Ahead by a nose


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HOLLYWOOD 2016
146
VANITY FAIR
www.vanityfair.com
nn Romney gave the game away four years
of the Republican presidential contender in
2012 spelled it all out in a way that should
have been embarrassing to everyone involved
in politics.
A Democratic political operative named
Hilary Rosen had commented publicly in
a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper
that Ann Romney never worked a day in
her life. This overlooked the fact that, as
a homemaker, Romney had successfully
A
ILLUSTRATIONS BY
BARRY BLITT
AHEAD BY A NOSE
Donald Trumps whoppers have turned the media focus from
gaffesthe fuel of election coverage pastto lies. But all that fact-checking
wont keep a liar out of the White House
TRUMPERY
The statements of
one man above all
have pushed the
media to call a lie
a lie when rst
reported.
raised five nearly identical, Wasp-perfect
sons. Five out of veit almost dees the
laws of physics. Republicans leapt on
Rosens remark as an insult to women who
had chosen to stay home and raise a fam
-
ily rather than pursue a career in the work-
force. This is a substantial bloc of voters,
especially in the Republican Party. It was
Ann Romneys role in this staged melo
-
drama to be deeply oended and hurt by
Rosens remark. But she missed her cue
and instead she called Rosens comment an
MICHAEL KINSLEY
HOLLYWOOD 2016
147
www.vanityfair.com
VANITY FAIR
early birthday present.
This was a gaffea
word that barely exists outside
the world of politics but has come to be the
principal mechanism by which politicians
and the press keep things moving along. Hil
-
ary Rosens comment, which led to Ann
Romneys comment, was also a gae. As we
all know, a gae is when a politician tells the
truth. (If I hear that line one more time, Ill
scream, says Arianna. A pause. Darling,
she adds.) Or, more subtly, a gaffe occurs
when a politician or someone in the political
world departs from the script and acciden
-
tally says whats really on his or her mind.
Ann Romney revealed that she was not hurt
or distressed but delighted that a prominent
Democrat had committed a gae. A feigned
dynamic is central to the gae-o-rama that
American politics has becomewhich in
turn plays to the growing role of umbrage in
many corners of American culture.
A variant on outright umbrage is the sor
-
supposed victim of a gaffe is not enraged
but deeply saddened. Saddened suggests
a certain dignity and seriousness: You are
far too big a person to take oense at your
opponents offensive remark. You are just
-
ity should drive him or her to such depths of
depravity and gaery.
T
his election season, a rival has arisen
to challenge the gae as the essential
fuel that keeps politics chugging along.
Its known as the lie. A lie is a much more
straightforward matter than a gae. In recent
elections, gaes have been given far more atten
-
tion than lies: John Kerry saying he was for the
Iraq war before he was against it; Mitt Romney
eectively dening 47 percent of the electorate
as freeloaders. But in the past year, fact-
checking, which had begun to get real traction
in 2008, has become all the rage among the
of analy sis, comes along.
(Analysis is newspaper code
for this is the real skinny
just ignore all of our earlier
stu.) But there are lies and
then there are lies. Magazines
have always had fact-checkersover
-
worked, underpaid, and often amaz-
ingly attractive (its best to stay on
their good side)who excel at nding mis-
takes by a writer before an article appears.
But it isnt even their job to correct delib-
erate lies by the subject of a piece.
A
ny analysis of lying and
its role in democracy
must pause to consider
what is probably the greatest
lie ever to grace our politics:
Bill Clintons magnificent I did
not have sexual relations with that
woman, of 1998. Its worthy of study by
anyone with political ambitions (though not
just anyone could pull it o). This lie had ev
-
erything. Above all, it was an actual attempt
to mislead people on a concrete question of
factand, for a time, it even worked. Most po-
litical lies are not intended to actually change
anyones mind. Its usually too late for that.
Ordinary political lies are merely intended
to sow confusion and sprinkle a bit of doubt.
If lying politicians can supply a reed to their
own supporters who are grasping for one, the
job will have been done.
A great political lie should not be com
-
plicated. Subject matter is important. A run-
of-the-mill lie may concern itself with some
minor or ancient indiscretion. A somewhat
grander lie will be about a matter of policy,
such as saying you have always supported
Medicare when as a governor you opposed
it. Taking the hard waythe eastern ascent
of Everestis what turns a good lie into a
masterpiece. The subject will return from
policy to the personal. At its best, it will in
-
volve sexor, rather, as Clinton would have
it, it will not involve sex. Orand this is the
truly glorious part of his liewhether or not
it involves sex will become the very issue. A
great political lie, when it works, performs
triple duty. It deceives people about the sub
-
ject at hand. It deceives people about the
character of the politician in question. And
it provides a distraction.
It is good to be focusing on lies again, be
-
cause our next president will be a liar. How
do I know? Every candidate who survives
into election year is a proven liar. Maybe
Lincoln Chafee or (is it possible?) Rick
Perry has never told a conscious, knowing
lie. Where are they now? But Hillary Clin
-
ton has, and so have all those Republicans,
including, of course, Donald Trump. Still,
I would rather have a congenital gaer as
president than a congenital liar. It would be
nice not to have to make the choice. 
media. This is an excellent develop
-
ment, which I am not here to mock.
But if I were here to mock it, I might point
out the triviality or irrelevance of many lies that
become issues in the campaign. Does it really
America in 1959 (eeing Castros revolution in
Cuba, as he claimed for years) or in 1956 (well
before the revolution, as he eventually admit
-
ted)? Well, yes, it does matter, though only be-
cause if he lied about this, then it says some-
thing about his character. But does it say
enough to justify the time taken away from
discussion of what to do about Iranian nukes
or income inequality? As coverage of cam
-
paign mechanics and triing details becomes
more pervasive, coverage of issues a president
will actually have to deal with is crowded out.
Publications such as Politico (confession: I
used to work there; its a swell place) and an
innity of Web sites and cable-TV shows have
all raised the importance of trivia.
So, the role of the gae is receding. The
old-fashioned lie is making a comeback.
Question for today: Is this a good thing or a
bad thing? Its actually a puzzle to me why
anyone takes gaffes seriously at all. Why
shouldnt the words that a candidate has
carefully crafted be considered a more accu
-
rate reection of actual opinion and charac-
ter than the words uttered by accident? This
must arise from a belief that, while a lie is by
denition purposeful, a gae has accidentally
bubbled up from some unattractive (or in
-
which his campaign manager has no control.
A deliberate lie is worse than an accidental
gae. Lies by politicians are inevitable, and it
has taken Donald Trumpwith his claim
that thousands of people in New Jersey (with
its heavy Arab population) cheered the de
-
struction of the Twin Towers; with his claim
that 81 percent of white murder victims are
killed by blacks; and with a lot moreto push
the American media to call a lie a lie when
rst reported, rather than let it sit there
uncontested until the second wave, that
KINSLEY
CHORUS LIE
As gaes recede in
importance, the
old-fashioned
untruth is making a
comeback.
celebrate?

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