAN, and I’m so grateful to the thousands of people who have joined as readers over that time. I’m sure you’ll agree that a bit of time off is sometimes useful for everyone, so I won’t be writing a new essay over the next couple of weeks. Instead, I’ll offer you a review of some of the columns that garnered the most comments. Maybe they’ll be more useful, in fact, the second time around.
To each of you, thank you for reading — and special thanks to our paying subscribers! — and please know how thrilled I am that you’re joining me on our common ground*, this great America.