How Lies Became Acceptable Tools For Gain In Politics And Business

In the United States, we are taught, from a young age, that lies are not acceptable. We even have folklore, like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, to illustrate the importance of the truth. Of course, that story is likely fabricated, but unlike the rumors about today’s politicians, it was not told and spread by Washington himself as a means toward political gain. Instead, it was and is told to reinforce the value of honesty, which, until recent decades, was the most desirable characteristic in politicians and business leaders.

Abraham Lincoln in 1865
[AP Images]
Like Washington, Abraham Lincoln had a reputation for unwavering honesty that began early in his life and continued through his presidency, earning him the moniker “Honest Abe,” which endures still today, more than 150 years after his death. Was this nickname deserved? According to researchers focused on Lincoln’s life, the answer is yes. In fact, the assertion that Lincoln did not find lies acceptable is supported by words he wrote in his “Notes for a Law Lecture,” dated 1850.

“Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief — resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”

Lincoln’s refusal to view lies as acceptable tools for political gain is not only supported by his own writings, but also by the words of his political rivals. According to materials published by a joint effort between Dickinson College and The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Stephen Douglas, who stood against Lincoln in the 1858 U.S. Senate race, praised Lincoln’s honesty even during the campaign.

“He is as honest as he is shrewd, and if I beat him my victory will be hardly won.”

If Washington and Lincoln, two of our country’s most admired leaders, placed so much value on honesty and refused to view lies as acceptable tools for gain, how have our political and corporate cultures changed to the point where lies are not only accepted, but expected? As I have limited space, an in-depth analysis of the changed attitude toward lies as acceptable tools is not possible. Instead, let us take a look at the more obvious indicators of change in recent U.S. history.

Richard Nixon during Watergate
[Photo by Charles Tasnadi/AP Images]
As many of you may have suspected, the most obvious indicator of the change came during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Nixon’s political career began in 1947 and ended nearly 30 years later with his resignation, thanks to his involvement in the Watergate scandal. To the American public, his involvement was not nearly as damning as his lies concerning that involvement. In fact, Time included Nixon’s most famous quote concerning the scandal in its list of the “Top 10 Unfortunate Political One-Liners.”

“I am not a crook.”

Fast forward to the mid-90s and Bill Clinton’s presidency, and more indicators of the changed view toward lies as acceptable tools became evident when Monica Lewinsky entered the picture. By the time of his 1999 impeachment hearings, most Americans were certain that Clinton had attempted to use lies as tools to fight charges of obstruction of justice and perjury. Today, less than 20 years after the impeachment trial, Clinton’s presidency is remembered fondly. More surprisingly, perhaps, is that his approval ratings remained fairly high even during his impeachment.

Today, politicians use lies as tools for political gain regularly, as do business leaders. From looking at the careers of various political and business leaders, such as Enron executive Kenneth Lay, Bernie Madoff, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton, and examining the number of lies that helped them to rise and, in the case of Lay and Madoff, to fall, it appears that lies as acceptable tools are the way of the modern world.

From lies ranging from ridiculous to simple, although intentional, misrepresentations about education, experience or success to blatant lies about corporate accounts and illegal activities, it seems no lie is too big for the American public to overlook. But how did this happen? How did Americans become so complacent that they are willing to accept these lies without confronting them? My theory: image.

Today, image is the most important thing to most Americans, especially the country’s professionals. Social media has allowed people to use lies as tools to create images and present them to the world. No longer does a company have to go public to become well known. Instead, all a company has to do is build a strong social media campaign, spend some money on marketing, and flood the web with stories of its success, whether those stories are true or lies.

The same is true for individuals. Fame is now the drug of choice for people from Hollywood to Des Moines and beyond. Recognition is like heroin, and people will do anything, including using blatant lies as tools, to obtain their next high.

Is there a way to change the “lies as acceptable tools” culture? If there is, it begins with the people who are not afraid to confront the liars, with those who are willing to stand up for honesty and the values that helped make this country great.

[Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

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