“A liar needs a good memory”

And Mitt Romney doesn’t have one. The real question is how he gets away with it. The answer seems to be that his campaign knows how to use access to incentivize good coverage.

And Mitt doesn’t have one.

Steve Benen recites the facts.

Daniel Larison proposes a theory:

[Romney] has reinvented himself so thoroughly that he can no longer remember what is true and what isn’t, and he has absorbed and appropriated so many new positions over the years that it all gets jumbled together and re-mixed according to whatever the political need of the moment happens to be. It’s easy to lose track after the fourth or fifth incarnation.

Larison goes on to propose an alternative theory:  “More likely, he is so contemptuous of the people he tells these lies to that he never thinks he will be found out.” The second theory seem to me exactly half right. Romney has contempt and to spare, but it’s actually for the reporters and editors he relieson not to call him out on his mendacity.

What explains that lapse? Part of the reason is that (according to a reporter for one of Washington’s major political/journalistic enterprises) the Romney campaign – strikingly unlike the Obama campaign – consistently and explicitly uses access and denial of access to reward and punish favorable and unfavorable stories.

In other words, if you don’t believe the current lie, Romney won’t tell you another one. If you’re a news outlet, that’s bad for your circulation. If you’re a reporter, it’s bad for your career.

George W. Bush and Karl Rove proved that you can frame an entire political strategy around the unwillingness of journalists to call a lie a lie. Romney seems to have been their most attentive student.

Footnote As I’ve said here before, blogging and other punditry – which might be defined as Journalism without Picking Up the Damn Phone – is parasitic on actual reporting. But the Romney case illustrates why we need pundits  as well as real reporters. The real reporters sometimes face strong professional pressure not to point out that two plus two does not equal five. Assuming that Romney becomes the nominee, the real reporters and their editors will face a serious test of character. I wish I had more confidence than I do that they will emerge from that test with credit.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

26 thoughts on ““A liar needs a good memory””

  1. George W. Bush and Karl Rove proved that you can frame an entire political strategy around the unwillingness of journalists to call a lie a lie.

    And Obama didn’t? I’m not going to tediously list dozens of whoppers the guy has told, let’s just settle on one: This is a guy whose parents, according to him, met on the march to Selma. Which happened four years after his birth.

    It is no defense of Bush or Rove to note that it is not just Republicans who’ve made “politican” and “liar” synonyms.

    1. It is telling to see that the response from Brett, et al is to start complaining about Obama family history when confronted with the notion that Romney changes ideology more often than most of us change clothes.

      Enjoy your candidate, Brett. I can tell you that I’m enjoying him, although for slightly different reasons.

  2. Mark is being too kind to the press. Yes, it is true that many politicians try to punish and reward the press by differential access. But this wouldn’t be much punishment or threat if the press were doing its job, or even cared about its readership. An “access” reporter is a stenographer of the lie of the day–which is almost invariably boring pabulum that doesn’t sell many newspapers. If you do real reporting, you might not get a “story” as often. Stenography is a damn sight easier than cultivating GS-15s with a conscience, knowing the difference between a think tank and a whorehouse, and reading lots of obscure publications. But these are the ways to get a story that is more than the narrative of those in power.

    So are reporters acting contrary to their incentives? No, not really. Their incentives are professional advancement–ultimately, teevee punditry. And this requires toeing the line.

    Please provide a cite for the march to Selma. Or better yet, tediously list dozens of Obama’s whoppers, as you intimated you could do. You have a credibility problem on this site. I think you usually work in good faith, but I don’t trust your statements of fact unless I know them independently or can track them down. I am under the impression that you often get your information directly from Rush Limbaugh or sources scarcely more reliable.

    1. Video

      “What happened in Selma, Alabama and Birmingham also stirred the conscience of the nation. It worried folks in the White House who said, “You know, we’re battling Communism. How are we going to win hearts and minds all across the world? If right here in our own country, John, we’re not observing the ideals set fort in our Constitution, we might be accused of being hypocrites.” So the Kennedy’s decided we’re going to do an air lift. We’re going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is.

      This young man named Barack Obama got one of those tickets and came over to this country. He met this woman whose great great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves; but she had a good idea there was some craziness going on because they looked at each other and they decided that we know that the world as it has been it might not be possible for us to get together and have a child. There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don’t tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Alabama.”

      He was born 4 years prior…

      1. Brett, I’m sorry for doubting your sourcing. And I’m equally sorry for believing your good faith.

        I read your original. By no stretch of the imagination could Obama’s speech be read to say that his parents met on the march to Selma. Sorry, let me use your words. There is nothing in Obama’s speech that says that “his parents, according to him, met on the march to Selma.” Not one freaking syllable, either directly or by implication.

