An Earnest Plea for Honesty

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

“They love how honest he is.”

That’s how U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley defended Donald Trump after the U.N. General Council erupted in laughter when he bragged about his “accomplishments.” On Fox & Friends Haley explained, “It’s not diplomatic and they find it funny. When he goes and he is very truthful, they kind of are taken aback by it.”

Her definition of “honest” could use some work. Haley seems to be referring to Trump’s tendency to say whatever is on his mind, facts be damned. This is “truthful” in the sense of sincerity — Trump’s public statements truly depict his thinking and feelings to billions of people, who respond alternately with horror and delight. But it is not “truthful” in the sense of veracity and facts. When Nikki Haley called Trump “honest,” she was operating with a flawed definition of “honesty” that far too many people accept: this idea that the most honest thing is whatever you blurt out first, raw and unfiltered, as demonstrated by the self-styled truthtellers of talk radio and the feuding cast of Vanderpump Rules. But revealing the volubility of your feelings is not the same as telling the truth. Our culture misunderstands and undervalues honesty. I’m here with a plea for that to change.

I hesitated to write this column because there’s no way to discuss honesty without sounding patronizing. “Don’t lie” is an imperative most frequently said to kindergarteners. But the litany of lies we are subjected to today has become exhausting. The Washington Post estimates that President Trump currently lies at a rate of 8.3 false statements per day. And then there’s Brett Kavanaugh, the man nominated for a lifetime term in America’s highest judicial authority. His sworn testimony has reportedly been riddled with lies about his drinking habits, his role in the Bush administration, his high school yearbook, and whether mutual friends “refuted” Ford’s claim. He may have made up about a slang word for farting, of all things.

As the FBI investigates Ford’s accusation of attempted rape and Deborah Ramirez’s claim of sexual misconduct, a growing chorus of Kavanaugh’s high school and college friends are fact-checking his recollections. The latest comes from Charles “Chad” Ludington, who has refuted Kavanaugh’s claim that he never attended debauched gatherings like the ones Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez described in their assault allegations. At his hearing, Kavanaugh said he never partied on weeknights because “(a) I was in cross-campus library every night, and (b) I played basketball for the junior varsity. I tried out for the varsity.”

Now, Chad says that’s a lie. “I do not believe that the heavy drinking or even loutish behavior of an 18- or even 21-year-old should condemn a person for the rest of his life. I would be a hypocrite to think so,” he wrote in a statement. “However, I have direct and repeated knowledge about his drinking and his disposition while drunk. And I do believe that Brett’s actions as a 53-year-old federal judge matter. If he lied about his past actions on national television, and more especially while speaking under oath in front of the United States Senate, I believe those lies should have consequences.”

I agree with Chad, and add: Honesty is also more than the mere absence of lies. Honesty requires correcting omissions. Honesty means looking at complex, messy realities and taking seriously the task of understanding each mess. It means reflecting on behavior you may have considered as “rough horseplay,” and considering whether it was a life-altering trauma for someone else. Honesty means questioning your assumptions and constantly measuring whether the things you believe and say are as accurate as possible. So what would an honest man do, in Brett Kavanaugh’s place? I could imagine a version of reality where he acknowledged young-adult delinquency and discussed what he thinks now as he looks back. If he does, in fact, remember the incident in question — or has reason to believe it may have happened — then he should honestly reckon with that truth. I’m not the only person imagining this: Scott Turow wrote an entire novel imagining a fictitious judge who, in adjudicating a rape case, realizes that a decades-old encounter that he once considered consensual was, in fact, a gang rape. Limitations was published in 2006.

Honesty also eludes my likely future state senator, Julia Salazar, the headline-grabbing Democratic Socialist with a compulsive fibbing problem. Like Kavanaugh, Salazar’s half-truths ran the gamut — and if you bend over backward, you can piece together a version of reality where she didn’t lie about her birthplace, family, religious history, and socioeconomic background. But no matter how you parse Salazar’s circumstances, one thing is abundantly clear: Honesty was not a high priority for her. Nor was it a high priority for the thousands of Brooklyn liberals who voted for her. After unseating a longtime incumbent in her primary race, Salazar will be the only name on the ballot for New York State Senate District 18 this November.

You’d think a country whose national hero was supposedly so honest, he narc-ed on himself at age 6, could do better. But the punch line of that story— wherein a disobedient George Washington chops at his father’s cherry tree and then confesses, “I cannot tell a lie! I did cut it with my hatchet!” — is that it, too, is probably a lie. According to George Washington’s Presidential Library at Mount Vernon, a 19th-century pop-historian invented the tale and a pious writer of children’s textbooks promoted it, each to advance his own agenda. The story has been debunked a million times, starting not long after it first appeared, but everyone loves it so much, they keep repeating it. (Think of it as the pee tape rumor of its time.) “I cannot tell a lie” has always been a lie in America.

I’m not sure whether our current comfort with dishonesty is a symptom of an unhealthy media ecosystem, or litigiousness, or a resignation to post-truth politics, or a postmodern fixation on subjectivity, or some kind of butterfly effect from the moment we reversed the meaning of “reality” for the sake of television. For now, though, I feel confident about two things: (a) Dishonesty is toxic, and (b) Combined with a poorly calibrated system for distributing and consuming information, toxic dishonesty can be an epidemic.

As we await the FBI’s findings about what happened between Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, I’ll be thinking about the wisdom of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. When the Washington Post profiled 95-year-old Jimmy Carter’s “un-celebrity” life last month, the quote that got the most attention was the former president calling the current one “a disaster.” But then Rosalynn jumped in: “The worst is that he is not telling the truth, and that just hurts everything.”

The article recounts Carter’s famous aversion to lying, which he credits to a strict father and his education at the U.S. Naval Academy “where he said students are expelled for telling even the smallest lie.” Amid widespread government mistrust post-Nixon and post-Vietnam, Carter ran for president on this promise: “I’ll never tell a lie. I’ll never knowingly make a misstatement of fact. I’ll never betray your trust. If I do any of these things, I don’t want you to support me.” Jimmy Carter was so honest, he told Playboy he wanted to cheat on Rosalynn! That’s a level of honesty that, frankly, I might not want in a significant other. (But I’m glad “radical honesty” worked for the Carters, decades before everyone else caught on.) You don’t need to be rude. But when the choice is between rude and true? Choose true.

Stop Lying