Years ago, Abraham Lincoln made a common-sense point about word games. We’d be wise to revisit the idea today. “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have? It’s got four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it so.” In Lincoln’s day, unscrupulous statisticians, politicians and stock traders might have their own reasons for wanting to include tails in the leg count. But Mr. Lincoln cautions us not to fall for such tricks. It’s up to us to keep our eyes on the facts and not be taken in by deceptive labels.
I’ve been thinking about Lincoln’s remark this week as the term “phony scandal” is making the rounds of political speeches and headlines. Use of the term begs the question: If you call Benghazi, IRS targeting of conservative groups, Department of Justice targeting of journalists and the Attorney General’s misleading statements to Congress “phony scandals,” how many phony scandals are plaguing this administration? One wonders how President Lincoln would do the math.
Let’s allow for the possibility there may be honest differences of opinion concerning how many legs a horse has. Maybe we can come to agreement if we return to first principles and refer to definitions. But let’s be honest. The discussion sinks into unproductive oblivion if we can’t get past the definition of “what ‘is’ is.”
Let’s start by asking what is a “phony?” We know that phony people are guilty of making a false show. They’re hypocritical and specious. They’re insincere and pretentious. We know that something is phony if it is not genuine; if it’s intended to deceive or mislead; if it’s dishonest. There is, unfortunately, no shortage of phonies in the political arena today. There are men and women who hold themselves out as people of upright character committed to conscientious public service when, in reality, they are deceitful self-promoters eager to make any disgraceful deal, take any unscrupulous action or spew any shameful falsehood that meets the political needs of the moment. We all know what a phony is.
As for the definition of “scandal,” this is a state of affairs regarded as wrong or reprehensible causing general public outrage or anger. It isn’t hard to come up with examples of recent situations satisfying this definition. Occupants of high office who lie under oath, look the American people in the eye and tell outright falsehoods about their sexual infidelities, public officials who take lewd liberties with subordinates and expect the taxpayers to pick up the tab for their misbehavior, candidates for public office who are shameless liars posing as victims when their despicable behavior is discovered, then assume the role of penitents, and finally presenting themselves as heroes. Public servants brazenly “living it up” on taxpayer dollars. You get the idea.
Equipped now with an understanding of what a “phony” is and what a “scandal” is, let’s make a count. Obviously, there’s nothing phony about the tragedy in Benghazi. At this point, we still don’t know who ordered relief forces to “stand down,” which left brave Americans fighting for their lives for hours in an ultimately losing battle. Deserting them on the battlefield like this was wrong and reprehensible. It only becomes a phony scandal if there’s no public outrage. If the American people come to the view this is acceptable behavior by their government, then it does become a phony scandal — God forbid.
At this point, we know that hundreds of conservative groups were targeted by the IRS and intentionally hamstrung through two election cycles. We still don’t have the name of the highest governmental official who knew and approved of this conduct. The use of powerful governmental bureaus to interfere with and intimidate law-abiding American citizens is wrong and reprehensible. It only becomes a phony scandal if there is no public outrage. If the American people are prepared to shrug their shoulders and let this pass, then it does become a phony scandal — God forbid.
The Attorney General of the United States testified under oath before Congress that he knew nothing about Department of Justice targeting of media representatives as potential criminal defendants. In fact, he himself signed a warrant indicating that a prominent reporter was, in fact, a potential criminal co-conspirator. If the American people are prepared to suffer this level of dissemination from the highest federal law enforcement officer in the land, it does become a phony scandal — God forbid.
If we’re foolish enough to be sold on the idea that a tail is a leg, we have no one but ourselves to blame if we get fleeced.
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.