        Instead, he said that things like Birmingham and Selma caused his parents to meet, because it caused his father to come to the United States. There was a lot of artful fudging in the speech, which creates some apparent anachronisms, intended to make his auditors feel good. (There were plenty of things like Selma and Birmingham in the second half of the 1950’s.) He’s a pol, after all, and pols spin for a living. But he’s also a lawyer, and is careful with language. There’s plenty of wiggle-room in his speech, and he takes advantage of it. But he’s never unambiguously anachronistic.

        1. By no stretch of the imagination could Obama’s speech be read to say that his parents met on the march to Selma.

          No, it can’t be, but there’s still a tremendous amount of fudge there. Obama was born August 4, 1961, hence conceived before JFK took office.

          That doesn’t give us Brett’s “dozens of whoppers,” of course, though no doubt there have been a few. Still, lying is not reflexive for Obama, as it is for Romney and Republicans in general.

          1. That was an example, for starters. When I’ve got time I’ll feed you a few more. The standard stuff: Saying he wasn’t going to run for President when he ran for the Senate, that he barely knew Rezko, that he never worked for ACORN…

            But I will agree that wasn’t a reflexive lie. It was premeditated. Carefully crafted, rather than produced on the spot in an excess of enthusiasm.

            So, why did he think he could get away with it? Because of why you weren’t aware of it: He’s got the media covering for him, and knows it.

          2. Is it a lie to say you won’t do something and then change your mind? I don’t think so. I remember Romney announcing he was not going to run for Governor of MA, and then going ahead with it soon thereafter. That got no barely a shrug from anyone, except the previous favorite for the GOP nomination.

            As for Rezko, according to Salon

            After the Chicago Tribune uncovered the land deal, Obama described Rezko as “a supporter of mine since my first race for state Senate” and a friend with whom he occasionally had lunch or dinner. Obama knew that Rezko was under grand jury investigation, but believed that “as long as I operated in an open, up-front fashion, and all the T’s were crossed and I’s were dotted, that it wouldn’t be an issue.”

            That doesn’t sound like a claim that he “barely knew” Rezko.

            And are you saying Obama was employed by ACORN? He wasn’t. Not even a slimy, innuendo-filled article in National Review claims that. Or is it your opinion that doing legal work for them is the same thing? Come on, Brett. Quit reading all that nonsense.

          3. According to the link I supplied above (sorry, posted in the wrong place in the thread), Obama’s father came to the U.S. as part of an ongoing program which Senator Kennedy later helped fund through the Kennedy family foundation. So this is less fudge than it might otherwise appear.

            Anyway, you have the overarching point: “lying is not reflexive for Obama, as it is for Romney and Republicans in general.” If it were, Brett would have been able to come up with something better.

  3. “strikingly unlike the Obama campaign”

    Yes, Obama is a lesser evil than Romney and any other Republican candidate. But, with the exception of Mark’s once criticizing Obama for torturing Bradley Manning, why should Obama’s being a lesser evil exempt him from criticism on this blog?

    Let’s agree, if only for the sake of argument, that the Obama campaign does not, like the Romney campaign, “consistently and explicitly uses access and denial of access to reward and punish favorable and unfavorable stories.” Is that important, compared to the fact that Obama is on the verge of destroying our system of government and becoming perhaps the most harmful President in our history? He is about to sign a bill to allow the President to imprison a person for aiding terrorism without due process. If the President can imprison a person for aiding terrorism without due process, then he can imprison a person for anything without due process. It is not as if the President must prove that he acted in good faith. He could imprison me for writing this comment, for my ethnic heritage or skin color, or because he dislikes the shirt I’m wearing. Of course, by not prosecuting Bush for torture, Obama has already established that, as a de facto matter, the President is above the law, but signing this bill into law will make it de jure. And the law will give this power to President Romney or President Gingrich, as well as to President Obama.

    I realize that my comment is not on point; it is not a subject that this blog discusses. That is my point.

    1. “He is about to sign a bill to allow the President to imprison a person for aiding terrorism without due process.”

      Which provision was in the bill because he insisted upon it.

      1. if by “insisted on it” you mean “wimped out on a threat to veto the whole bill in protest against its inclusion” then you are correct, if rather original in your use of the language.

        1. Anonymous, if you read Glenn Greenwald at salon.com you’ll learn that Obama’s veto threat was not based on an objection to the obvious unconstitutionality of the bill, but on the limit it placed on his discretion.

          Also, although I cannot read Obama’s mind, I suspect that it’s about time that we stop regarding him as weak or too conciliatory. He gets what he wants. He wanted to kill the public option in the health insurance bill, he wanted to allow the Bush tax cuts to continue, and he wants most everything that the Republicans supposedly force on him.

