In the aftermath of the exposure and resignation from Congress of Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., his colleagues, some journalists, ethicists and pundits are trying to sort out what it means.
Has a new standard been created in Washington, D.C.? How can Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., remain in office under an ethical cloud about money and Weiner be forced to resign because he had fantasy sex? It wasn't even real sex, like Bill Clinton had.
Clinton also lied about sex and was impeached for lying (but not for the sex). Some wondered then if standards had fallen for occupants of the Oval Office, or whether the behavior of Clinton and some Republicans mirror a national moral decline.
The Washington Post ran a front-page story last Friday, the subheading of which said, "Had congressman not lied, colleague says, 'it could have ended differently.'"
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So it isn't what used to be called moral turpitude that did Weiner in, but lying about it? If he had not been exposed, would he have been any less morally guilty? Who decides?
Not the voters. Democratic Party leaders forced Weiner out. They were embarrassed by his behavior, and they wished to discuss other things.
In an age when what is normal is determined by culture and opinion polls, and when "orthodoxy" is regarded as something to be avoided, deviance has ceased to have meaning. That's because there is now no nationally accepted standard by which it can be measured and, thus, be used to hold people, even members of Congress, accountable.
If lying is now the unpardonable political sin, we may at last have found a way to limit congressional terms. If lying is sufficient reason to expel a member, then the halls of Congress may soon be vacant of all but the janitors who empty the trash at night.
All politicians lie at some level, even Jimmy Carter, who promised during the 1976 campaign and in the aftermath of Watergate, "I'll never lie to you." He did, though. Google "Jimmy Carter lies" and read for yourself.
George H.W. Bush promised, "Read my lips. No new taxes." We read his lips, but were they lying lips? He caved into Congress, which raised taxes during his single term. Bush signed the legislation.
In 1963, Pentagon spokesman Arthur Sylvester spoke about government's "inherent right to lie." Granted, it was in the context of "to save itself when facing a nuclear disaster." But as we know from the Pentagon Papers, lies from government became commonplace during the Vietnam War. More than 58,000 Americans, whose names appear on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, are victims of those lies.
President Obama's lies about many things are cataloged on various websites and increasingly in mainstream newspapers. Glenn Kessler, who writes the Fact Checker column for the Washington Post, recently awarded the president "three Pinocchios" (out of four) for his claim that "Chrysler has repaid every dime and more of what it owes American taxpayers for their support during my presidency."
Republicans lie, too.
If lying about something, rather than bad ideas or bad behavior, is the new standard in Washington, someone had better tell the politicians.
Thomas Jefferson did in a 1785 letter to Peter Carr: "He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions."