It's an abiding message, but one we keep learning the hard way. David Petraeus scribbled it across his forehead in permanent marker this week: things are not always as they seem.
The 2012 election season played host to exceptional political duplicity. Like never before, candidates proposed policies bereft of accountability. They zigged and zagged to pander to donors and special interests. Identity was malleable; some candidates seemed to forget that alchemy went out of style some millennia ago. Politics is politics, but this year was different. Machiavelli is turning in his grave.
Sure, stories tend to have two sides. There is precedent in both political and philosophic history for a plurality of voices -- sometimes contradictory. Madison wrote in the Federalist papers of the ever-constructive, ever-important role of factions in a vibrant democracy. Social and political dissent and a variance in opinion helps maintain the vigor of our government. Schopenhauer, the nineteenth century thinker, would call these truths complementary objects of a single reality.
But complementary truths from the same candidate? Let's call them lies.
Take the Ohio senate race.
State Treasurer Josh Mandel ran an unsuccessful senatorial challenge against incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown. At an August rally for Mitt Romney, Mandel revved up a crowd of workers at a coal mine in the state's southern region:
There's (sic) a lot of radical organizations throughout this country, funded from places like Hollywood and New York City. People who've never stepped foot in Appalachian Ohio. They're trying to convince the American people that coal is a liability. We understand that coal is an asset.
Mandel's layers of dishonesty would be comical if they weren't so disturbing.
An ambitious Ohio politician -- at a campaign stop just beyond West Virginia -- deriding "radical organizations" in "Hollywood and New York City" is much like Newt Gingrich pushing the notion that "the literati sent out their minions to do their bidding." New York? Hollywood? It's almost shocking that Mandel didn't mount an attack on his Bubbe's matzo ball soup recipe in the same breath. The 35-year-old is a strong supporter of AIPAC and the Republican Jewish Coalition. Assailing the Left for being out of touch, über intellectual, or foreign to the strains of being a coal miner is crooked and laughable from a Cleveland native whom the New Republic called "a nice Jewish boy from a nice Jewish family."
We tasted a different flavor of duplicity in the closely-watched race between Brad Sherman and Howard Berman in California's 30th congressional district. The two incumbent Democrats have virtually identical political records. Both have worked to alleviate local and wider scale environmental issues. Both have supported lending to small businesses and employee protection in the entertainment industry. They share nearly twin records on foreign policy.
Aside from their truly negligible policy differences, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman are socially liberal, fiscally indistinguishable candidates. The two are cut from the same ideological cloth. But if you watched the war they waged against one another this year, you'd never know that.
Sherman chastised Berman for taking trips outside the United States with taxpayer dollars. But Berman had taken most of those trips in his capacity as chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The candidates worked hard to make the distinctions between one's support of Israel through missile defense and another's support through increased sanctions against Iran. An October debate even saw physical aggression play out between the candidates as they sparred over who was the true author of a piece of left-wing legislation.
The Los Angeles Times called the nearly yearlong Berman v. Sherman spectacle "a debate over debating." Both men became architects of artificial differences that didn't actually exist. They accentuated their real, marginal distinctions in unnatural and counterproductive ways.
And one final instance, lest we neglect to mention duplicity in its purest form.
History will not forgive the Republican party for nominating a chameleon instead of a candidate. During the campaign, Mitt Romney's views simply took on those of his audience.
After the first presidential debate -- for which Romney was lauded in conservative circles and lambasted in liberal ones -- Gail Collins summed up the former Massachusetts governor's positions: "taxes will go down, but not revenues. The health care reform plan will go away, except for all the popular parts, which will magically remain intact." From the campaign's outset, his statements and proposals were steeped in very little math, subject to very little consistency, and comprised of very little truth.
The dishonesty and denial seeped well into election night. After it had become clear that President Obama would take Ohio and the networks called the electoral college in his favor, Romney waited more than an hour to concede defeat. In the same hour, Karl Rove forced Megyn Kelly to parade around Fox News headquarters on live television, searching for the misplaced plus or minus sign that would change the electoral outcome projected by every major news organization in the world.
Hubris and wishful thinking are a noxious mixture. The vicious narrative that ended last Tuesday night -- in whose epilogue we read about the downfall of a venerated American hero -- may have amounted to a victory for certain worthy political causes, but it dealt a devastating blow to truth.