Much has been made of Brian Williams's inaccurate statements regarding events that he experienced as a reporter in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, while covering Hurricane Katrina. There's no question that there are significant discrepancies between what Williams has said happened and what actually happened. In particular, it is now clear he was not riding in a helicopter that was damaged by ground fire and forced to land. Still unclear is whether Williams deliberately lied about these events or "misremembered" them.
In any event, NBC has decided that Williams's credibility has suffered sufficient damage that he needs to be removed from his post as lead anchor for six months. NBC executives explained their decision stating, "By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News."
The reaction to Williams's misstatements is striking considering the relatively muted response to the recent revelation that President Obama lied during the 2008 campaign regarding his position on same-sex marriage. According to David Axelrod's recently released book, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, Obama and his advisers calculated that were Obama to reveal his true beliefs about same-sex marriage, it could cost him some critical states. So he lied. Indeed, he went out of his way to lie, embellishing his lie with a reference to his Christian faith. Obama told Rev. Rick Warren, "I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman ... Now, for me as a Christian, it's also a sacred union. You know, God's in the mix."
Now the revelation that some politicians lie to get elected may seem about as startling as the revelation that it sometimes rains in Seattle, but regardless of the frequency with which political prevarication occurs, it remains a serious matter, for at least a couple of reasons.
First, in a democracy, candidates are expected to debate and discuss public policy, presenting their actual views to voters, so citizens can then make an informed judgment about which candidate they prefer. I recognize this is an idealized picture. Many voters are indifferent or uninformed, but still, if democracy is to be justified as a form of government, this is an ideal to aim for, not something to be mocked and discarded.
Second, we are continually asked to place our trust in public officials, including our president. Just today, the president has asked for extraordinary war powers to deal with the threats posed by ISIS. The question necessarily arises: if he was willing to manipulate us by lying about same-sex marriage, can we trust him to tell the truth on other issues? Certainly, this is a far weightier issue than the question of whether we can trust a particular news anchor. The latter reads the news; the president makes the news.
I should make it clear at this point that I'm not anti-Obama or marriage equality. To the contrary, I voted for Obama twice. Moreover, I'm strongly in favor of same-sex marriage. Have been for years. But I'm very troubled by Axelrod's assertion that Obama deliberately misled the voters on an important public policy issue. No matter how much I may agree with Obama on other issues, or how favorably I might view his presidency as a whole, this is not an issue that should be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders as irrelevant. Either we strive for a democracy in which the candidates are honest with the voters, or we should strip away all pretense and just treat political campaigns as carnivals in which the candidates are rival barkers, spinning fabulous tales about what lies inside the tent, and we, the citizenry, are the marks.
No, we can't suspend the president, so the president must address Axelrod's assertions forcefully and directly. The president did state in his recent interview with BuzzFeed that Axelrod may have been "mixing up" Obama's personal feelings with his political position. This vague rebuttal on such an important question is insufficient. Either the president should state unambiguously that Axelrod has it wrong or he should admit he was not completely candid about his views, and express his regrets to the American public.