President's legacy? Lies and mistrust

Friday, September 18, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

You can come out now. The roadblocks are gone. Bill Clinton, the commander in cheats, has left town.

After attending Thursday's pass-the-hat luncheon at Stan Chesley's place in Amberley Village, the president is back in Washington, D.C., with all the other dissemblers.

Sorry. Do I sound angry? I am.

Hope this doesn't offend anyone's sensibilities or wilt their Wheaties, but just the thought of Bill Clinton being in town, slapping backs, shaking hands, and (shudder) maybe even puffing on a cigar, made my stomach churn. I'm sick to death of the man's lies, his dancing around the issues, his hair-splitting of such terms as "sexual relations" and his seemingly allergic reaction to the truth.

Even more, I fear what comes from lies. Lying is dangerous and habit-forming. And the effects of just one lie are far-reaching.

Deadly deceit

You can't just tell one lie. You have to back it up to make it sound believable. So you lie and lie and lie again.

And once a lie is out there, everything that is said or done as a result of that lie rests on a false foundation. Even good deeds or acts of faith, if based on a lie, can collapse on people's heads.

Lies burrow deep into personal relationships. Once you catch someone lying, doubts are cast on every encounter, every conversation. You can never be sure you are hearing the truth. Even when a person swears something's true, you find it hard to believe them.

Lies can come between husbands and wives, parents and children, between a president and his country.

During the Vietnam era, lies and misinformation from the White House poisoned the national debate and left years of deep-seated mistrust of the government.

On a far more personal level, I learned the hard way how much lies can hurt. I was 4 years old and told a lie. Discovered, I was banished to the living room "to think about it." I did, facing a blank wall, stomach growling, alone as the rest of the family ate dinner without me in the next room. I had let them down. It hurt me that I had hurt them, and I never forgot the lesson.

Lying ayes

Lies destroy trust. And without trust, love and respect don't have a chance. In their place you find mistrust, hatred, disrespect -- and anger.

Bill Clinton's lies make me very angry.

And apparently I'm not alone. The Cincinnati Enquirer received 1,464 responses from readers wanting to give Bill Clinton a piece of their mind during Thursday's visit. A good chunk of the responses were along the lines of "You're a liar. I'm mad."

One source of all this anger, I'm told, is that we recognize a bit of the liar in ourselves.

"We are suffering from collective anger brought on by collective guilt," said Joel Milgram, professor of education and human development at the University of Cincinnati.

He told me the president's lies "have reminded us that everybody lies. They have shown us what lies can lead to. They can open you to ridicule. They can get you in trouble."

In an age where almost every flawed character is forgiven -- even Marv Albert is back in the broadcast booth -- we still shun liars as if they were lepers.

"Liars represent trickery," the professor added. "They mislead you. And give you misinformation. Base decisions on their misinformation, and you can really get messed up."

Before the Lewinsky affair hit the fan, Bill Clinton was thinking about his place in history. It was widely reported that he polled his advisers for their opinions of his administration's legacy. Most responses revolved around the economy and world peace.

If that poll were conducted today, I would bet many of the president's advisers -- people burned by their boss' lies -- would have little trouble telling the truth.

Lies can be a legacy, too.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.