As I watched the recent presidential debate, a quote by Thomas Fuller, a 17th century English writer, came to mind. To paraphrase: “Plain speaking is a jewel, but they that wear it are out of fashion.” Things haven’t changed much in the past 400 years, have they? I suppose we might amend Fuller’s statement: Those who wear the jewel of plain speaking aren’t just out of fashion, they’re invisible.
Today, the virtue of plain speaking often gives way to the oily concept of plausible deniability. Most of the doubletalk, hyperbole and hogwash we hear is irritating but harmless. No matter how much hot air any candidate gives out, we know that actions speak louder than words. We’re better off making our choices based on the candidate’s record rather than the promises.
The election ordeal would simplify if plain speech went hand-in-hand with a history of accomplishment. But today we must recognize that “spin” is a distasteful fact of modern political life. Candidates running on sorry records can’t win unless the other guy’s record is sorrier or unless they manufacture some razzle-dazzle and make us believe this mess is a “silk purse.”
But there are situations where we must not tolerate verbal trickery. There are times when our public servants have two options and two options only: Tell us the truth or keep your mouth shut. There are times when the American people have the right to expect and demand plain speaking.
We know, of course, there are situations where it’s OK to withhold facts. We accept this. When someone is injured or killed, we know identities will be withheld until the family can be notified. We understand the good sense and decency of this policy. We know information is sometimes withheld because disclosure would compromise an investigation, national security or some other important interest. Fine. If we’re kept in the dark for good reasons, just tell us.
What we can’t abide — what we should never allow — is a maze of misdirection and word games when someone has a duty to tell us the plain truth. It’s better to tell us nothing than play tricky shell games.
So here’s what I’m leading up to. How hard is it to say: My fellow Americans, I know you have many questions about the circumstances surrounding the death of our ambassador in Libya. We are gathering information and, once we have a clearer picture of what happened, we will answer as many questions as we can. In the meantime, please be patient as we work to get to the bottom of this. Or this: It’s too early to be certain, but preliminary intelligence suggests the attack on our embassy and the death of our ambassador are products of a terrorist attack. We will provide more information as it becomes available and verifiable.
Instead, what we got was a thoroughly misleading series of party-line misdirections about spontaneous out-of-control spinoffs from demonstrations provoked by obscure video. The maddening thing about this is the fact it was known to be poppycock for the bulk of the time it was being handed out.
We might be inclined to put the blame on the president’s subordinates. Maybe the nameless “intelligence community” falsified reports. Maybe they sent confusing reports. Maybe some functionaries at the State Department distorted and falsified the facts for reasons of their own. Maybe the president was taken off guard with the rest of us when the truth came out.
But the president, during the most recent debate, suggested that he told us from the Rose Garden on the day after the attack that it was an act of terrorism. The debate moderator backed him up on this. If that’s what the president meant to say in the Rose Garden, it’s buried in the verbiage of his remarks. If he meant to inform us that the attack on our embassy and the death of our ambassador were the result of a terrorist attack, he left the American people to wonder and guess at his meaning.
If we give the president the benefit of the doubt; if he knew the day after the attack that it was an act of terrorism and if he intended to tell us that, what are we left with? The president is a poor communicator. The administration’s internal lines of communication are pathetic. And the administration’s ability to discern and correct gross errors is ridiculously slow.
We are reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s illustration: “If you call a tail a leg how many legs does a horse have? Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make a leg.” I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.