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Jewish World Review August 31, 2001/ 12 Elul, 5761

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent
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Consumer Reports

Time to 'fess up, America. Condit is doing exactly what he was elected to do -- BY lying to Connie Chung, Gary Condit may have infuriated his constituents, but he's doing exactly what they elected him to do. Because, despite what the discontents say, American politics has never been about character. Quite the contrary; it's about all of us getting while the getting's good.

The candidates who get themselves elected are illusionists and prevaricators of the first order. We expect this of them. They're a reflection of us, and they won't get any nobler until we do.

People are selfish. What's more, they aren't, for the most part, very interested in ideals. They're interested in themselves, not the truth or the good. Which is why it's so absurd when we pretend to resent our politicians for lying to us, as in the case of Condit, the Democratic congressman from Ceres. After all, we didn't elect them to tell us the truth. We generally don't like or want the truth any more than they do. We elected them to give us what we want: coddling from cradle to grave, more free stuff, more benefits. Not some enshrined Platonic form.

Hence the importance of the recent flap over Social Security. The Democrats know that frightening us about what's owed to us is the surest way to make President Bush's tax cut-a stroke of genius for a greedy electorate-seem like a robbery. The eternal question of American politics is the whiny ''What have you done for me lately?'' rather than the more incisive and high-minded ''Are you honest?'' That query simply isn't on the application.

And that's because, primarily, our system is designed to accommodate us. It's a popularity contest in which the pol who pleases the most people most of the time wins the day. Bush is learning this reelection principle very quickly: Win the Latino vote by appearing to help Mexican immigrants and pretending to boot the U.S. military off Vieques.

But as everyone knows, you can't please all or even most of the people all of the time-unless you lie or hedge on the hard stuff (Bush did this with abortion in the televised debates in November. He's pro-life, but he couldn't admit that on national TV and have a prayer of getting elected. So he hedged.) It's endemic to the job and the process. You've got to lie skillfully to get elected, because you've got to convince a whole zoo of self- involved ciphers that you've got every one of their self-serving, solipsistic interests at heart.

In the end, we don't get the truth because we don't care about the truth, and therefore we don't deserve the truth. Call it what you will: Poetic justice par excellence. Or democracy in a nutshell. It's what we're stuck with.

Many Americans understand this mendacity transaction pretty well. Like everyone, they affect effrontery when a member of the opposing party won't play it straight. But when it comes to their quarterback, they're quite content with fibs and even outright whoppers, so long as their demands are being met or so long as they think their demands are being met. This, for example, goes a long way to explaining the skyrocketing career of Al Sharpton, an unprincipled opportunist whose great talent is making a public show of feeling the black community's pain, doing nothing to actually alleviate it.

President Clinton was especially good at this kind of prestidigitation-appearing to cater to all while catering to none. So, for example, when it came to Clinton's lies, both under oath and not, there were a great many people who defended him in unabashedly cynical terms, saying: ''So what if he lied? All politicians lie. He just got caught.'' Well, well. A perversely honest answer at last.

So why is Condit not granted the same leeway in the court of public opinion? Why is he not declared innocent by reason of occupational hazard? That's easy. We hate the way Condit lies because he's not any good at it. He's not convincing. He doesn't equivocate as seamlessly as Clinton did or as self-effacingly. He's just not as deft at the game. And so we let nature take its course; congressional Darwinism at its finest. Survival of the shiftiest.

JWR contributor Norah Vincent is a New York writer and co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick & Easy Guide to Sounding Smart & Cultured. Comment by clicking here.

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06/06/01: Tit for tat, David Brock is a turncoat's tale

© 2001, Norah Vincent