Honesty is the best policy – but please define what ‘is,’ is

Categorized as 03/22/10 Goshen News column

If there’s one thing that can evoke parental ire, it’s the telling of a falsehood. Growing up, this particular sin was punished by a vigorous application of soap to the offending member by our mother. My brother and sister sure hated that method.

All children, it seems, experiment with lying at some point. It’s a natural defense mechanism when one is caught with one’s hand in the proverbial cookie jar. Or the literal cookie jar, if you live over here. (Unfortunately for them, it’s the literal chocolate smudges around the mouth that give them away.)

When our first two sons were small, I clearly remember hearing the littlest one squealing in distress on numerous occasions. Upon questioning, his big brother always disavowed all knowledge and pled the fifth. He had “pushed himself” or “ran into the door” or “fell off the couch” while he, of course, was clear across the room.

Of course.

If you’re a parent to whom character matters, then honesty is one of the big-deal virtues that you try to teach. It helps when you have positive role models to point to. Conversely, it makes your job tougher when prominent people are caught fibbing.

Take Jayson Blair, for instance. He’s the New York Times reporter who was caught plagiarizing and making up parts of his stories. He resigned in disgrace, leaving that venerable institution with not just an egg, but an entire omelet on its face.

More recently, there was that whole sordid incident with a famous golfer who was left trying to explain his crumpled grill and the imprint of a putter on his forehead. Turns out that his squeaky-clean, family-man image was a sham, a lie.

Some of the most famous liars in American history have, unfortunately, been our leaders. Richard Nixon told a whopper that got him in some real hot water. The end result of that mess was that he fired himself right quick before Congress had a chance to.

Then there was the infamous, “Read my lips – no new taxes,” pledge that came back to wallop President George Bush the Elder in the tush when he did, indeed, raise taxes. Ever since, he’s rued the day that he encouraged the citizenry to lip read.

We all wish we could forget President Clinton’s famous lie. What a sordid affair that was. Seldom has there been such a display of squirming, obfuscating, and parsing of words (“it depends on what the definition of ‘is,’ is”). This, you see, from the guy who should’ve been the moral leader of the country.

After that debacle, you were left to conclude that there hadn’t been nearly enough parentally-applied soap in his life.

While most of us haven’t told a fib that has garnered national attention, we’ve likely told a few smaller ones. There are, after all, some socially acceptable ones that people tell all the time.

“How are you?” is a greeting that prompts any number of lies. That’s because 99% of the time, the asker isn’t asking because he really wants to know. He’s asking because it’s the American way of saying hi. The correct, or expected, answer to that question is, “Fine. Fine. Just fine.”

Face it. There are some folks that you’re actually counting on to lie when you ask that question. In fact, it only takes about one encounter of utter honesty to make you wish you’d stuck with, “Howdy.”

That’s because there are a select few who love to regale a willing listener with a detailed medical history. This includes a list of all prior surgeries, recent gout flares, the size of the current rash, and the results of the latest battery of tests. It’s when he or she offers to display the newest scar that you realize you should’ve stuck with comments about the weather.

Many husbands, frankly, are guilty of lying. After all, when a woman says, “Does this make me look fat,” there’s only one answer she’s looking for.

“When you walk, it looks like two polecats rasslin’ in a flour sack,” isn’t it. If a fellow says anything besides, “What? No way! You’ve still got your school-girl figure, hon,” it’s quite likely there will be a cast iron skillet and a migraine in his immediate future. You can’t blame him, can you, for fudging just a bit?

Policemen, I’m sure, are privy to the best of American inventiveness. People will do nearly anything to get out of a ticket, and that almost always involves some creative storytelling.

“But officer, I really had to go. That’s why I was doing 80 in a school zone. Honest, ” is one that’s been used. Then there’s the old standby, “Can’t you see my wife’s having a baby,” which is a very dubious assertion when the passenger is – well, a woman of a certain age with cataracts and hearing aids.

Sometimes we just need to be reminded of simple, basic truths. You know, principles like, “Honesty is always the best policy.”

Some, of course, would say that it depends on what your definition of “is,” is.

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