A post just for Obamistas and Clintonistas

The first casualty of war is truth,” said US Senator Hiram Johnson. Truth is also the first victim of political partisanship. Not surprising, really, as the true believers in any political cause view their campaigns as wars. The second and third victims of political partisanship are, respectively, one’s sense of humour and the ability to write in proper English.

Those who doubt the truth of these propositions are invited to take a look at some of the self-righteous nonsense, often expressed in bad English, that poured in in response to my blogs on Senators Obama (here & here)and Clinton (here).

In the latest kerfuffle, it was supporters of Senator Clinton who got their knickers twisted. The statement of mine that caused such apoplexy among the Clintonistas was the following: “Senator Clinton has lost. She deserved to lose. She ran an ugly campaign. Just one vignette. When asked (again) on the CBS show 60 Minutes whether she believes Obama is a Muslim (a ludicrous rumour spread by right-wing bloggers and media in the US), she replies: “No, no why would I – there’s nothing to base that on – as far as I know”. She said this with a strong emphasis on the last ‘I’.”

I won’t revisit the case for or against my interpretation of Senator Clinton’s statements in the interview broadcast on 60 Minutes. You can make up your own mind by viewing the YouTube video clip of a short segment of the interview .

The transcript of the relevant part of the interview follows (the last question and answer are not in the video clip).

KROFT: You don’t believe that Senator Obama is a Muslim?

CLINTON: Of course not. I mean, that’s–you know, there is not basis for that. You know, I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn’t any reason to doubt that.

KROFT: And you said you’d take Senator Obama at his word that he’s not a Muslim.

CLINTON: Right. Right.

KROFT: You don’t believe that he’s a Muslim or implying? Right.

CLINTON: No. No. Why would I? No, there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.

KROFT: It’s just scurrilous –

CLINTON: Look, I have been the target of so many ridiculous rumors. I have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets, you know, smeared with the kind of rumors that go on all the time.

There is a transcript of another interview doing the rounds which may be of interest.

INTERVIEWER: “You don’t believe that Senator Clinton is insinuating that Obama’s a Muslim?”

BUITER: Of course not. I mean, that,’s — you know, there is no basis for that. I take her on the basis of what she says. And, you know, there isn’t any reason to doubt that.

INTERVIEWER: You said you’d take Senator Clinton at her word that she believes that Senator Obama ‘s not a Muslim.

BUITER: Right. Right.

INTERVIEWER: You don’t believe or implying that Senator Clinton believes that Senator Obama’s a Muslim? Right.

BUITER: No. No. Why would I? No, there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.

INTERVIEWER: It’s just scurrilous –

BUITER: Look, I have been the target of so many ridiculous rumors. I have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets, you know, smeared with the kind of rumors that go on all the time.

I know it is possible that Senator Clinton was tired, indeed physically and mentally exhausted, during the CBS interviews and did no more than slip on a banana skin carefully put in position by her interviewer. Possible but not likely. This is the Senator Clinton who recalled evading sniper fire when visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina as first lady in 1996. Clearly, here is someone to whom either lying comes naturally or who does not know the difference between dreams and reality. This is the Senator Clinton who today endorsed Senator Obama for the Democratic nomination but only suspended her campaign, rather than withdrawing her candidacy and terminating her campaign full stop, without qualifications and without dreams of a possible resurrection at some later date. She just cannot let go. There is something both sad and worrying, indeed scary, about that: persistence is admirable, obsession is destructive.

Does it matter if a candidate for the US Presidency is dishonest, unscrupulous or nasty?

One of the flaws in the US constitution is that it combines the head of government and head of state in a single office/person: the US Presidency/President. We can live with, indeed expect, heads of government who turn out to be without significant redeeming moral virtues. As long as they keep the nation prosperous and safe from internal and external threats, they can be lustful, gluttonous, greedy, slothful, wrathful, envious and proud, not to mention dishonest, conniving, cowardly, unscrupulous, selfish, unreliable, deceitful and untrustworthy. The head of state is expected to be different, and is held to a different standard. He or she represents the nation to the rest of the world. He or she also holds up a mirror to the nation itself, in which the people expect to see not what they are, but what they know they ought to be: decent, honest, trustworthy, caring, unselfish, brave, industrious, fair and even-handed.

