“The foul odor of mendacity,” uttered by Burl Ives as “Big Daddy” in the 1950s screen adaptation of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” is that film’s most memorable line. It drips with disdain.
It’s another election season and the odor again permeates the airwaves. Is there anything more foul- smelling then what now passes for political advertising. Deceit, distortion, manipulation, half-truths and downright lying have become accepted parts of the election surge as candidates struggle to promote themselves and destroy the opposition.
Rich candidates spend millions of their own money to burnish their image and to sully that of anyone bold enough to challenge their wealth. Sadly, public office is for sale on the open market; the more you spend, the more likely you are to win.
The First Amendment reigns supreme, so without restraint and little regard for truth, fairness, or civility, the marketplace – not of ideas but of illusion and noise – determines winners and the losers.
Capitalism triumphs and government appears almost helpless to restrain its worst impulses. Everything is for sale. It’s image not substance; people recreate themselves using the proven techniques of the marketplace.
One cannot be forthcoming and successfully run for office in this day and age. Check the polls, avoid specifics, never acknowledge your limitations, tell the folks what they want to hear and not what they need to know and pay attention to the all-important raising of money. These are today’s measure of political success.
To acknowledge your humanity, tell the truth, recognize the successes and not just the failures of the opposition, and refuse to take money from special interests, assures failure.
In a culture that prizes celebrity over accomplishment, image over substance, illusion over reality, and blather over wisdom, there is little room for the leaders the nation needs to emerge. Those who try often find the system so fractured and unresponsive, they soon become discouraged.
There are such men and women in public office but at the national level, where the stakes are higher and special interests so rich and powerful, they feel overwhelmed – to the point that some of our best have to choose between abandoning principle and remaining in office.
Contrast the haphazard manner in which voters elect public officials and the process by which jurors determine responsibility in criminal and civil trials. Voters are bombarded with political ads while jurors, after being screened for biases, are instructed to listen carefully to the evidence presented by opposing counsel.
Political ads are unregulated and the identity of the funding sources often undisclosed. You can say anything you want with little regard to accuracy or applicability. At a trial, the rules of evidence are designed to identify the source and assure both the relevance and reliability of information.
Many voters devote little time or attention to their choices. Jurors are instructed to deliberate and consider carefully all the evidence before arriving at a conclusion. Despite the safeguards provided at trial, it is often hard to make the right decision.
With all of the misinformation, personal attacks, and distortions, is it any wonder that money becomes the determining factor in elections. Regardless of the merits of your position, if you keep repeating it over and over again, it will eventually overwhelm the opposition.
Now more than ever we need honest leadership. Not small “honest” like not tolerating criminal activity but big “honest” – like being truthful. That reminds me of another famous line from “A Few Good Men” – Jack Nicholson’s challenge: “You can’t handle the truth.”
Maybe he was right. We can’t recognize or handle it!
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.