When I was a little kid, presidents were expected to be role models for our behavior. It seems quaint now, doesn’t it? And we were taught that there were two presidents above all that represented the ideal: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They were so far above everyone else, that we actually celebrated the birthday of each, and some states actually had a state holiday for each.
That practice later morphed into one day, President’s Day, and the things that made Abe and George so important started to get lost in the mists. But I still remember clearly what exactly made those two special.
It was honesty.
The first and most important thing we learned about Lincoln was that he was “Honest Abe”. For Washington, it was that he “could not tell a lie”. When he was six he had to confess to the crime of using an ax that he had received as a gift to damage his father’s favorite cherry tree. This inability to tell a lie was what qualified him first and foremost to be president and to set the example that we kids must try to follow.
I’m not sure when we stopped requiring the president to set an example. Maybe J.F.K. was the last – the war hero and dashing young king of Camelot. We now know that Kennedy engaged in a lot of the same behavior that only a few years later led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
But that’s my point. The people who knew about J.F.K.’s private life bent over backwards to keep it private, and the press went along with it, even though many knew the truth. It was important to preserve the president’s good-guy image, because the youth of the country required it. You couldn’t expect tens of thousands of them to sign up for the Peace Corps, say, on the suggestion of a philanderer on pain meds, but they would go if a dashing young patriot asked them to.
It goes without saying that no president ever has used a speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree to bad-mouth other presidents or whine about the lack of personal loyalty of those around him, but that is yet another shard that Tweety has managed to slice off the social contract that used to bind all of us together despite our differences. They’re just kids, for God’s sake. I get that we’re past requiring the president to be a role model, but are there really no conventions left that this president should be expected to honor?
But it’s the lying thing I can’t stop thinking about. The new acceptance of the ideas that lying doesn’t really matter, or that everyone does it, or that it’s not actually lying if you believe it, or that we all know what was really meant, etc. etc. is profoundly disturbing.
Words used to matter, but no more. When Tweety said, “On 9/11, I saw thousands of Muslims dancing in the streets of New Jersey”, it was a lie. Or at least it was a “lie” using our previously accepted definition of the word, which was “not true”.
But it was true enough for Tweety and therefore true enough. What you have to understand to appreciate the new standard is to know that in this example, “I” meant “Someone”, that “saw” meant “thought”, that “thousands” meant “some”, that “dancing in the streets” meant “were not unhappy”, and that “New Jersey” meant “somewhere”.
In other words, if Tweety or one of his family members were to say, “I did not chop that cherry tree down”, we all can understand that he probably did, and should be commended for his honesty in getting out in front of the whole controversy.
In any case, it no longer matters.