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With Kaethe Morris Hoffer

Kaethe Morris Hoffer, a feminist attorney, explores equality, justice, and the complexities of living in a world in which power is abused and gendered.

All Lies Are Not Created Equal
©Kaethe Morris Hoffer, 2004

Does a falsehood only cause harm if the speaker knows he is lying? What if he honestly believes he is speaking the truth? Does the "reasonableness" of his belief matter? Does the subject of his lie-or its consequences-matter?

I believe that all people are, and should be treated as, equals. But I support discrimination between, as well as against, lies. And I'm not just talking about excusing the kinds of lies people tell to avoid insulting each other ("that pie was delicious" "you look marvelous" "no, those pants don't make you look fat"). I'm talking about differentiating between lies even when they are both whoppers, and even when they both involve serious, moral, weighty, issues.

Specifically, I'm thinking about the differences-and the similarities-between the falsehoods told America by President Clinton, and the falsehoods told us by President Bush. Ultimately, I believe it is phenomenally worse to mislead a country about the nature of a threat posed by another sovereign nation, than to mislead a country about the nature of a personal (albeit inappropriate) relationship.

When President Clinton first denied having sex with Monica Lewinsky, he may have believed he was telling the truth, because he thought "sex" didn't describe what he did with her. According to recent research, the definition of sex he employed is common among young people in our country, many of who do not count oral intercourse as "sex." However tortured-or adolescent-his analysis, the story he told his family and the American public was false, and his presidency barely survived impeachment hearings in Congress. President Clinton was caught in a great big ugly lie, and the outrage it inspired nearly toppled his administration.

Like most people, I am troubled by adultery, as well as by relationships between superiors and subordinates in job settings. And like most Americans, I was tremendously upset by the President's affair with a woman barely older than his daughter. When the allegations about the Lewinsky affair first surfaced, the word "outrage" barely described my reaction. But beyond the "offense" he caused with his undeniably gross behavior, I'm not sure that he really harmed anyone beyond his wife, his daughter, and his intern.

In contrast to President Clinton, who uttered falsehoods about his private life, President Bush employed falsehoods to justify making war in Iraq. Now, I am not denying that Saddam Hussein was a cruel leader, a corrupt official, and a downright bad man. But there are many corrupt, cruel, bad men leading nations all over the globe, and President Bush never suggested that this was enough reason to preemptively engage in war. Rather, he repeatedly told us that Iraq was this/close to controlling weapons of mass destruction, he repeatedly asserted that Iraq was this/close to al Qaeda, and he continually argued that invading Iraq was a critical and necessary step in responding to the terrorist war that struck our shores on September 11, 2001.

But according to the published accounts of various and bi-partisan fact-finding commissions, high-ranking Administration officials who had the President's ear (but not his heart), and evidence exposed through the invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, there was never any credible evidence that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States. Specifically discredited have been Bush Administration allegations of ties between Iraq and al Qaeda, assertions about Iraqi control over weapons of mass destruction, and implications of a connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11.

So, just as with Clinton before him, President Bush has been caught in a great big ugly lie. And just like Clinton, it has become clear that President Bush employed a tortured and adolescent method of analyzing reality in order to justify his continued belief in the story he told the American people. Where Clinton employed ridiculous definitions of "sex" and parsed the meaning of the word "is" into absurdity, Bush and his inner circle ignored information and advice that was contrary to their ideology, elevated to truth every bit of information-however flawed-that supported their pre-determined conclusions, and silenced real debate on war against Iraq by defining contrary positions as un-patriotic.

But unlike the deceit engaged in by President Clinton, which likely broke a number of hearts, and which definitely caused many people to become very angry, President Bush's fraud led directly to the deaths of more than 900 Americans, countless Iraqis, and untold others. As a majority of Americans join most of the rest of the world in believing the United States was wrong to invade Iraq, countless families here and around the globe are struggling to make their way following the shattering loss of sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters.

So where is the outrage? Where are the calls for the impeachment of a President who so clearly and so powerfully spoke words that didn't have a basis in fact? Perhaps the mothers and fathers of those killed in Iraq are too exhausted by grief to fight a president who sent their children into harms' way under false pretenses. Perhaps too many people are hamstrung by the myth that challenging a commander in chief is the same as betraying our soldiers. Perhaps our passion for fighting terrorism muddies our commitment to doing it in a just and reasonable manner. Perhaps this situation is just more complicated, and involves greater complicity on our part, than another man's act of adultery.

Fighting terrorism is definitely more complicated than refraining from adultery. But no one ever said that being President is easy, and we have a right to expect truthfulness from our Presidents on the complex issues, as well as the simple ones. Fundamentally, President Bush chose to adhere to a viewpoint that was immune to evidence and reason, and his justifications for attacking Iraq now look as credible as the red-faced denials of a husband with someone else's lipstick on his neck. President Bush lied to us, just like President Clinton did, but the consequences of Bush's lies are far graver than the harms caused by Clinton's philandering. And ultimately, President Bush deserves to be regarded by the American public as a man whose lies were far worse for our country than those of any lying, cheating, spouse.

Kaethe Morris Hoffer
[email protected]



Kaethe is an attorney from Evanston, Illinois. She served on the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois from 1999 to 2003, where she chaired the Commission's Violence Reduction Working Group. She is co-author of the Gender Violence Act.



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