California is the last great American frontier, bordering, as it does, on reality. And as one of its few indigenous citizens old enough to have resisted the temptation to vote for Nixon, I am proud to report that the Golden State is again setting the pace in yet another space-age invention: political ethics.
Organic chemists have discovered the cure for centuries of public sophistry cultivated in the rich California soil. In fact, if you'll excuse the expression, it was grafted onto the current campaign when would-be governor Kathleen Brown challenged her rivals to sign a document indicating—and I quote—"We pledge to be honest."
Ms. Brown, the Democratic state controller, has crafted a remarkably discerning lie detector test. To casual voters, it appears that once politicians courageously commit to telling the truth in signed and notarized statements, they will be less tempted to shade the facts. Yet, since liars are not deterred in the slightest by a pledge to be truthful, they are happy to do so publicly. Indeed, they welcome the opportunity to put another layer of paperwork between their embellishments and the plain truth.
In short, the righteous man is insulted by such a charade and denounces the essential dishonesty of which such a vacuous public exhibition smacks. The crook exclaims, "Where do I sign?"
Some of the little people seem to be picking up on this logic, but only in crude ways. Many patriotic Americans now find a politico who openly admits to dishonesty to be refreshingly candid. Hence, when Col. Ollie North proudly tells his legions that he lied to Congress in order to protect American lives, he is given a thunderous standing-O. His people gush over a man who would rise above the cads and charlatans in Washington to be honest and forthright about his mendacities.
There are variations on this theme. The White House has a phalanx of apologists who argue with conviction that, from day one, Mr. William Jefferson Clinton had to bluff the common folk with loose talk about middle-class tax cuts and free health care. If he hadn't, then he, otherwise a man of virtue, could not have remained electorally competitive. Had it been up to him alone, Mr. Clinton would have told us the "honest truth" (as opposed to the slicker sort, in which he is clearly a consensus All-American). But in an age in which people don't want to hear what they need to, maybe the "dishonest truth" is a necessary evil.
Ms. Brown, a gifted campaigner who is as smooth before the cameras as her brother Jerry is spacey, ingeniously issued the "honesty pledge" challenge to both of her acknowledged rivals, Democratic Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. The cute trick was that she actually had a third major competitor—Democratic state Sen. Tom Hayden. She strategically elected to ignore the radical Fonda-Hayden because the publicity would constitute a nuisance on Ms. Brown's left flank. Hence, she clearly signaled that lying by omission was no violation of the honesty pledge.
Further innovations of the Brown campaign were its "no negative ad" pledge and a vow to air television commercials only along the lines of an "honest and issue-oriented campaign." Of course, among the greatest issues in any campaign are the competency and integrity of one's opponent. In the context of an either-or choice, any factor which is pro one candidate is by definition anti another. Yet to be honestly straightforward about this is to be "negative."
Cleverly enough, Brown's entire pledge-taking challenge was a preemptive negative attack on her opponents. Her message to voters was that her opponents were such vile bottom-feeders that she had to set some civilized ground rules on behalf of common decency. Having gotten in this below-the-belt shot, it is no wonder she'd like to call it quits on all that "negative" campaigning.
For their part, Brown's challengers have been exceedingly reluctant to get sucked into any sort of "honesty pledge." This is not due to any genuine disgust over disingenuousness. They object to signing off on their opponent's pledge, thus giving the impression that it is a real deal. That would be dishonest and, far worse, bad politics. Instead, they have taken the opportunity afforded to viciously counterattack Brown's subtext. They have responded with all guns blazing, characterizing her as one who has engaged in malicious personal denigrations to attain high public office, including her current one. That she has issued such an "honesty pledge" challenge, claim Democratic and Republican foes alike, is an indication of just how far she'll go to deceive the people.
H. L. Mencken once noted that every philosopher spent his whole day proving that every other philosopher was an ass, and—what was more—always did it successfully. This may explain why I am so easily convinced when candidates call each other liars. Especially when they've taken the "honesty pledge."
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "And That’s the Truth".