If there’s one quality that unites Democrats and Republicans, politicians and the press corps; it is their mutual propensity for, and expectation of, fabrication.
Often, it’s the small lies that wise and wary observers can sniff out before they do harm: Sure I’ll raise $10,000 for your campaign. You can count on me to support your cause in the legislature. My, you look way too young to be a grandmother! Don’t worry, I’ve had a vasectomy.
Most common is “political spin” which, all too regularly, is simply a euphemism for lying: Barack Obama is a Socialist. The Republicans want to hurt poor people.
Every now and then, you encounter stone-cold, pathological liars in the business. They’re rarer than the profession’s reputation, but I’ve run into too many elected officials, reporters, and political operatives whose every utterance I’ve learned to disbelieve or suffer the consequences. And I despise it.
Yesterday, Barry Bonds was convicted for obstructing justice by lying to a grand jury about his personal steroid use. (Which begs the question — asked by Dashiell Bennett — how could Bonds be guilty of obstructing justice for lying when the perjury charges against him were rejected by the same jury?)
Note that Bonds was not convicted of — or even charged with — illegal use of steroids. His entire prosecution was based on his lying about his use, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to protect his professional reputation.
Bonds is not the cleanest case because steroid use is illegal, and Bonds is such an unlikeable narcissist.
The most famous example of this controversy is even more polarizing. Like Bonds, President Bill Clinton lied to the American people and gave controversial answers to a grand jury in order to protect his public reputation. But here, the underlying misbehavior was not illegal. As Republicans like Newt Gingrich have been quick to assert, the 1998 impeachment was not about the sexual affair — which is not a crime in the District of Columbia — but rather about the President’s lying about it before a grand jury. While Clinton’s verbal parsing may have technically immunized himself against a perjury conviction, it is clear that he was impeached by the House for lying about underlying behavior that wasn’t a crime.
As a former member of the Clinton Administration, I’m biased; but I am comfortable saying that, without any partisan considerations, lying about a perfectly legal action should not be the basis of removal from office. And so did most Americans.
Let’s take an even cleaner case: that of contributing RP Jeff Smith. (Again, I admit bias: Jeff is my friend.) If you’ve read his stunningly candid story on this Web site, you know that Jeff was convicted of lying to federal investigators about whether he had knowledge of a scheme to distribute negative fliers about his campaign opponent. The underlying behavior may have violated campaign finance rules, but surely did not merit a jail sentence. And I argue, neither should his lying about it.
Did Jeff deserve to be punished? Absolutely. Stripped of his public office? Perhaps. But sentenced to serve a one-year term in a jail filled with violent offenders? I believe the punishment overwhelmingly exceeded the crime.
Of course, I am not arguing in any way that perjury and/or obstruction of justice should be considered misdemeanors or civil violations in every instance. Of course, lying to an authority about illegal activity, particularly of a violent nature, must be punished severely.
Nor am I arguing that there should be no punishment whatsoever in these circumstances. Lying to an authority is wrong; and the offender must be held accountable for his or her actions.
But someone who lies about a non-violent, non-criminal activity, in order to protect his reputation and family — a very natural, human instinct — should not be treated akin to a violent criminal.
I will soon be interviewing Jeff for RPTV to discuss this issue. But I’d like to know your opinion first: Does lying to a grand jury or an investigator about a legal activity merit a jail sentence? What are your suggestions for reform? Or do you like system the way it is?