Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics


"I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

–President Clinton, Jan. 26

"The murder rate in Holland is double that in the United States. . . . That's drugs."

–drug czar Barry McCaffrey, July 13

Which of the two quotations above is the more appalling? I suppose most people would choose President Clinton's, and I suppose, on balance, I would, too. Still, the choice isn't altogether obvious–or, at least, it shouldn't be.

The word "lie"–like the word "is" and the word "sex"–is a term that tends to be used rather loosely. Recently St. Martin's Press sent me a new book called The 15 Biggest Lies in Politics, by the journalist Major Garrett and the former congressman Timothy J. Penny. The 15 "lies" turn out to include "The abortion debate matters," "Medicare works," and "Democrats are compassionate."

The book, luckily, is more sophisticated than its title (this is still true of books, sometimes), and it begins usefully with what the authors call a "hierarchy in the art of political lying." At the bottom are lies of decorum, which are harmless and even useful. "Demagogic lies" and "lies meant to conceal political cowardice" are worse, but also have their uses. Most people, however, would probably agree with Garrett and Penny that the exculpatory personal lie deserves only opprobrium: "The most-damaging lies are those politicians tell about their ethical conduct, hoping the ugly truth never emerges." Now, who has done that sort of lying, lately?

By contrast, Barry McCaffrey's statement of July 13 seems pretty innocent. As he was about to leave for Europe, the drug czar called the Netherlands' liberal drug policies an "unmitigated disaster." When the Dutch–no doubt looking at the not-unmitigated success of American drug policies–expressed dismay, McCaffrey fired back that in 1995 the Dutch murder rate was double America's, and that other crime was worse, too.

The claim that the Netherlands is a more murderous place than America seems roughly as plausible as the claim that oral sex is not sex; and, in fact, in 1995 the Dutch murder rate was less than a quarter of the American rate. The Netherlands, population 15.5 million, had fewer murders that year than did Houston, population 1.7 million.

What may have begun as a simple mistake, however, became more ethically complicated when, the next day, the misstatement was pointed out to McCaffrey, not least by the flabbergasted Dutch. A mistake uncorrected is no longer just a mistake, and McCaffrey did not issue a correction. In an August interview with The Dallas Morning News, he seemed pleased with himself. "The other thing we did during the visit was, I started laying down other people's comparative data," he said. "God, did it annoy them."

Asked recently if the murder comment still stands, a spokesman for McCaffrey responded with a Clintonesque step to the side. "We have said if we are wrong, speak to Interpol–it's not our statistics, it's (their) reporting." But Franklin Zimring, a University of California (Berkeley) law professor who is an authority on crime, says that the Interpol numbers are raw and unaudited; and, as the Dutch pointed out right away, the numbers cited by McCaffrey for the Netherlands (though not for the U.S.) included not only murders but attempted murders. "If you want to walk the streets safely, Amsterdam is still a good place for a vacation," Zimring says. "And, more importantly, McCaffrey knows this. Folks have been going after him on this. And the notion of hiding behind the unaudited Interpol data–they can do that if they want, but they know what they're doing."

We find ourselves, here, deep in the misty jungle between outright lying ("I did not have sexual relations," etc.) and ordinary political spin. This twilit and primeval region is the preserve of a strange but common animal, the policy lie. Actually, "lie" is not exactly the right word, since the hallmark of the policy lie is that it intends not to deceive so much as to silence or browbeat an opponent, and it aims not so much at personal gain as at keeping some policy or other alive until next week.

According to the National Association of Attorneys General, 40 states have sued the tobacco industry, demanding to be reimbursed for Medicaid and other health-program costs resulting from smoking. The only problem is that there are no such costs. In fact, the states, like the federal government, make a nice profit on smokers, even after health costs are factored in: Smokers pay high state cigarette taxes while they're alive, and then they die younger than nonsmokers, thus not living to accumulate as much in medical and nursing benefits. W. Kip Viscusi, an economist at Harvard Law School, figures that Florida, which settled with Big Tobacco for $ 13 billion in alleged damages, also profited by a net of 42 cents on every pack of cigarettes sold. A policy lie allows the attorneys general to strike righteous poses, when in fact they are merely greedy.

In 1996, the opponents of California's Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in state programs, knew they had an uphill battle against public opinion. So they set out to convince the public that a vote for 209 was in fact a vote to legalize discrimination against women (there are lots of female voters). "Women could get fired if they had children or if they got pregnant," said Patricia Ireland, the head of the National Organization for Women. The chairman of the state Democratic Party said that 209 would repeal girls' athletic programs. And so on. The charge was not only false but bizarre. (The voters weren't fooled.) Or again: Instead of defending their policies of setting much lower admissions standards for blacks than for whites, elite universities and law schools have simply denied that the policies exist. Again, the lying fooled no one, though it did help discredit affirmative action.

Henry James once wrote, "The simplest division it is possible to make of the human race is into the people who take things hard and the people who take them easy." Where political lying is concerned, I'm in the easygoing camp. Stuart Taylor Jr., the proprietor of the column next door, has proposed a group called CRALP: Citizens Repelled by All Lying Politicians. I would join CRALP, but my own chapter would be called Citizens Responding with Amusement to Lying Politicians. The important thing, in my version of CRALP, is to distinguish the really loathsome or hurtful lies from the banal stretchers of everyday political and personal life.

Still, I concede that this is an issue of temperament rather than morals, and that outrage is a reasonable response to lies in public life. So, to the outraged, I propose a deal. Stay outraged, but look a little less at intentions and legality, and more at real-world harm.

Bill Clinton's lie about sex was legally wrong and morally shabby. But the lie–as distinct from the consequences of its exposure–didn't do very much real-world damage. In fact, the country would have been much better off if Clinton had gotten away with it. Personal lies and policy prevarication co-exist in a curiously transverse relationship: Shabby lies of self- preservation usually cause only retail damage, whereas even well-intentioned policy dissembling can do mischief wholesale.

On Aug. 4, 1964, Washington got word that the North Vietnamese had launched a nighttime attack on two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. The North Vietnamese had already skirmished with an American destroyer in the area two days earlier, and the Johnson administration took the second attack to Congress as justification for a broad grant of war-making powers. What the administration did not say was that reports from the scene were conflicting and confused. Owing to the dark night and the rough weather, not even the men in the gulf were sure whether they had been shooting at real enemies or phantoms. Congress gave Johnson his authority to "take all necessary measures" in Vietnam–but the attack that justified this mandate had not occurred.

The country is still living with the consequences of the Johnson administration's Gulf of Tonkin not-quite-lie. Dishonest non-defenses of affirmative action have inflamed racial resentment; the states' tobacco suits will cost smokers billions of dollars that they do not properly owe; nonsense about the Dutch murder rate fuels obsessive drug-war overkill.

So here is a suggestion: Barry McCaffrey should manfully step forward and declare, for the record, that America is a more criminally lethal country than the Netherlands. He should come clean and admit the obvious, instead of hiding behind legalisms and technical dodges. Then we can forgive him, and put this whole sorry episode behind us.