Boardman: Lying will work in politics but only if you let it

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by William Boardman of Woodstock. He produced “The Panther Program” on VPR for over a decade and served 20 years as a Windsor County side judge.

One reason lying apparently works in politics is that so many people are content to tell themselves that “everybody does it.” This illusion may be comforting, but it’s also a self-deceptive evasion of harder truth: The scale and frequency of lies matter, and everybody doesn’t lie on the same scale or at the same rate.

To take a relatively small example, Clint Eastwood asserted in passing, without elaboration in his convention talk, that “there are 23 million unemployed people in this country.” That is simply false. There have never been 23 million unemployed people in this country. In the worst year of the Great Depression, 1933, there were 12.8 million people unemployed and the unemployment rate was 24.9 per cent. (

When a Hollywood figure is wrong in a political speech the stakes are relatively low. But the Romney campaign defended Eastwood’s 23 million by re-inventing what he said to include part-time workers. (

That’s an indirect way of admitting Eastwood was wrong, of course, and meets the low expectations so many people have of political campaigns. Unfortunately, most of the “fact checkers” out there used the same forgiving analysis that only blurs reality. Using a nuanced breakdown of workers who may want more work as a way to suggest that people with part-time jobs count as “unemployed” is to act in bad faith. The tactic is imprecise to the point of falsehood.

As of the beginning of August, the United States had 12.8 million unemployed people, more or less, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On this basis,the calculated unemployment rate is 8.3 percent. Usually left unstated is that these statistics are only ballpark figures, imprecise measurements that provide some sense of scale, but no serious precision as to the nature of the problem, never mind its history or possible remedies. ( and

Even a critical source like Daily Kos used the mainstream media formulation that you could justify the unjustifiable statistic of 23 million unemployed if you also counted people who weren’t unemployed but … Daily Kos at least noted that Romney has used this same number, which adds a smidge of clarity to the obfuscation.

If any media analysis stated the simple truth that the U.S. has never had 23 million people unemployed, it’s hard to find. Equally unsaid is the fact that the same number of unemployed people – 12.8 million – that represented 24.9 percent of the workforce in 1933, now represents 8.3 percent of the workforce. Unasked is whether unemployment is just the price the country pays for capitalism, or whether that price is fair.

More typical is the treatment by CNN Money, which concluded that: “Despite the back and forth over Eastwood’s remarks, government data show that the 23 million number is largely unchanged from when [President] Obama took office. When Obama was sworn in, about 22.2 million people were unemployed,jobless and not looking for work or working part-time while looking for full-time jobs. That number jumped to 23.7 million by February 2009.” [Emphasis added] (

Republican determination to let the ship of state sink in hope of drowning Obama has been so well hidden in plain sight that few people see fit to acknowledge it any more. But it’s been a permanent, structural condition of American government since 2009.

Not only does this defend inaccuracy, it further blurs a reality that the careful reader spots immediately despite the diversion. That reality is frequently left unstated, but there it is in bold outline: the American economy collapsed under President Bush as a result of policies put in place mostly by Republicans. That’s real.

And whatever argument may be made – and there are many — that Obama’s efforts have been ineffective (or whatever similar adjective you like), the reality remains: Bush hit the iceberg, Obama has been trying to keep the ship from sinking.

Blaming the continuing weak economy on Obama is about as out of touch with reality as arguing that Roosevelt caused the Great Depression

And that leads to another reality that’s even less talked about: that Republicans since 2009 have not only resisted patching holes in the hull and helping to bail, they are now running a campaign based on restoring at least some of the icebergs – unregulated banks, unfunded tax cuts, maybe even a new war on Iran to fill the vacuum left by U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Republican determination to let the ship of state sink in hope of drowning Obama has been so well hidden in plain sight that few people see fit to acknowledge it any more. But it’s been a permanent, structural condition of American government since 2009. Only Republicans chose it. Only Republicans can end it, at least so long as the numbers in Congress give them their veto power.

For independent voters with few independent candidates to vote for, the choices in November certainly look ideologically bleak. But those of us who are going to vote for the candidates we have, not the candidates we wish we had, need to work through the political and journalistic smog if we want to have even the hope of making a clear-headed choice. (

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  • Jamal Kheiry

    Mr. Boardman,

    The type of absurd distortions you cite in your article are just as prevalent from Democrats as they are from Republicans. Facts are not the basis for these political campaigns; interpretations of facts are.

    To your point about the candidate you wish you had, I would recommend you vote your conscience rather than for the lesser of two liars. “Waste” your vote on a socialist or libertarian, rather than continuing to lend your support to the two-party oligarchy (okay, I’m exaggerating to make a point with that latter term, but not by much).

  • Paula Schramm

    “Republican determination to let the ship of state sink in hope of drowning Obama has been so well hidden in plain sight that few people see fit to acknowledge it any more.”

    I love this poetic and accurate summary of what is going on that is so frustrating and infuriating to so many Americans – those who don’t depend on just a few news bites to be informed. But so many low-information Americans are vulnerable to the lies, which is why it is reasonable to fear a Romney-Ryan soaked-in-advertising-millions win. Thanks for a good article…may we continue to push for the fact-checkers in our media reports. Despite what Jamal says, they had much more fun with Ryan/Romney than with those at the DNC.

    And need I say that voting your conscience can absolutely mean that you might vote for your second-choice candidate ? Because what follows will definitely be on your conscience . This is how I felt when Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia allowed for the rise of Pol Pot. ( I voted for Eugene McCarthy).

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