Countries with a German-style constitution, in which real power lies with the head of government (the Chancellor), but where the Head of State has an important representative and symbolic function, and has his own legitimacy, because (s)he is elected independently of the head of government are in the enviable position of being able to ring-fence the nasty business of practical politics from the lofty business of representing the nation. Constitutional monarchies approach this desirable constitutional configuration in some respects, although the anachronism of the hereditary principle deprives the monarch of the necessary legitimacy. I have never forgiven the French for imposing a monarchy on the Dutch Republic, which had managed to survive from 1581 till 1795. Even worse, when given the chance to restore the Republic after the fall of Napoleon, the Dutch themselves decided to create their own monarchy in 1815. Countries like France and Russia, which have separate heads of state and heads of government but where the head of government is subordinate to the head of state (often nominated or appointed by the head of state), are closer to the flawed US model.

So a US President is really set an impossible task, needing to combine the the skills required by a head of government with those required of a head of state. Bill Clinton was a pretty good head of government; as an uninhibited and unabashed liar he made a dreadful head of state. Jimmy Carter made a great head of state, but a lousy head of government.

The President of the United states need not just be an effective leader of the Executive branch of government – or head of government. He or she needs to be someone whose personal characteristics are respected. The President as head of state must be honest, trustworthy, a person of integrity and high moral standards. To find someone with these qualities is very difficult. To find someone who bundles these personal qualities with the qualifications for being an effective head of government is almost impossible. Which is why the US constitutional arrangements are flawed.

Let me illustrate with a highly unscientifically sample of examples that show how personal integrity and morality matter.

In 1998, during the Monica Lewinski era, my son David, then 7 years old, was watching the news on television. Suddenly he called out “Look daddy: the man that lies”. I looked up and watched a film clip of the President of the United States, Bill Clinton.

In the UK, ‘being economical with the truth’, an 18th century euphemism for lying, was brought into the contemporary language by the UK Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, who used the phrase during the Australian ‘Spycatcher’ trial in 1986. He appeared to have no moral qualms about it whatsoever.

More recently, I was one of those who believed the assertions of Prime Minister Blair, Secretary of State Colin Powell, President Bush and Vice-President Cheney that there was incontrovertible evidence that Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction and that his regime was intimately tied to Al Qaeda well before 9/11. It’s hard enough as a parent trying to teach your children the difference between right and wrong, and the importance of telling the truth, without this kind of help from the White House and from Number 10 Downing Street.

The importance of truthfulness and trustworthiness are not ‘just’ a matter of personal morality – although that should be sufficient reason. Trust is a highly productive form of social capital. Trust among citizens and trust of the citizens in their leaders greatly enhance efficiency and the quality of life. Societies in which trust erodes, become less productive as well as more unpleasant places to be.

I am well aware that there are circumstances where the greater good may require our leaders to lie, and even to lie to us. After all, the traditional definition of a diplomat is “an honest person sent abroad to lie for his country”. Still, I would maintain that there have been far too many occasions where lying by elected or appointed officials was the first option rather than a last resort. I want the next President of the United States of America to be someone for whom telling the truth rather than telling a lie is not just a tactical or even a strategic option, but something highly valued for its own sake – because it is the right thing to do.

During the years that I have observed, as a member of the public, the actions and statements of Senator Clinton, I have never seen substantive evidence that she attached more than instrumental value to truth telling. That is fundamentally why I consider her unfit for the Presidency and why I am pleased she appears to be out of the race. With Senator McCain, I have sensed a greater attachment to truth telling as having intrinsic value. The same holds for Senator Obama.

Admittedly, with Senator Obama, I have had less opportunity to become disenchanted, as Senator Obama is 14 years younger than Senator Clinton, 25 years younger than Senator McCain, and has been in the US Senate only since 2005 (he did not appear much on my radar screen while he was a member of the Illinois State Senate between 1997 and 2004).

I consider that both Senator Obama and Senator McCain, but not Senator Clinton, are qualified to be head of state for the USA. Now I will have to figure out which one of Obama and McCain is better qualified to be head of government, so I can determine who to vote for. So far the liberal economics of McCain are more appealing than the protectionist and at times populist economic message of Obama. On Iraq, they are probably both wrong. They both have offered the by now quasi-automatic, unconditional and unqualified guarantee of Israel’s security that has been the norm for US Presidential candidates since 1967. I fear that this guarantee will, once again, no matter who wins the US Presidency, cover not only the security of the nation of Israel and its population, but also the policies of the Israeli government, no matter how misguided and destructive of opportunities for a peaceful settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

On the environment, there is not, so far, much to choose between them. As regards the reform of healthcare and social security and as regards tax reform, neither candidate makes a lot of sense, although only Obama seems aware of just how scandalous the manifest failure of the US healthcare system is, and how wasteful.

So I will follow with interest the plans and policies that may emerge between now and the election in November. If both serious candidates fail to deliver, I can always vote Libertarian.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website