Why presidential candidates lie

Posted: July 10, 2012

Politicians are so famous for their spin that it's hard to find examples of pure honesty on the campaign trail. And as much as voters say they want honesty, truth-tellers tend to have difficulty getting to — or keeping — the Oval Office.

President Jimmy Carter never used the word malaise in the famous speech he gave on July 15, 1979. But that's how the sermon has been remembered.

Carter began by criticizing himself, reading aloud Americans' thoughts on what was wrong with his presidency. He then critiqued the American character: "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption." He warned of "growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools."

Carter's approval rating actually went up in the days after the speech. But two days later, he fired his entire Cabinet, squandering whatever goodwill he had gained. Republicans hammered on the downbeat message, and Ronald Reagan won in a landslide the next fall.

In 1988, one of the most controversial presidential-debate questions of all time went to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. CNN's Bernard Shaw asked, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

Dukakis responded calmly. "No, I don't, Bernard," he said. "And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life."

Answering honestly wasn't what doomed Dukakis; plenty of other politicians opposed the death penalty. It was answering without emotion, regarding it as a question about an issue instead of a question about his wife. He was unable to muster the outrage that voters seem to love.

Barry Goldwater's fans and detractors agree on one thing: He was honest to a fault. The 1964 Republican presidential candidate made no secret of his extreme conservatism, and he offered Democrats plenty of fodder for campaign ads.

That may have suited him just fine: After John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Goldwater largely lost enthusiasm for the campaign. Pressured into running but still a long shot, he felt free to say what he thought. For example, he proposed that NATO commanders be given the authority to use nuclear weapons and once joked, "Let's lob one into the men's room at the Kremlin." He casually suggested selling the popular Tennessee Valley Authority.

President Lyndon B. Johnson beat Goldwater in a landslide. In 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon beat Democrat George McGovern by a similarly wide margin, Goldwater wrote him a note saying, "George — If you must lose, lose big."

Rachel Weiner is a political reporter for the Washington Post.

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