The Last Word: Half-Truths and Worse

“This chamber literally reeks of blood.” The speaker was Senator George McGovern, the subject was American involvement in Vietnam, and the chamber in question was the United States Senate.

At the time, I was favorably disposed toward McGovern; I shared his general views about Vietnam. Yet that statement shocked me, disturbed me; it forced me to recognize that I could not support the senator’s position. Quite possibly, that one sentence kicked off a series of perceptions that led me, eventually, to switch sides of the political spectrum.

In an era marked by extravagant political rhetoric, why did one sentence bother me so much? Because Senator McGovern told a lie. Well, maybe not an outright lie; surely he did not intend to mislead anyone. But his rhetorical zeal took him across the boundary of honesty. What he said was, self-evidently, not true.

Notice, in that sentence, the word “literally.” Therein lies the whole problem. Had McGovern said simply, “This chamber reeks of blood,” he, surely would have captured his colleagues’ attention; the metaphor is a powerful one, even an offensive one. But he chose to include the word “literally” in his sentence. That word is not a mere intensifier; it has a discernible meaning. By using that word, McGovern converted a metaphorical statement, a rhetorical flourish, into a purported statement of fact. And that fact was objectively wrong. Say what you will about the U.S. Senate; when you enter the chamber, you do not smell blood.

But surely, you might say, this is a small matter. McGovern was simply carried away by his passions. We all make such mistakes. True enough. But McGovern’s mistake was not an isolated example. On the contrary, opponents of U.S. involvement in Vietnam had often made similarly outrageous claims against their ideological opponents. The tendency toward wildly inaccurate claims, the tendency to demonize one’s political adversaries, had already become the hallmark of a particular style of politics. That demogogic style — that dishonest style — is still all too common in public debate today.

Let me illustrate. A few weeks ago, President Reagan delivered a major address on U.S. policy toward South Africa. Many listeners pronounced the speech unsatisfactory. But Bishop Desmond Tutu went much further. Reagan was “nauseating,” he announced, adding that for all he cared the West could go to hell. Well, Bishop Tutu is entitled to his opinions, although the latter does not seem altogether appropriate for a Christian clergyman. Still, he was not finished. Bishop Tutu charged that Reagan’s announced policies were designed to enhance the power of apartheid. There, the bishop stepped over the line, into falsehood.

One can easily disagree with Reagan’s policies toward South Africa (just as one could reasonably disapprove of U.S. conduct in Vietnam) without claiming that the President intends to bolster the forces of oppression there. The situation is not a simple one; any given set of diplomatic proposals might prove faulty. Rep. William Clay (D-Penn.), in expressing his own dissatisfaction with Reagan’s speech, complained that the President’s policies would play into the hands of the South African rulers. Right or wrong, Clay’s argument is certainly a responsible one. Clay does not claim that Ronald Reagan is an evil man; only that he is making a mistake. Unfortunately it was the bishop, not the congressman, who dominated the headlines.

In happier days, politics involves the civil art of compromise. Political adversaries do not always see eye to eye, but they do agree at least to disagree politely, to assume each other’s good will and to seek a common ground. To be sure, debaters point out the weaknesses in their opponents’ arguments; but at least they make an effort to render those arguments accurately.

Demagogues, however, practice politics by a different formula. The object, apparently, is not simply to refute an opponent’s position, but to convince the public — through the omnipresent eye of the television camera — that that opponent is a scoundrel. And if, in the pursuit of that object, the demagogues find it necessary to caricature an opponent’s arguments, or distort his record — well, what’s a little exaggeration?

So, rather than engaging the issues directly, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, trade grotesque and insulting charges. If the issue is nuclear defense, we are asked to believe that one side favors war, while the other is willing to surrender immediately. If the issue is welfare, one side is accused of indifference, the other of inventing phony poverty statistics. On Nicaragua, both sides are charged with supporting murderers.

As I write, the Senate is considering Reagan’s new nominees for the Supreme Court. And Joseph Rauh, that doyen of Washington’s old liberal establishment, has stated that Justice William Rehnquist “isn’t interested in individual rights.” Well. Indeed. Does Rehnquist nod off to sleep when he reads the Bill of Rights? If not, then Rauh, too, has crossed over the line.


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