There is no better time to think of truth telling and honesty than during the High Holy Days. It is part of the personal reflection we go through as we try to be better people. As we look forward to the New Year, we sadly note that truth is gone from the political realm.
I am no fan of Donald Trump, but clearly, he is not the first democratically elected leader in world history to tell lies. His difficulty with the truth could actually stem from all the political lies and cynicism that came before him.
Now that the recent documentary series, “The Vietnam War,” is being more widely viewed on Netflix, the horrendous lies of presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon can be evaluated in the full bloom of steeping visual evidence that each one of those presidents lacked the courage and the conviction to tell the truth. The truth they couldn’t tell was that the U.S. was fighting a war it couldn’t win.
Trump’s first presidential lie on Inauguration Day centred on his silly insistence that a million people attended his swearing-in. While that lie was analyzed for weeks, let’s remember Oval Office lies about the Vietnam War ultimately cost the lives of close to two million North and South Vietnamese civilians, another million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, 200,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, and 58,000 American soldiers.
Moreover, while commentators remain fixated on Trump’s lies about his extramarital affairs with a porn star and a playboy model, they seem to forget the Iraq War was misguidedly orchestrated on the back of yet another bald-faced lie. With no solid evidence, president George W. Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney told America and the world that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, which no one ever found. They didn’t find a trace of them in all of Iraq. Like Vietnam, the war in Iraq was waged on the back of a presidential whopper.
The human cost of that lie is an estimated 500,000 dead Iraqis and 5,000 dead American soldiers; but there were countless other results, which triggered many more deaths. The destabilization of the region led to an increase in terrorism rather than the intended goal of reigning it in. It cannot be forgotten that ISIS, the most savage terrorist group of all, was incubated by the American-inspired chaos in Iraq.
The saddest tale in this Rubik’s cube of horror is how the U.S. inadvertently provided the arms with which ISIS went to war. First, the Americans disbanded the Iraqi army. Many of the Iraqi soldiers then joined – or were forced to join – ISIS, with their guns, machinery and weapons. Then, when the U.S. left Iraq, ISIS cashed in on even more weaponry and military machinery the Americans left behind. ISIS won the lottery without even buying a ticket.
Truth is always the first casualty of war and that is probably the case for virtually every war ever fought. Naiveté is not what this is about, but the distasteful reality is that so many U.S. presidents told lies in recent times that spilled blood and destroyed American lives, and now so many liberal-minded people are offended because Trump is a major league fibber about comparatively smaller matters.
American political leaders have never lived up to the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree he admitted to cutting down, and maybe that is the lesson all western democracies need. For so long our politics have been tied up in a web of virtue fixed on the premise of politicians telling the truth.
Winning an election and surviving in government often means hiding the truth or telling a lie. Campaigning in the early-1990s, Liberal leader Jean Chrétien promised to kill the GST and free trade with Mexico. Then he came to power and did neither.
In the ‘80s, the Progressive Conservatives fared no better. Brian Mulroney was once asked how Canadians could believe him when even his friends called him “lying Brian.”
So, to all those truth-seeking journalists and commentators who document Trump’s lies, let’s remember what cynics have always said: that all politicians lie.
The only regrettable difference, so close to our Jewish Days of Awe, is you no longer have to be a cynic to say it.