The New York Times article began with a compelling quote from political consultant Whit Ayres, what he calls his “three keys to credibility.”
“One, never defend the indefensible,” he says. “Two, never deny the undeniable. And No. 3 is: Never lie.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg goes on to examine instances where the current president and other modern presidents have ignored this advice, and the consequences for them and for our country.
One would think that successful politicians would know better and behave better. But that’s a conversation for another day.
Ayres’ “keys” prompted a more general reflection for me.
Why would any of us ever defend what cannot be defended? Why would we ever deny what the plain facts prove to be true? And why would we ever consciously and intentionally tell a falsehood?
These communication acts are, by most any standard of ethics, presumptively wrong. Exceptional circumstances could defeat that presumption, but rarely.
The importance of truth-telling in leadership ought to prompt us to be tough interrogators of our own motivations whenever we are tempted to do otherwise. Ayres’ counsel is good counsel, both from the standpoint of ethics and from the standpoint of political prudence.
So why do we not live by it?
I think there are times in our lives when the truth and our cherished sense of self collide. We don’t see ourselves as doing something horribly wrong . . . perhaps we’re playing in the gray area, but it’s gray, after all, and that’s okay, right? Or we don’t define our own behavior as violating some standard of law or morals; our case is complicated, our “violation” justified. Or perhaps we see ourselves as living by some personal standard (such as “family first”) that has collided with other ethical obligations and we simply set everything aside for that standard . . . not recognizing that, as public servants, our duty to the public must be given greater weight.
And sometimes we simply don’t think about what we are doing until after we have done it.
When someone starts poking into these moments of misperception, indiscretion or folly, we react. Embarrassed, we contrive to hide the truth because, while it may be true, we know we aren’t the person people will imagine we are when they read the headline, or even the bulk of the story. Inevitably, the more we defend, deny and lie, the worse the damage when the story finally breaks.
And it will break. There are no secrets in politics, only stories no one has gotten around to telling yet.
Adhering to Ayres’ advice takes a certain degree of humility. The good news is, the public is remarkably forgiving when we acknowledge our failings and seek forgiveness. No, we didn’t have all the facts. Yes, we committed an error in judgment. If we say those things sooner, on our own initiative, we’re not likely to suffer serious harm.
Citizens do not believe they are electing saints or savants. Indeed, we prefer our leaders to be human. It can be hard to follow someone who always walks on water; it’s tough for us mere mortals to keep up. But a leader who occasionally gets lost, or chooses the wrong path, and admits their mistake . . . that’s a leader we can trust.