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May 28th, 2017

Insight

The moral of this sad story: Never tell the truth

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Dec. 16, 2014

    The moral of this sad story: Never tell the truth

Some bureaucrats get in trouble for telling less than the truth when asked questions about their more dubious statements and worse actions. Think of any number of once influential figures in the current administration -- like the notorious Lois Lerner at the IRS. She had her own, Nixonian enemies' list of right-wing and pro-Israel outfits targeted for special treatment, and not the favorable kind. They were to be denied the kind of standard tax exemptions routinely granted other groups, the sort that never have a bad word to say about this administration and/or its policies. (Selective law enforcement can be the weapon of choice for an administration that isn't too picky about the means it uses to further its questionable ends.)

Then there's the entirely different case of Jonathan Gruber, who professes economics at MIT, and found himself pilloried during a four-hour hearing and ordeal before the House Oversight Committee for ... telling the truth. Not just once but a couple of times -- last year and the year before -- when he told how he and his number-manipulating cronies had fooled the American people into thinking the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, might actually work. The professor was caught on video both times as he explained that the Signature Accomplishment of this president owed its passage to things like "the stupidity of the American voter" and the administration's own "lack of transparency" about just what kind of pig was in this poke.

Since then, the American people have found out, much to their chagrin -- higher health-insurance premiums, unworkable programs and regular waivers, exemptions, arbitrary changes and general uncertainty about the terms and future of the American health care system.

None of that is exactly a state secret by now, but to have one of Obamacare's leading designers and apologists admit it was kind of refreshing. And stimulating. Both Republicans and Democrats on the House Oversight Committee joined in making gibes at Mr. Gruber's expense, Republicans for trying to fool the American people and Democrats for giving the game away.

Naturally enough, Professor Gruber is now trying to minimize his role in foisting Obamacare on the country. To judge by his testimony, an innocent observer might assume he was just a bystander to this rolling train wreck of a federal program that affects every physician and patient, every employer and employee and insurer in the country. To sum up his defense in two words, "Who, me?"

As for the professor's candid confessions about the role in he played in this still continuing catastrophe, Jonathan Gruber is still never at a loss for ingenious rationalizations, not to mention new euphemisms for old sins. He told the committee that his earlier, more candid statements "were not lies," but rather "conjecture outside my area of expertise."

How slick. How clintonesque. How creative. How beautiful in its own way. Those were not lies but conjectures outside my area of expertise. A line to be preserved for the ages.

Not even Gilbert and Sullivan could have done better in "The Mikado," though they equaled Jonathan Gruber's gift for understatement when they had Poo-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else of the kingdom, explain that he hadn't been deceiving anybody, but just offering "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."

What a pity W.S. Gilbert, the wordsmith of that star team, didn't think of "conjecture outside my area of expertise." It would have been the crowning touch.

Professor Gruber now joins those two stalwarts of the British music hall as a gifted comedian, however unintentionally. He really ought to start autographing transcripts of this congressional hearing. All it lacks now is a musical score.

But it's unlikely the professor will take credit for his, uh, creative lines. Instead he's distancing himself from the whole fiasco, and become so distrusted, and ridiculed, that even the administration's other dissemblers are distancing themselves from him.

Marilyn Tavenner, Lord High administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, asked to be seated on a whole different witness panel rather than appear next to Professor Gruber. But she had to share the glaring spotlight with him anyway when she was called on to explain her report about the number of Americans enrolled in Obamacare, which turned out to be highly inflated. It was just an innocent mistake, she said, and, who knows, it might have been. But just appearing next to Jonathan Gruber in public now risks guilt by association.

On balance, some of us would prefer a plain, direct, straight, old-fashioned lie ("I never had sexual relations with that woman") to the professor's fancy evasions. It would be more honest.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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