The story goes that George Washington received a hatchet for his sixth birthday. With it, he damaged a cherry tree. When his father confronted him, young George said, “I cannot tell a lie. I cut it with my hatchet.” His father embraced him and said, “Your honesty is worth a thousand trees.”
Ironically, this paean to honesty was the fabrication of Mason Weems, an itinerant preacher and one of Washington’s first biographers (the cherry tree myth). Politically expedient falsehood has been with us from the dawn of our Republic.
Readers of theFirstGates and movie buffs will recognize the other part of this post’s title as a partial paraphrase of the Jack Nicholson line, “You can’t handle the truth,” in A Few Good Men, 1992, which I referenced through a link on August 8.
It came to mind last night as I watched Nixon, the third PBS documentary on American presidents I’ve seen this week. It’s a fascinating series for those interested in history, and especially during this disheartening election year. The truth I find hardest to handle is that even the pretense of truth has become optional during elections.
After his discharge from the navy after WWII, Richard Nixon ran for congress against five-term Democratic representative, Jerry Voorhis. Nixon won 60% of the vote, after, among other things, spreading the word, via anonymous telephone calls, that Voorhis was a communist.
“Of course I knew Jerry Voorhis wasn’t a communist,” Nixon later confided to a Voorhis aide. “But I had to win. The important thing is to win.” I was actually happy to learn that the lies that permeate this campaign are not a new aberration, but more a case of deja vu all over again. The only difference is that in earlier times, people caught in blatant lies were certain to lose – the appearance of honesty was a matter of style and decorum.
Political lies cross party lines, of course. Feeling compelled to be as “tough on communism” as Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, Lyndon Johnson engineered the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” – a supposed torpedo attack on a US destroyer by North Vietnamese ships. We now know the event never happened, but the lie won Johnson almost unlimited power to escalate the war in Vietnam, with tragic consequences for millions of people. It also set the precedent for fighting undeclared wars that remains a national disaster 50 years later.
I remember a hatchet incident when I was a kid in upstate New York. A boy who lived nearby chopped down a neighbor’s dogwood sapling with a hatchet. This was an especially serious act of vandalism, since dogwood trees were protected by law.
Not the brightest kid on the block, he did so while the lady of the house was home; she heard the chopping, looked out the window, and recognized him. When confronted, however, the boy’s mother said, “It couldn’t have been my son. He told me he didn’t do it, and he doesn’t lie.”
I’ve often wondered if that kid is in politics now. He’d be a natural…