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Can America survive this era of lies?

Taking a Gander

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It’s sad that the dream of what America could be is in such a precarious state. Only time will tell if our Republic was merely a happy, children’s bedtime story or if the vision of our forefathers can shine again.

When I was a kid, I always loved the story about the Washington family’s cherry tree. Later I shared it with my own children, as an object lesson on the development of conscience and character.

Here’s the story, or, at least, this is how I remember it:

Young George Washington, as intelligent and precocious as the future president and father of his country should have been, needed something to test his new hatchet—his all-time favorite birthday gift from his Grandpa Lawrence.

Like any typical boy, he was anxious to see how the hatchet worked. Noticing a small cherry tree outside his father’s library window, he exclaimed, “Perfect!”

A few well-aimed blows and the little tree fell so easily, it was almost disappointing. Even worse, the vision of that tree, lying on the ground, caused George a sharp pang of guilt, and he was forced to consider how his selfishness had needlessly destroyed his father’s tree.

But, it was the dread of being discovered that weighed most heavily on little George’s mind. He was pained and worried, even silently lamenting, “Gosh, I wish I had a tube of SuperGlue to put that tree back together.”

With only the best intentions in mind, he disposed of the tree’s remains, leaving no tell-tale signs. (George was so careful—he even took care to replace the gas he’d used in the chipper—walking down to the local 7-Eleven, and buying just the right amount of leaded-premium to refill the chipper’s tank.)

But the moment of truth came. At the dinner table, George’s father asked him about his deed. “George, sonny-boy, do you have any idea who chopped down the cherry tree, ran it through my Briggs and Stratton-powered woodchipper and burned what was left?”

Discovered, and thoroughly embarrassed, he answered his father honestly: “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I’m really ashamed. I made the mistake of showing little Charles (George’s younger brother) how to use the hatchet, instructed him on how to start the chipper and suggested that he burn whatever evidence was left.”

It may be only a story, but thus America’s romance with the lie began, so many years ago.

Lies—sadly, they’re becoming an essential part of what America is today. We’ve gone from the “I cannot tell a lie” mindset, to seeing who can tell the most outrageous ones and get away with it.

Now we’re even discovering that the more lies, the greater the campaign donations, and that honor is not so much about the lie, but the triumph of telling big lies and getting away with them. We’ve even subscribed to the idea that lies are an integral key to good negotiations, and that people in business and government cannot survive without them.

For one of those 10 cardinal sins, reportedly chiseled into the stone tablet Moses brought back from the mountain, lying has been an Achilles' Heel for mankind: presidents lie to us; congressmen and senators find it convenient and effective to fudge on just about everything; government commissions have no aversion to misstating the facts and drawing impressive graphs and charts to further emphasize their fabrications; corporations lie about their impact on our environment and the safety of our citizens; SCOTUS justices lie during their confirmation hearings (particularly Kavanaugh, Barrett, Thomas, and Gorsuch), lie about their loyalty to Lady Justice, hide their clandestine relationships to other questionable members of society and obscure their political agendas.

Instead of dishonest leaders being the small exception, I am dismayed at the specter of a wholesale, widely distributed pattern of less-than-credible leadership in a country that I once believed was founded on the best principles of character and decency. Of course, we have the Trumps, the Kari Lakes, the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, the Mike Lees—who can call a corrupt SCOTUS justice a “hero,”—the Clarence Thomases and the George Santoses. They are at the furthest end of the spectrum, true exceptions to the hope of human decency.

But, then there are most of the others, which fall somewhere between the bastions of decency and the dregs of moral absence. That said, I know there are actually a few leaders, at every level of government, who really are irreproachable. But, in politics and business, such people are truly rare.

Our political parties, in an effort to support their own, have chosen lies for the coverup. The GOP, in particular, has earned its reputation as a bunch of anti-democratic political prostitutes, committed to the lies of its soulless leadership and willing to risk the future of our nation for their own political gains. Though there’s no official competition, they’ve certainly made it a contest, assuming that no one can lie quite as well as they.

Maybe it’s because we’ve gone too easy on them—the people to whom we entrust so much of our well-being—that they now see no reason to even apologize for deceiving the Average Joe citizen.

Of course, wherever there are politicians, attorneys, power and money, lies are going to be a staple ingredient of government. Since that has always been true—at least to some extent—we, as Americans, should not be standing there with surprised expressions on our faces.

Tragically, lies do have consequences, and endless harm has been done by America’s political/industrial/military machine. Pretexts for wars have destroyed the lives of millions, leaving blood on the hands of our politicians and people.

As Americans, we must insist on a higher standard for our leaders. New cherry trees can be planted, and we can dump those who risked our nation and hurt others, all for their own selfish aims.

The author is a retired novelist, columnist, and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.

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