Saturday, September 17, 2005

The politics of Truth

The subtitle for this blog is the Politics of Truth. It is a subject in which I have more than a passing interest. I have been a politician, and have dealt with political types for quite some time.

The issues that elected officials face with facts are fascinating to me. I’ve said it earlier, there are some facts that are undeniable, but politically can never be uttered. Those truths are simply understood and factored into political decisions without comment.

There are also falsehoods that people intuitively believe to be true. And no matter how loudly you attempt to deal with the truth of the issue, you’ll never win that discourse.

So politicians must understand the public discourse and the falsehoods that by general pronouncements are true, and some truths that can never be publicly declared. One day I’ll put together a list. It is a list, which will generate more controversy than the post would be worth.

But I digress.

Another issue politicians face is that they must act, or speak, or vote on an issue before all of the truth is available. Such is Katrina. Thrust before a television camera and asked a question – an answer is expected. And nearly all politicians will oblige. The smart ones sneak around the question. In the end, the “Blame Game” surrounding Katrina may well leave some folks embarrassed. I suspect that’s why there’s the great eschewing of politics and “reaching across the party lines” right now. No one knows who the loser will be.

But once spoken, or once a vote is cast, it becomes part of your “permanent record” as a politician and likely to be used to benefit you, or slander you when you have your next job evaluation (election).

So, Truth in Politics is what I was thinking about when I dove head long into the blogging world. Katrina has certainly caught more of my attention lately, but still I’ve been accumulating issues and items to discuss.

A court case from Washington State got my attention last week, because it centered around truth and political campaigns. Truthful political campaigns may seem an oxymoron, but most campaigns have a kernel in truth in all of their efforts to sway the voters. (wink).

In Washington, a state law dating back to 1999 provided a means for taking legal action against a candidate who ran political advertising about an opponent that wasn’t truthful. The state appeals court found that the law was unconstitutional.

"Although the stated intent of the Legislature was to 'provide protection for candidates for public office against false statements of material fact sponsored with actual malice,' the statute does not require any element of damage to the reputation of the maligned candidate," Judge C.C. Bridgewater wrote for the appeals panel.

The truth-in-campaigning law also allows candidates to falsely puff up their own records and backgrounds, further showing that it is "not narrowly tailored to the PDC's interest in promoting integrity and honesty in the elections process and chills protected political speech," Bridgewater wrote.

The law overturned by the ruling was enacted by the Legislature in 1999, a year after a similar ban on false statements involving initiatives and other ballot measures was thrown out by the state Supreme Court.

The Rickert decision reversed a ruling by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Paula E. Casey in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on her behalf.

In a campaign flier Rickert said the incumbent, Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, "voted to close a facility for the developmentally challenged." Sheldon won re-election, then filed a complaint with the commission, asserting that he was the only legislator who voted to keep it open.
Not only was the law defective in failing to require proof of damage, but "Sen. Sheldon does not claim any damage by the alleged false material ... and he won the election by an overwhelming majority," Bridgewater wrote.

Two key points here:

If you win the election, as a politician, no lie about you can be said to have damaged your reputation.

A law that penalizes you for lying about your opponent, but allows you to lie about yourself with impunity – isn’t fair.

Actually, the real point here is – let the people be the great diviners of truth. That’s what elections are about. Aren’t they?
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