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Just for fun, I reached this morning for my file of WORLD magazines from 20 years ago. It was January of 1996, and we were just cranking up for the presidential election that would return Bill Clinton to office for his second term.
What were the issues then? I wondered. What were we featuring on WORLD’s covers? What was the special concern of my column exactly 20 years back?
My discovery was startling. It wasn’t only that the major focus of my column that week was on a woman whose name was Hillary Clinton. The whole concern was on what seemed at that time to be Mrs. Clinton’s growing disregard for telling the truth.
It was noteworthy enough that this most durable politician could extend her influence over a nation of 310 million people for two full decades—with a clear potential now for adding at least another eight years to the record. To last such a long time—just how can that be?
To last that long while your reputation for truth-telling is in statistical free fall goes against all common sense.
But to last that long while your reputation for truth-telling is in statistical free fall goes against all common sense. My column 20 years ago carried the title “Sloppy with the truth,” which in retrospect was a pretty tame and forgiving judgment. But since then, it’s been all downhill. A recent Quinnipiac word-association poll claims that “liar” was the top word Americans chose when asked for the first word coming to their minds when they heard the name “Hillary Clinton.” That’s pretty severe stuff—especially when you learn that “dishonest” and “untrustworthy” were the second- and third-place words.
Nor can this phenomenon be explained in simple partisan terms. It was in Toulouse, France, only a couple of weeks ago that liberal writer Joan Walsh says she was offended by a student who asked Mrs. Clinton bluntly: “I just don’t see the same enthusiasm from younger people for you. In fact, I’ve heard from quite a few people my age that they think you’re dishonest. But I’d like to hear from you on why you feel the enthusiasm isn’t there.”
And I couldn’t help noticing that some traditional liberal sources were not exactly helping Mrs. Clinton’s cause. USA Today said bluntly that “Mrs. Clinton and the president—not the Republicans—have raised these questions. Rather than pointing fingers at the investigators, the Clintons need to offer some apologies, plus the whole truth.” And the Los Angeles Times, which had early on endorsed Mrs. Clinton’s husband in his 1992 run for the presidency, was similarly direct: “It was one thing to distance herself from this debacle two years ago; it’s quite another to continue issuing denials in the face of documentary evidence to the contrary. Mrs. Clinton has a credibility problem.” Whoops! Those two quotes are not, in fact, from the current campaign. Both of them are straight from the pages of those two newspapers 20 years ago! How timely can you get?
I have no way to determine the general honesty of America’s public servants in 2016, taken as a whole and compared to their counterparts a generation, two generations, or a century ago. And yes, I’m fully aware that today’s voters tend to think of all politicians as dishonest, or at least as opportunists who fudge the truth or stretch the facts for their own advantage. And let’s note openly that it hardly helped the image of conservative Republicans in recent days to watch junior Sens. Marc Rubio and Ted Cruz lash out at each other with mutual charges of lying.
It was reportedly Abraham Lincoln (I’m not sure when they started calling him “Honest Abe”) who claimed, “No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.” Might Hillary Clinton be an exception to this rule?
Using a little football imagery, some skeptics say that we’re “piling on,” hitting Mrs. Clinton while she’s down, and that we’re the ones guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct. I would suggest instead that when someone has kept herself in the headlines for 20 whole years, incessantly manhandling the truth, none of Hillary Clinton’s critics need to apologize for anything at all.
Listen to Joel Belz‘s commentary on The World and Everything in It.