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Which lies matter most to the American public?

By Joan Vennochi, 6/17/2003

THERE ARE NO good lies. But public outrage over some lies can be puzzling given the tolerance for others.

Former first lady and now US Senator Hillary Clinton writes that she did not believe that Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky until he admitted it to her about eight months after the story was first reported. In a recent CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll, 56 percent of the respondents said she was not telling the truth. Since the book was released, conservative talk radio hosts are trying to whip up the public into a frenzy of contempt. It is not hurting sales and may be helping them. After a week on bookshelves, the publishers say Clinton's book has made back its advance.

To date, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. That is the truth at this moment, which, is of course, subject to change. Even so, 64 percent of those surveyed said they did not believe that the Bush administration ''deliberately misled'' the American public about whether Iraq had such weapons. And other polls indicate that most Americans believe that the war was justified whether the alleged weapons are ever found. In other words, people believe President Bush and his advisers. And, at least according to current polling, the truth in this case is not important to their support for the Bush administration or the war with Iraq.

You might conclude that Bill and Hillary Clinton reaped what they sowed, that their track record over the years for not just parsing the truth but for outright dishonesty rightly earned them the public's contempt. It doesn't take much to remind voters why many of them lost personal respect for both Clintons, even if they agreed with their politics. The American public, according to polls, holds George W. Bush in much higher regard personally. Sixty-six percent of the American public apparently approves of the job he is doing as president even though only 50 percent said the country is headed in the right direction.

But none of that explains the outrage over perceived lying about whether a wife knew about her husband's infidelity. And it doesn't explain the absence of outrage when it comes to possible dishonesty about an administration's reasons for going to war. One issue seems a lot more important to the country and its future than the other. And the more important issue does not involve the tawdry story of an intern, a president, and a pizza delivery.

As an article by Thomas Powers in the Globe notes, Bush, in his State of the Union Address, contended that Iraq possessed the following: 30,000 warheads, 500 tons of chemical weapons, 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin. In a dramatic appearance before the United Nations that helped convince many of the justification for war with Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Iraq maintained a factory for making poisons and explosives in Khurmal, chemical munitions bunkers at Taji, rocket launchers and warheads containing biological warfare agents ''hidden in large groves of palm trees,'' and a ''suspicious caravan of trucks'' at the Amiriyah Serum and Vaccine Institute, a center for testing biological and chemical weapons. As Powers reminds us, ''None of this has been found.''

Again, it is possible that some of it will be found. It is also possible that it will never be found because it did not exist. If it turns out to be a lie, why is that not cause for outrage?

Maybe the American public is giving Bush the benefit of the doubt. As long as war with Iraq is perceived as a victory, people may tell pollsters now they do not care how or why we got into it. But in the end, the underlying truth will matter. And any presidential candidate who is afraid to say that now does not deserve to beat Bush. Tolerance for that approach signals a willingness to do the same thing - to use false information to manipulate the public - if elected.

Hillary Clinton took $8 million from a book publisher and possibly didn't tell the whole truth about the Lewinsky scandal. George W. Bush took the armed forces of the United States of America, put lives at risk, and shook the world order to wage war against Iraq. Maybe he told the whole truth about why we were going to war and maybe he didn't.

If he didn't, some Americans will be outraged, maybe even enough to swing an election. There are no good lies, but some matter more than others.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 6/17/2003.
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