When I was a reporter in the Louisiana State Capitol, toiling in grubby quarters beneath the building’s front steps, another reporter once came to me in frustration. He thought he had a state representative cornered — something about a broken promise to back a bill under certain conditions — but instead of coming clean, the guy was offering double-speak.
I hadn’t been in the business for long at that point, but I had met enough politicians to know that my friend wasn’t going to draw out some dramatic admission. This lawmaker was too smart. He knew that politics isn’t a business of truth.
Or, rather, he knew that it’s a business of truth, enhanced — which is why it seems fitting that, after Inauguration Day, the nation was aflutter over whether or not Beyonce sang the National Anthem on the steps of the US Capitol. Reports swerved back and forth all week: She’s the greatest singer of all time! No, she’s a liar! No, she’s the greatest lip-syncher of all time! And pity the poor US Marine Corps Band spokeswoman who tried to honestly answer a question about a backing track, and managed to draw out the full wrath of the Beyonce/Jay-Z publicity machine.
Even if Beyonce didn’t sing live, nobody should care. And that’s not just because she’s capable of belting out the song, or because these matters place low on the big-picture priority list. The point is that no one is truly honest in Washington. Why should Beyonce be any different?
Dishonesty — truth enhancement, if you prefer — takes a variety of forms. Sometimes, it’s a subtext, rolling along like a backing track. It’s entertaining to imagine a political-truth translator, applied to this week’s Benghazi hearings:
Senator to Hillary Clinton: I want to thank you for your many years of dedicated service to this country.
Translation: You might be president someday, so I need to stay somewhat on your good side, despite the fact that I’m now going to launch into some talking-point attacks.
Clinton: Thank you very much.
Translation: I will crush you, as needed, when the time comes.
Not-quite-honesty helps everyone get along. It also gets results. Think about how much D.C. rhetoric is built on a certain level of enhancement. Anytime you hear that there’s a “war on” some cause or population, or that someone is trying to “take away your rights.’’ Anytime a fundraising letter goes out, about practically anything. It would be hard, after all, to build a grassroots campaign under the banner of “Things are fine, but could use some tweaking around the edges.” (Or, for greater honesty: “We have won the battle and we should probably just disband, but we have a lot of folks on staff who still need jobs.”)
Political rhetoric works, in part, because we’re hard-wired to succumb. Consider a study published last summer in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, in which researchers from New Zealand and Canada said they’d found proof of the power of “truthiness” — Stephen Colbert’s term for the willingness to believe something because it feels right. In a series of experiments, they found that subjects were more likely to believe a claim if it was accompanied by a photograph. The researchers concluded that photos give “an aura of plausibility,” and that auras are easy to believe.
It’s easy to jump off from here into a sob song of betrayal, to see the entire political apparatus as the work of dirty scoundrels. But sometimes, small falsehoods are used in service to a greater good. The movie “Lincoln” shows the not-entirely-honest-in-the-moment machinations of a man trying to end slavery and reunite a nation, and makes the point that sometimes lies and obfuscations are necessary for getting useful things done.
Lincoln knew his craft well enough, the movie suggests, to understand that pure truth is rarely something we should expect — that if you act with perfect honesty, you run the risk of getting crushed like some poor, obscure Marine Corps spokeswoman. She should have said what her boss eventually did, when he undertook Beyonce-driven damage control: “No one in the Marine Band is in a position to assess whether it was live or pre-recorded.” A gorgeous example of double-speak. That’s the American way.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannnaWeiss.