Lies My President Told Me

I'm thinking about buying a car.

Actually, "thinking" may be too mild a word. "Obsessing" comes a bit closer. There's nothing in particular wrong with my current vehicle, a 2008 Hyundai Sonata. In the two years since I acquired it in a near-emergency (my Acura CL had had its second major breakdown, and I needed a reliable car for my then-new job of teaching band and choir at Banks High School), it has never given me a lick of trouble. I had an iPhone link cable put in, but apart from that, it came with everything I really need in a car. It even has a musical name, ideal for someone in my profession. It does have some niggling things that keep me from really liking it: a previous owner was a smoker, and on hot days when it's been shut up for awhile, there's a stale tobacco smell in the upholstery. It's the bare-bones model, no bells or whistles, just the most basic equipment. It doesn't get very good mileage. But these are really minor concerns.

And yet, with a new job that involves a lot of commuting, I find myself turning frequently to the internet on a car quest. Occasionally, I'm so interested in a particular vehicle that I click on the email button at a dealership, and ask for some pricing information, including a quote of the Costco price for that car. These inquiries get quick email responses, usually requesting a phone number--and never giving me any of the information I sought. I politely reply that I'd just like to know what the online price and the Costco price for the car is, and once I have it, that I'd be interested in a test drive. And then I hear nothing, apparently because 1) I'm asking for a no-nonsense discount to which, as a Costco member, I'm entitled; and 2) I won't give them my phone number.

Why won't I give them that number? Why don't I want to talk to them? It's simple: I don't trust them. I know they're going to put on the full-court press of trying to talk me into paying more than I'm willing to for something I don't actually want. Just giving me a simple price for a particular vehicle, which may not even be on the lot, cuts the dickering out of the equation, and if they can't dicker, they can't find some way to pad their commission. I have no patience for that game. I have walked out on car salespeople who wasted my time with it. I don't want to be in the position of hanging up on them, either, so I'm just asking for an email response. One of these days, when I get really serious about this car thing, I expect I'll have to give in and play the game, but for now, I'm content just seeing through the charade of even having an email button on a car dealer's web site.

Which brings us to presidents, and why putting their hands in the air does not inspire trust in me. I've been lied to by every president I can remember. That's going back to Nixon (I wasn't paying attention during the Johnson years, and I was still in diapers when Kennedy was shot). I believed him when he insisted he wasn't a crook--right up until he resigned. I can't cite any specific lies Ford or Carter told--my gut tells me they were both as honest as a politician could be--but I was not predisposed to trust Reagan, and with good reason, as the Iran-Contra fiasco revealed. I wasn't a George Bush I fan, and remember well scoffing at the "no new taxes" lie even as he was telling it. I did trust Bill Clinton when he claimed not to have had sexual relations with that woman, despite all the stories I'd heard about his pre-presidential shenanigans; I just couldn't believe he'd address me, and all the rest of the country, on national television and lie to us like--well, a president. George Bush II famously lied us into a genocidal decade-long crime against humanity. I was thrilled to be able to vote for Barack Obama not once, but twice, even though I knew he was, of course, a liar.

What's this, you say? Barack Obama was a liar?

Well, yes, of course he was. His campaign dropped all sorts of incendiary half-truths and outright lies about Hillary Clinton. He was and is a Chicago politician, and for all his dignity and plain-spoken yet soaring rhetoric, he is unafraid to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals, up to and including taking down an opponent with innuendo, distortion, and deceit. He's just better at sincerity than the other guys.

Think about those other politicians I mentioned. Everybody knew Nixon was dirty, everybody, it seems, but middle-school me, and I doubt if anyone believe him when he claimed not to be a crook. Except, like I said, gullible me. Reagan was just too slick, was an actor for pity's sake, and I never took his friendly tone seriously. I knew he was plotting horrible things underneath it. Bush I had run the CIA, so he was a master of lies, but those he told on the campaign trail rang false from the start. Bill Clinton was the slickest politician to occupy the White House in generations, far too smooth to be believed. And Bush II? He got into office by browbeating the Supreme Court, and while a lot of Americans believed his trumped-up reasons for invading Iraq, just as many were skeptical.

But Obama? He's got it down. He manages to come across as sincere without any semblance of guile--which is the best guile of all. The best tellers of lies are those whose artifice is masked by awkwardness. As inspiring as his rhetoric may be, Obama does not give the impression of being a people person. I expect most Americans would still have a better time knocking back a near-beer with W than having the real thing with Barack.

I've established, then, that, as an effective politician, Barack Obama clearly has a knack for withholding just the right information while speaking circuitously enough to give a partially false impression that feels like absolute truth. When, as he pushed his ridiculously, but necessarily, complicated insurance reform through Congress, he insisted, again and again, that Americans who liked their current insurance could keep it, he was mostly telling the truth, perhaps even telling more truth than any previous President in the position of selling an unpopular program to the nation. But he left something out, and now it's coming back to bite him: Americans with inadequate plans, plans that are cheap because they cover very little, have high deductibles, and, in the event of a catastrophic illness, can leave the subscriber destitute and a drain on society, are having their plans canceled so they can enroll in a far better plan for about the same amount of money. This, on top of the web disaster, is being touted by the Republican party as proof that the ACA will make things worse for America, because after all, it's founded on a lie.

Here I am, then, seeing that yes, it does appear to be an outright lie, no matter how the Democratic party spins it, but that it's a lie in the service of actually making things much better for all those Americans who might as well have no insurance at all as the crappy plans they have; and knowing that, as I said, to be as successful as he is, our President must have told a lot of lies in his career, all, of course, carefully finessed to function under the guise of his social awkwardness and his gift for sounding and looking absolutely sincere; and knowing that to be President, means, for any politician, lying about a huge number of things that would otherwise be viewed by voters as disqualifiers. And where does it leave me?

With Jesus, and a story that is most likely apocryphal, but ends with the best punchline in the Bible: "Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone." (John 8:7, and yes, I'm paraphrasing.) If I were a betting man, I'd happily wager that there is not a finger-pointing Republican in Congress who has not told a truckload of whoppers to get and keep his or her office, and who has knowingly told many of them about the ACA. I'll go further and point out that the lies of the W administration got us into a multi-trillion dollar fiasco that has cost us thousands of lives, and cost Iraq hundreds of thousands of lives, most of them innocent civilians. In the deceitful Washington scheme of things, the lie to the 5% of Americans who had lousy insurance is minuscule. The far greater lie being told by the medical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the insurance industry is that we have to hang onto our Gordian health bureaucracy or face dire consequences that could include (gasp) all Americans receive cheap and effective health care. No, they're not actually saying that would be the result, but they know it would, and that's why they're spinning such extravagant stories of creeping socialism and healthcare rationing.

My bottom line? I'd love to have a single bureaucracy of civil servants handling healthcare, rather than the warring profiteers in whose crossfire patients find themselves all too often. I recently switched to Kaiser Permanente, an HMO that operates very much like a single-payer national health service would, and I'm so much happier with it than I was with my old plan. And don't forget that my daughter was born under British National Health, and had vastly superior pre-, peri-, and post-natal care than anything provided in this country, for which we never saw a bill.

Did he lie? Well, duh. He's a politician. And just like the salespeople who will only talk to me if I'll let them actually talk, he's all about spin. The more sincere it sounds, the more likely I am to be swayed by what he says--just as when I actually go into the car dealership, and instantly distrust the smooth-talking salesperson, preferring someone who seems a bit awkward, not so sure of his or her spiel. When I finally do make that purchase, I expect I will have swallowed at least a few distortions, but assuming I've stuck to my own guns about the car I really want to by, I'll come away only mildly miffed at the process, and very happy with the result.

Which is how I expect America will feel about Obamacare, once they've had a chance to do more than just take it for a spin. I think they'll find that having more people covered better with fewer industry-imposed restrictions really does feel much better than the clunker of a system we had before, and they'll be quite happy to forgive and forget that "You can keep your plan" lie.


  1. I like your style. When confronted with a judgment to make, try putting it into context first. I find that the more I learn about the ACA, the less seriously I take the deception from Obama. But it doesn't reach the point where I can rationalize it entirely.

    Under the ACA, old plans could be grandfathered unless they changed significantly, in which case they would be held to the (usually) higher standards of the ACA. The insurance companies made business decisions, as they do every year, to create new plans and terminate others. Just as when Obama's claim that I could keep the doctor I liked didn't take into account that my doctor might retire, his claim that I could keep my insurance didn't mention that my insurer might drop me for their own business reasons. The trouble comes when one tries to estimate how much the act's provisions would influence insurers to either increase or decrease the degree of "churning" in policies from year to year. I personally would not want to lay that out in a political environment where "nuance" is sneered at.

    So it becomes a game of what he should have said, the distance between that and what he did say, and how big an asterisk history will put there. For myself, I find Obama's statements pretty close to true. He left out a lot of things that I had to assume for myself, but I didn't have much trouble making those assumptions.

    1. As I noted, I'm sure every President, including the sainted Jimmy Carter, fudged facts, if only by withholding information--as could be the case in your explanation of the Obama half-truth. It's part of the job. Obama has, I believe, referenced Reinhold Niebuhr as an influence. Niebuhr was a moral theologian who found a way to reconcile religious ideals with political realism. Idealism is for prophets, he argued; politicians have to be realists, making great moral compromises in the service of a greater good. I expect that is how Obama justifies the high death toll (including civilians) of the drone warfare he promulgates, compared to which his half-truth of "you can keep your plan" is a minor offense.


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