BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Political lies have a rich history. Take, for instance, the sinking of the USS Maine off the coast of Havana in 1898. Two days after the sinking, the New York Journal declared that the Maine had been brought down by a Spanish torpedo, helping to launch the Spanish American War. But there was no Spanish torpedo, just a US publisher, William Randolph Hearst, who wanted a war and plenty of politicians who felt the same way. Or we could look at President Johnson and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the president claims the US military had been attacked twice by the North Vietnamese. The media repeated the claim and Congress authorized Johnson to use military force in Vietnam. But Johnson later admitted to an aide that there probably had been no second attack and, for all he knew, the US sailors may have just been shooting at flying fish. The war lasted another 10 years.
Rick Perlstein is a writer for the The Washington Spectator. He says that though the lies never cease, the kind of lies politicians tell, and get away with, has shifted over the last half-century, beginning in the waning years of the Vietnam War with a moment of optimism.
RICK PERLSTEIN: There was this brief period in the 1970s in which truth became fashionable in American politics. You know, you had Senate hearings on the deceptions of the CIA. You had, of course, the Watergate hearings. You had a strong sense that the job of the media was to call powerful institutions to account. And one of the things that ended it was Ronald Reagan saying America was still a city on the hill, that we’re God's chosen nation and that all these Debbie downers in the media didn't need to be listened to.
[1980 REP. CONVENTION ACCEPTANCE SPEECH/CLIP]:
RONALD REAGAN: They say that the United States has had its day in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith….My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.
RICK PERLSTEIN: That was inherited by a generation of conservatives who really believed that they were fighting for civilizational stakes and a kind of ends-justifies-the-means logic entered the Republican Party.
BOB GARFIELD: When you discuss the press and its relationship to the political lie, something happened somewhere in, let's just say, the ‘90s, when the press stopped calling out lies for what they were.
RICK PERLSTEIN: There was a shift when the conservative movement began taking over the Republican Party in the wake of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.
BOB GARFIELD: Agnew famously used the press as a political tool and tried to describe them as a kind of sinister “other.”
SPIRO AGNEW: The pampered prodigies of the radical liberals in the United States Senate have hatched their little chicks and now they’re coming home to roost. And that brings me to my target for tonight –
- the professional pessimists. In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.
RICK PERLSTEIN: He was degrading their authority as referees. He said that they had a dog in the fight, you know, that they were these unelected aristocrats telling Americans what to think. They weren’t these kind of gods 30,000 feet up on Mount Olympus proclaiming the truth like, you know, someone like Walter Cronkite had done when he went to Vietnam and said, you know, we’re losing this war.
WALTER CRONKITE: To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory, conclusion.
RICK PERLSTEIN: Once the press came to believe that their job was not to say, this is a lie and this is truth but we have to be balanced between two ideological factions, that structurally advantaged the side that was more willing to lie.
BOB GARFIELD: And it really became a perfect closed system because if the press did intervene, if it left its false equivalency, false objectivity –
RICK PERLSTEIN: Then they’re biased.
BOB GARFIELD: - then they’re biased and, aha, everyone from Sarah Palin back to Spiro Agnew were right all along.
RICK PERLSTEIN: And I've had the experience of calling out a lie by a Republican activist on - if you'll forgive me - a public radio show and having the host, you know, jump down my throat for using the L word.
BOB GARFIELD: In fact, we happen to have –
RICK PERLSTEIN: Oh, goodness!
BOB GARFIELD: - a little bit of the tape, with you and anti-tax firebrand Grover Norquist on the Dianne Rehm Show.
RICK PERLSTEIN: Roll the tape.
GROVER NORQUIST: No, I'm not for abolishing Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid. I’m for making them fully funded.
DIANNE REHM: Would you like –
RICK PERLSTEIN: Of course, Grover Norquist wants to get rid of Social Security and Medicare. It's his life's work.
NORQUIST: No, I don't. Don't tell me my position, sir. I've written a book on the subject.
PERLSTEIN: He - you’re – you’ve said that you're a Leninist.
REHM: Rick, hold on.
REHM: Grover Norquist –
PERLSTEIN: He’s lying.
REHM: - how would – and please don’t use such words on this program.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Rick, that wasn't necessarily a triumph of civility, but why? Why was she offended? What was it about calling Grover Norquist a liar just based on the facts, something that she wasn't willing to listen to?
RICK PERLSTEIN: I, I, I got one thing wrong. Grover Norquist actually held up Stalin as his hero because he said Stalin controlled the personnel and Trotsky controlled the Army. But the fact of the matter is I broke the rules of the game. The rules of the game say that both sides in a partisan dispute are supposed to be adjudicated, quote, unquote, “objectively” and if objective truth is traduced in the process, so be it.
BOB GARFIELD: With Trump, something new is going on. Nothing that comes out of his mouth is true, including the words “and” and “the.”
RICK PERLSTEIN: Right. Dave Roberts of Vox did a wonderful piece that really kind of got to the bottom of this. You've always kind of been allowed to lie on policy, whether it was, you know, George Bush saying his tax cuts would go to the bottom half of the income distribution or the stuff involving Iraq or the stuff Mitt Romney was saying about what his economic policies would do or Jeb Bush deciding that he could create a certain level of economic growth basically just by saying so. And the press doesn't like to adjudicate policy. But the other thing is quantitative. Dave Roberts points out that you’re kind of allowed nine lies and as long as you kind of retract the tenth one, once the media calls you out, everything’s kosher. Donald Trump won't have any of that. We’re in new territory now.
BOB GARFIELD: What does it mean for future elections and future populistic demagogues?
RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, of course, it's entirely frightening. But I think the silver lining, the redemptive moment in this can come on the side of the media. If they just basically stop worrying what politicians think about them, if they call out a lie and a politician squeals like a pig that they’re biased, just act like a grown up and keep on calling out the lies. Just do it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Rick, thank you so much.
RICK PERLSTEIN: Bob, it’s a pleasure, thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Rick Perlstein is a writer for The Washington Spectator.