Here’s what happened: My younger son wouldn’t give my older son one of his toys back. My older son then bopped my younger son on the head. Younger boy then commenced to scream-cry at the top of his lungs, which brought the entire household to an abrupt stop. Being chief enforcement officer, it was my job to resolve this conflict so life could move on in our home.
That was 20 years ago. I saw the entire incident from across the room with my own two eyes. But when I went to settle the matter, the strangest thing happened: Both boys lied about it.
“Verbal deceit” is a topic studied by Robert Feldman, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In a 2019 Health.com article, he says, “Lying is a very effective social tactic.” He lists seven reasons why people spin the truth, and none would surprise anyone who pays attention to communication and language. Especially those of us from the political world.
As we collectively watch the COVID-19 pandemic evolve, the daily briefings from the White House have been reduced to exercises in verbal deceit. Media critics wince over the coverage and how they often lack generic usefulness or trustworthy value. Virtually every one of them contains a blatant lie, exaggeration or the issuance of misplaced blame or credit. The featured dishonest item occupies the news cycle until the following day and then the process starts all over again.
The routine vividly reminds me of the two brothers I raised and their daily disputes. Each dispute was transactional in nature, and each boy cared only about the moment. Of course, they were 6 and 4 years old at the time.
President Trump’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic during its early stages cannot be changed. It cannot be rewritten or fixed. His administration was slow and late to lead on the issue during the most crucial of times and there is no legitimate debate about the botching of it. If you find yourself wanting to debate it, stop.
The dance the White House is attempting to choreograph at the briefings fails every single day, in one way or another. It can only fail for most Americans because the briefings’ purpose is flawed. The briefings are not meant to lead, inspire or provide vital information to the public. They are meant only to “win” the news cycle.
My sons’ disputes also were not a dialogue, nor an attempt to come to some better understanding of each other. Each boy wanted only to “win.” Neither of them ever won.
I was referee and judge for those two interlocutors for a stretch of time. All I wanted was peace and quiet. While there might not have been a winner between the boys, I vividly recall feeling like I was the loser.
In today’s global crisis, the public plays the role of father to the president as the child. At his daily briefings, the public is losing.
Political spin is older than our republic. It can be used when debating most public policy initiatives. But there are times when the only way to “win” is for the leader to roll up his or her sleeves, deliver the bad news and get on with handling the crisis.
The leader has to want to do it, though.
Feldman’s seventh stated reason for why people lie is to “maintain a previous lie.” The only way my boys and I could move on back then was to clean up the original lies. The president has no chance to lead until he commits to doing the same.•
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