Some parts of the Bill of Rights were intended to protect lying, at least a certain kind of lying. Because of that, the spirit of the Bill of Rights is in direct opposition to many aspects of the Starr investigations, particularly forced testimony.
The provision against self-incrimination and the search-and-seizure clause were specific prohibitions of the prosecutorial mentality expressed by such queries as, "If you have nothing to hide, why not just tell us all you know? If you have nothing to hide, why can't we come in and look around?" The Founding Fathers knew just how crude and ham-handed the investigatory arm of the state could be and how clumsy and hit-or-miss the judicial process. If left free to rummage around with all its resources, the state can easily find something on nearly any citizen who at least looks or sounds suspicious, and, once the state reaches that point, a citizen can be bled dry if the only defense is left to the courts.
But what about lying politicians? The Founding Fathers were very concerned about character in public officials, but they also knew there was no easy answer to this problem.
Perhaps one of the most famous 'untruth' speakers in contemporary politics was Ronald Reagan, who told those apocryphal stories about Cadillac welfare mothers. That was lying - and about something politically important. We know that political discourse involves points of view and interests, which use facts selectively and metaphorically, and that distortions of the truth are corrected by opposing points of view. The differences are judged by the public at the polls. Truth in politics is what the public chooses to believe.
The authors of the Bill of Rights were also of the opinion that abiding by the law was not necessarily the very definition of virtue. Laws are crude instruments at best for maintaining civilization, and many of them must be enforced selectively.
It is against the law for minors to drink alcohol. But if a family gives a 16-year-old a glass a wine to sip a toast for an honored guest on a special occasion, do we arrest those parents? There are many imperfect laws, which is why legislative bodies are constantly tinkering with them. Citizens often resist laws that need changing by non-compliance. Overzealous enforcement of bad laws can be guarded against by giving citizens some wiggle room. The above-described parents cannot be forced to confess breach of the law. The state must prove its case independently, without the participation of the accused.
Truth is not the supreme virtue; it is but one virtue and one that conflicts often with other values. This causes the well-known generational friction between adults and teenagers. Adulthood means being sensitive to social context and choosing speech accordingly. We justify our words by trying not to offend or cause unnecessary troubles. This means we often lie, and adolescents are the first to spot this. Once you make the state the truth squad, it does and will operate like teenage policemen, and the Founding Fathers knew that.
The Starr investigation has forced the president to do what the Founding Fathers wanted to protect all citizens from having to do: to have to sit in a witness chair and say under oath things that he should have a right to keep private.
Do we want to have every judge, every member of the Congress and every investigator making an annual report on his or her sexual behavior, swearing to its truthfulness and then ask the FBI to check on whether it is all true? Any process that seeks to make sure every office-holder is pure will merely reduce our supply of valuable public servants, a commodity already in short supply.
Oliver P. Williams is a professor emeritus of political science.What's bugging you? You can contribute a column on a general interest or University-related subject. Call us first, 898-1426, or e-mail us. Front page for this issue | Pennsylvania Current home page
Originally published on October 15, 1998