2005-11-10 / Sam Bari

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand

Politicians and the truth about lies
By Sam Bari

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand

Remember when you were a kid and played that game called telephone, or Chinese whispers? You whispered something in your friend’s ear, and the friend passed it on to another person, and that person passed it on until the message was delivered to let’s say, twenty people. When the twentieth person revealed what he or she heard, it had nothing to do with the original message. It was a great game.

I was always amazed that the results were invariably the same. The original message never survived. Passing on information to more than one person and expecting it to remain intact is an absurd concept. It’s like expecting a fisherman to never exaggerate when telling about the one that got away. The fish always gets bigger with each telling of the tale. Why? Because we enjoy telling and listening to a good story in our mundane, day-to-day lives.

That’s why gossip is so popular. You can change it to fit any situation. For instance, a teenage girl will not describe a hot date she had to her mom and her girlfriends in the same way, and for obvious reasons. I think you get the idea, which takes us to today’s topic.

Although newspapers discourage columnists from playing in the political arena, sometimes it’s just too irresistible. You see — I have a theory about politicians and their staffs that is not party sensitive. I think the government, inadvertently or otherwise, mixes gossip with a complex game of Chinese Whispers and occasionally it gets them into trouble.

Let’s say that the president told his chief of staff to have a letter drafted to Yale University saying that the president was injured in an unfortunate accident when he fell off his horse onto a cactus this weekend. He regrets that he will not be able to attend your commencement exercises, but he sends his best wishes.

Sounds innocent enough, but by the time the chief of staff tells his secretary who calls the president’s secretary, who verbally relays the message to her assistant who actually writes the letter, it could come out like this: The President injured his butt when he fell off his horse onto a cactus this weekend. He regrets the unfortunate accident and will not be able to send his best wishes to attend to your commencement exercises.

The words sound the same, but when presented in a slightly different order, they have a dramatically different flavor and meaning. I’m sure that a letter of this nature would not be at the forefront of important things to check by the president and an error like this could happen in the Washington version of Chinese Whispers.

In light of recent events, a few politicians who are in lofty positions at the national level have inadvertently found themselves in situations where they are in unfamiliar territory. That is, covering up lies. Now before you jump to conclusions and say, “Is he nuts? The success of many political careers is dependent on covering up lies.”

Think about this carefully. Politicians are accustomed to covering up the truth, not lies. During the last few months, they have been caught off balance while attempting to stage clandestine or covert operations.

To cover them up, people “in the know,” so to speak, feel that it is their responsibility to protect their administration. So, they lie from time to time, hoping that their planted rumors will find their way to the press and divert attention from the secret activities.

Don’t you think they could sometimes get confused because they have to make up lies to cover up other lies, and somewhere along the line in the Washington version of Chinese Whispers, they probably get the facts muddled? I think it happens a lot. Then, quite inadvertently — in the middle of all the confusion somebody accidentally prints the truth. Oooops! That sets Washington on its ear. They don’t have much experience actually accounting for the truth. It’s kind of a new concept, at least to them.

Show the aforementioned scenario to any politician worth his salt, and he will jump on it faster than a Rottweiler after a pork chop. “Sounds like a perfectly good defense to me,” he’ll say. “We do what is necessary to prevent compromising the security of our great nation and protect our administration. But things don’t always go as planned. Leave it to the media to take a perfectly good lie and twist it into the truth. Sometimes there’s just nothin’ we can do?”

I suppose it is rather sad that after an unblemished record of distorting the facts, their downfall is the one time they told the truth, accidentally or not.

What is most amazing, however, is that they’ll probably get off the hook by blaming the media for not recognizing the need to lie. Huh? Are you confused? Hmmm . . . so am I. However, I think that’s what they want. I guess it’s just part of that system we can’t understand.

Return to top