The art of the lie

by David Bardallis
web posted August 16, 1999

At any given moment, we are surrounded by things. Some things we are aware of, like light, heat, and moisture. Some things we tend not to notice: nitrogen, microorganisms, neutrinos.

So it is with lies. We are surrounded by them daily, and some -- outright untruths -- are quite noticeable. If the person spinning a whopper doesn't give himself away immediately, it is generally just a quick fact-check away to confirm our suspicions that we're being snookered.

Other lies are less noticeable. Everyone has heard of "lying by omission." But even that has grown into such a standard practice that most people know to guard against it, especially if the offender has been caught at it before. ("Mr. President, when you say that there is no sexual relationship....")

There is a third kind of lying which is increasingly prevalent, and that is what I call "lying by euphemism." It tends to be a more subtle art than the first two and it consists of always using the most vague and general terms possible so as not to rouse the intellect of those listening (or reading, as the case may be).

Not surprisingly, politicians -- in their efforts to deliver the moon and the stars to everyone (at no cost, of course) -- are frequent users of this art form. Senator Spendalot, Representative Revenue, or even President Pricetag, for example, may mean, "I want to double the size and budget of the Department of Do-goodism, and to do it I need to raise your taxes to the stratosphere." But to be that direct runs the risk of giving his audience a chance to form an actual opinion about his ideas.

What to do? Why, something like this will serve in a pinch: "Far too many of our fellow citizens suffer from not having enough good done to them. Every night in America, thousands of children go to bed without knowing the joy of this goodness. Let us come together as a community to ensure that in the wealthiest nation in the world, even the poor and disadvantaged can be lifted up to enjoy much good done to them by a kind and compassionate country."

In this instance, it makes no difference whether or not the Department of Do-Goodism actually does anyone any good. What's important is that our heroic politician wants to spend more of the public purse on it. If the Department's track record isn't enough to justify its expanded role, then surely some lofty-sounding generalities will work.

Oftentimes this deceptively vague language becomes so watered down that it passes from simple evasion into sheer meaninglessness. Consider this philosophical dissertation on political economy from Bill Clinton: "For five years now we have met the challenge of these changes as Americans have at every turning point -- by renewing the very idea of America: widening the circle of opportunity, deepening the meaning of our freedom, forging a more perfect union."

I'll leave that for future historians to sort out.

Meanwhile, we know that we are paying taxes that are higher than ever under the regime Clinton, that the president's wife and her coterie of megalomaniacs and misfits attempted in 1993 to make health care decisions for a quarter of a billion people, and that the Chinese communists may now be able to lob atomic bombs at us thanks to Clinton and Gore's insatiable lust for campaign boodle.

Of these fine accomplishments, America's 42nd President proudly says, "We shaped a new kind of government ... that is leaner, more flexible, a catalyst for new ideas -- and most of all, a government that gives the American people the tools they need to make the most of their own lives."

They don't call him the Sage of Arkansas for nothing.

I don't mean to pick exclusively on Bill Clinton; he is far from being the only modern prophet of political profundity. Were I given a wooden nickel for every obfuscation, fabrication, and prevarication put across by politicians of all stripes, I could build a vessel that would give Noah's old dinghy a run for its money. It's simply the nature of the beast.

But perhaps more than any chief executive before him, Clinton has elevated the art of the lie to its most brazen and visible practice yet. Every day he weaves a new tapestry of fantastic yarns and tall tales. He freely draws from each of the three categories of lies, choosing, as necessity dictates, from his bag of angry denials, strategic omissions, and ambiguous jabber.

I would venture that nobody -- including Bill Clinton's supporters -- falls for the denials and omissions anymore. But sadly, a dumbed-down public is often swayed by lofty rhetoric, filled with important-sounding words and seemingly sincere sentiments that are in actuality utterly without meaning. Deliberate gobbledygook is just as deceptive as even the bluntest falsehood.

Deciphering political drivel is not only a matter of reading between the lines; it is often an exercise in reading between lines of invisible ink.

David Bardallis lives and works in Michigan as a writer/editor. He may be reached at

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