    2. Obama is doing this all by himself?

      You left out the minute detail about how most of the rest of our federal government voted for this evil bill.
      They’re all evil, and they’re all destroying our system of government. It’s been going on my entire lifetime, with both sides eagerly participating and blaming the other for the fallout.
      The biggest fault of our two-party system is that it encourages binary thinking that blinds voters to the evils of their party.

  4. Who else has ever called him out? Where else has he ever been that he needed to pay attention to anyone who might have called him out? At Bain he and his partners were making money hand over fist, not an environment where your peers will slap you upside the head, and in every deal the partners were the guys with the money giving the orders. As governor he could always say that circumstances changed. Has he been in many situations in his life where he’s needed to think about being consistent, as opposed to saying what he thinks will get the result he wants?

    Not that I disagree about the press and reporters’ incentives. It’s just that in trying to figure out a guy like that, it probably makes more sense to forget about what he says, because he can’t be trusted to speak more than tactically, and look into consistencies underlying what he’s brought about. I’ve always hated the apparently increasingly-observed idea that we have to accept at face value what people say about themselves. A more open invitation to lie, by telling people what they want to hear, is harder to imagine.

  5. The source of the Romney “lie” that Obama believes in a “post-American World” is that Dear Leader dared to read this radical unapproved book.

    Seriously, this isn’t a “lie.” It’s just an extremely tendentious interpretation of a true fact.

    1. Obama was carrying, and may have read, “The Post-American World.” To conclude from that fact that, as Romney said, “This is a president who fundamentally believes that the next century is the post-American century,” would not constitute an “interpretation” of that fact, tendentious or otherwise. If Romney’s statement is not a lie, but is an honest inference, then it constitutes gross stupidity. Romney had better hope that no picture exists of him carrying a copy of “Das Kapital.”

      1. or “Current Trends in Economics”, by someone with a foreign sounding name such as Greenspan or Friedman. good grief! I am outraged at the way republicans and GOP/corporate media are playing conservative Americans! This parade of incompetent clowns has reduced our federal politics to the level of a corrupt county commissioner’s seat. If I were a true republican, I’d switch my party affiliation to the democrats- just to punish the national party for their hubris and betrayal.

      2. Of course, the point would not be to “win the argument” that Obama believes we are in a P-AW, but merely to lure him into acknowledge that it’s a credible charge. To do that would already be a huge communications win for the Romney campaign.

        I think the words to sum up Romney’s nebulous accusation are smear, demagoguery, and bullshit.

        I mean all three of these in precise, dare I say technical, senses.

        Smear: To read a book is to at least entertain an idea, that is to allow it at least a few moments in your mind. You can entertain an idea (like Zakaria’s) and then completely reject it. Now try to explain this in 7-second soundbite.

        Demagoguery: The flip side of pandering. Rather than saying, “O voters, you are so great!” this is more like saying “Your problems owe not to yourselves but to your enemies especially the insidious internal ones!” Further try to explain that Zakaria–a widely-respected public intellectual with genuine academic bona fides is merely talking about American relative decline because the rest of the world constituting 95% of global population is merely ceasing to be grossly oppressed.

        Bullshit: Indifference to the truth. Willingness to readily blend fact and fiction in any proportion for the sake of persuasiveness.

        1. “To read a book is to at least entertain an idea, that is to allow it at least a few moments in your mind.”

          I don’t know. When I read “Mein Kampf” (actually, I didn’t stick with it for many pages), I wouldn’t say that I “entertained” its ideas. I was reading it to get a better understanding of what Hitler believed.

          Otherwise, I think that your analysis is good.

  6. There is no evidence that I have seen that Romney even cares if he is caught in a lie, so he doesn’t need a good memory.

  7. “That was an example, for starters.”

    No, you made it very clear it wasn’t “for starters.” It was *the* example you wanted us to “settle on” here because you weren’t going to go on “tediously list[ing]” examples.

    And since it was submitted as a proxy in lieu of a tedious list, the matter is indeed settled. Your whopper is a flopper.

    1. We’ve established that you don’t care if he lies, so why should I prove any more lies to you? Obama was born years before the events he claimed, in a pre-written speech, led to his parents meeting. To you that’s a flopper. To me that’s a premeditated lie. I can provide more lies, you’ll doubtless call them more floppers.

      My basic point here is that Mark routinely levels charges against Republicans which are true of Democrats, too, as though they were some special sin of the Republicans only. And then when somebody demonstrates that Democrats to it, too, it’s met with a combination of denial and “tu quoque”, as though that latter has any relevance when you’re not denying a charge, just denying exclusive guilt.

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