Lying isn’t what it used to be

Lying used to be an offense that caused people to stop trusting and believing you. Now, it’s a “mistake” that’s to be weighed against the liar’s virtues before deciding if he is to be trusted.

I noticed this in my law practice. When I first started out, you hit the litigation jackpot if you could show that the opposing party had lied about any semi-material fact. If you showed this in the pre-trial stages, opposing counsel usually would settle the case for peanuts. If you showed it during trial, the judge or the jury would slam the lying party.

As time went on, I noticed that judges and juries were less impressed by a showing that a party lied. To take but one example, in my last trial, a case I handled for a friend last year, the judge (who was generally excellent and who decided the merits in our favor) was dismissive of evidence that demonstrated dishonesty by the opposing party.

The turning point, I think, was the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky matter. President Clinton was revealed to have lied under oath in a legal proceeding. But most people considered him a good president and the lie was about a private, sensitive matter, his sex life. Thus, Clinton was able to ride out the storm (though he later lost his law license).

It was understandable that people who liked the Clinton presidency didn’t want it terminated over a lie, even one made under oath. But the forgiving of Clinton seems to have had a spillover effect.

In 2001, the rabbi of our synagogue was accused of misappropriating funds. Arguing in favor of retaining the rabbi, Dennis Ross, then a member of the congregation, noted that the rabbi had been delivering great, passionate sermons ever since the allegations of wrongdoing surfaced.

Whatever may be true of a U.S. president, dishonest behavior, one would have thought, trumps quality sermons in a spiritual leader. One would also think that making up events trumps all other qualities in a television news presenter.

But righteous behavior may not be central to the true job description of a “spiritual leader” in ultra-liberal Bethesda, Maryland (though in fairness, this particular rabbi lost his job). Saying the right things and putting on a good show may count for more.

Similarly, honest reporting of events may not be central to the true job description of a network news anchor. In the view of the networks that employ them, the anchorman’s job may have more to do with being a calming presence, someone you want to invite into your home.

Bill O’Reilly tells us that Brian Williams “is not a bad guy.” Jonah Goldberg says that if Williams were his friend, he wouldn’t end the friendship just because Williams falsely claimed he came under attack in Iraq.

I have no reason to disagree with O’Reilly and I tend to agree with Goldberg. But their statements have no bearing on whether Williams should retain his job as presenter of the news.

Lying isn’t what it used to be. And if Williams keeps his job, lying isn’t much of anything at all.

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