Foul Mouths

This is my fourth presidential scandal. Watergate was my first, and it had the counterintuitive effect of making me less — rather than more — cynical about government. The dirty tricksters were found guilty and almost all of them imprisoned, and the president, who disguised if not micromanaged their crimes, resigned. It was a bad time for America, but a good time for those who believe in the idea of America.

But this idealism took a couple of gut punches with the Iran-Contra Affair, during which members of the Reagan administration sold arms to the Iranian mullahs in secret — how could they ever pose a threat to us? — to finance Nicaraguan rebels, in express violation of U.S. law. Of the 14 charged with crimes, 11 were convicted, and one was imprisoned.

President George H.W. Bush stepped in to pardon six of the men convicted. Two others, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, received pardons before trial. Two of those convicted, Oliver North and John Poindexter, had their convictions overturned on appeal, for legal technicalities.

Iran-Contra could make one believe that in Washington, D.C., it’s not what you did, it’s who you know. There was even an element of self-dealing on the part of the first President Bush, who set free insiders who would, as a result, never be tempted to disclose anything damaging about Bush’s own record as vice president under Reagan.

The third presidential scandal was the lying-about-sex matter that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. To put it mildly, that episode did nothing to reduce any accrued cynicism.

Now comes the indictment of Irving “Scooter” Lewis Libby, which arises out of his role in outing covert CIA agent Valerie Plame.

In the end, Libby is not actually charged with revealing Plame’s identity, but with perjuring himself — lying — during grand jury testimony about the case.

He has protested his innocence and predicted he will be exonerated. Given the evolution of these scandals, he is at least likely to escape time behind bars for his alleged role in this traitorous episode.

But not going to jail or even not being judged guilty is not the same as being innocent. If there is, as commentator David Brooks cheered, “no cancer on this presidency,” there is certainly a gruesome moral and ethical open sore. And if it’s not within our power to make those in power actually pay for their trespasses, we needn’t be fooled either about exactly what sin the perpetrators allegedly committed:

They lied about really important things.

In the realm of ethics, Jewish law parses lying with great precision. In his upcoming book, “A Code of Jewish Ethics – Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy” (Harmony 2006), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes that while the Torah prohibits stealing, cheating, adultery or taking advantage of the less fortunate, falsehood is the only sin the Torah deems necessary to admonish people to avoid actively.

“Stay far away from falsehood,” reads Exodus 23:7.

If one of God’s attributes is truth — you could argue a primary purpose of religion is to set people on the path toward discovering what is true — then swearing false oaths or bearing false witness “indicates a lack of God’s presence.”

Certainly you are forbidden to lie in God’s name, that is, telling others what you think God told you. You are also warned against telling half-truths, against speaking with imprecision, against exaggerating. You are admonished to avoid lying by readily admitting what you don’t know, by being willing to change your mind, by avoiding false statement even to help another or to help a cause. In this spirit, the Talmud reminds us to carry out our obligation to truth and our vows even when they disadvantage us. We are to do what we say we’ll do, to avoid false excuses or lies of convenience (even to our children and our parents — what do these rabbis expect of us!), and to stay far from deceptive behaviors in our business and civic practices.

But what makes the discussion of lying in these matters so fascinating and challenging are the exceptions. Shouldn’t you be able to avoid unnecessary hurt or to lift someone’s hopes or avoid humiliating the poor? Doesn’t every good business negotiation contain the assumed lie that a final price may not in fact be final? And what of lies, even those told under oath, that enable one to avoid punishment by an unjust or evil regime?

Telushkin quotes educator Dr. David Nyberg’s Golden Rule on the issue of beneficial lies: “Be untruthful to others as you would have others be untruthful to you.” A religion doesn’t last 4,000 years by being blind to the grays.

But even so, there are what Telushkin calls “three particularly destructive lies”: lies that promote evil, or that make it impossible to distinguish good from evil; lies told in a courtroom setting under oath; and lies that destroy another’s good name.

It is into this less-than-gray territory that Libby apparently wandered.

To lie under oath is to profane God’s name and to thwart justice itself, the underpinning of a moral society. It is one thing to commit a wrong in the first place, quite another to undermine the justice system itself.

“You shall not take the Name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). The Third Commandment offers precious little wiggle room.

To lie to destroy the good name of another person is particularly grievous, a sin in Hebrew called moztzi shem ra. “The great wrong of such a lie is that the damage inflicted might well be irrevocable,” writes Telushkin, noting that this is one of the few offenses for which the victim is not obligated to forgive the offender. Whichever White House officials outed Plame destroyed her professional identity, and in so doing tried to destroy the credibility of her husband, as well.

Finally, there is the lie that promotes evil, or that makes it impossible to distinguish good from evil. Telushkin cites the example of The New York Times reporter in the 1930s who acted as an apologist for Josef Stalin during his murderous purges.

But what of a man who in advancing a political agenda that would entail the loss of life and human suffering — however justified it might be — deliberately paints honest criticism as traitorous falsehood, thereby punishing people of good intention with professional retribution? And what of the same man if he then lies to cover up such misdeeds?

We live in dangerous times, and a political culture that sanctions dishonesty — especially if one can get away with it — heightens the danger to us all. Not the least risk is that such official misbehavior merely promotes deeper cynicism among us all. This politics of doublespeak, what George Orwell called, “the vast system of mental cheating,” only makes us less apt to believe our leaders when real danger is imminent.

“Such is the punishment of the liar,” the Talmud says, “that even when he speaks the truth, no one listens to him.”