Benjamin Wachs: Accepting a new class -- professional liars

Benjamin Wachs

The Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel was decked out for Scott McClellan, the former Bush Press Secretary. Packed to capacity, it had an odd cotillion kind of look that 16-year-old girls in tacky dresses would have felt right at home with: as if the theme of the day was "Mission Accomplished Under the Sea."

McClellan was here to promote his new book about the Bush administration, but the program promised a full and candid discussion about the political climate. In my time as a journalist I've met all manner of human monsters  —  gangsters, mobsters, pimps and traffickers  —  from around the world. But I'd never met a man who helped shill for a war he now admitted was wrong. I wondered: would that kind of guilt show on his face? In the way he carried himself?

McClellan, when I first got a glimpse of him, was looking healthy. Well rested. Smiling. He opened his presentation with a joke. He had very little to say, it turned out, about the war he'd been responsible for promoting: He did not mention American casualties even once. But he had several things to say about the courage and fortitude it took for him to write his book.

"I know it closed doors to me, and hopefully it will open some new opportunities as well," he said. "It's not easy – these were people I worked closely with."

It seems that everyone in the White House except McClellan was actively subverting democracy – something that, with the benefit of hindsight , he is against – but McClellan saved a special scorn for the people really responsible for our rush to an ill-founded war: the media.

How could they have believed the lies he told them, McClellan asked incredulously. Didn't they know democracy was at stake?

Even among monsters, this is chutzpah. The gangsters I'd once talked to knew that shaking people down was wrong. The mobsters who bought me drinks never pretended there was a noble reason for shooting people. The pimps and traffickers did not claim to be shocked that there was prostitution in their brothels. None of these people felt guilty ... exactly … but they never tried to justify their decisions as being anything other than raw self-interest.

But in claiming to be noble for personally opposing a war and administration that he publicly supported, McClellan is the most egregious example of just how low we've set the bar: we have become so accustomed to lying that it no longer seems condemnable … and we'll give someone a standing ovation just for admitting, after the fact and far too late, that they knew what the truth was. 

McClellan 's defense is that by the narrow ethics of his profession, the paid shill … in which you represent whoever is paying you regardless of right, wrong, or your personal integrity … he did the correct thing.

Amazingly, he's right.

I say this not to defend McClellan, who is indefensible: Small ethical rights can never make up for enormous moral wrongs. I say it to condemn the way our society has unblinkingly accepted a new class of professionals like him into social respectability: professional liars.

People have been lying since the early days of grunts and gestures, but whatever riches they gained from it were considered ill-gotten results of despicable acts. Now we pay them up front.

There's no question that McClellan was a professional liar … just as there's no doubt that the people paid to discredit smoking studies, advertise sham diet pills, and sell subprime mortgages to people who qualify for prime are. There's no question that you can go to school and major in several forms of lying, or go to graduate school to study advanced mendacity.

But when did these become legitimate activities? At what point did telling the truth stop being a moral obligation?  When did portraying sugary food as good for children become more respectable than cleaning streets or laying brick? Defense lawyers at least serve an essential social function – everyone has the right to a competent defense – but what social function does the paid liar serve except to cover up for the powerful? In what way have we ever been better off for his services?

It's not just that we put up with it, we encourage it. Scott McClellan got a book deal.

It's a reminder that in the Information Age truth itself has become a commodity: it can be bought, sold, traded, spun. And if you don't like the one you have, another can be found for the right price.

This is an extremely sophisticated kind of hemlock. We've found a way to kill the truth itself while leaving Socrates alive to write for Madison Avenue.

As a commodity, truth will not set us free, only make us rich. Are we better off for it? That depends. Would you have rather McClellan told us the truth while he was still in the White House?

Benjamin Wachs writes weekly for Messenger Post Newspapers' online and print editions.