By MARSHA MERCER
Since Jimmy Carter said in 1976 that he would never lie to us, presidential candidates have faced the question: Will you lie to the American people?
Here’s how Hillary Clinton handled the question last month:
“You’re asking me to say, `Have I ever?’ I don’t believe I ever have…I don’t believe I ever will. I am going to do the best I can to level with the American people,” she told Scott Pelley of CBS News.
Her critics say Clinton lied about the Benghazi attack to families of the fallen, her private email account at the State Department and other things. She denies lying.
So here’s another question: Do a politician’s lies matter anymore?
Republican Donald Trump, Clinton’s likely competitor in November, is such an equal-opportunity prevaricator that no one asks him if he will lie. People expect him to change his story. His supporters like his bluff and bluster enough to forgive his whoppers.
After Trump jumped into the presidential race last June, he played so loose with truth that PolitiFact, a fact-checking site, awarded him the 2015 Lie of the Year for his collective misstatements.
When primary voters weigh the most important characteristics of candidates, “honest and trustworthy” is not high on the scale. Among Democratic voters in Virginia on Super Tuesday, for example, only about one in four rated “honest and trustworthy” the most important candidate quality, while 36 percent rated “the right experience” most important.
It may seem quaint to us now, but voters in 1976 saw the pledge of a peanut-growing Georgia governor as a refreshing change after the lies, scandal and bad odor that permeated the Nixon years.
Only a few years later, though, the oil crisis hit and Carter’s scolding tone turned off voters.
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns,” Carter said in his “Crisis of Confidence” speech in July 1979. It’s known as his “malaise” speech, though he never uttered the word.
We may like the idea of our president telling the truth and only the truth – but in practice we punish those who say things we don’t like. In 1980, voters joined Ronald Reagan in booting Carter back to Georgia.
In 1984, Democrat Walter Mondale, running against President Ronald Reagan, said at the Democratic National Convention: “Let’s tell the truth. President Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
Mondale’s politically motivated honesty help bury him that November. It’s worth remembering that while Reagan did not propose any tax increases in his second term, he did go along with those sent his way by Congress. Revenue enhancements, anyone?
Voters also turn on presidents who honestly change their minds. Just four years after Mondale’s debacle, George H.W. Bush declared at the Republican National Convention in 1988, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” When the economy did not improve as he expected, Bush agreed to a bipartisan plan that raised taxes in 1990.
Come 1992, Bill Clinton used Bush’s broken tax pledge very effectively, torpedoing Bush’s re-election bid. In 2014, the elder Bush received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award.
Hillary Clinton has a sterling resume but her image for honesty has long been tarnished. Eight years ago this week, when she was battling Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, only 44 percent of Americans thought she was honest and trustworthy, the Gallup organization reported.
Her stature has diminished since then. Today, just 37 percent of Americans see Clinton as honest and trustworthy, the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll reported Tuesday. Clinton says such polls are painful to her. The silver lining for Clinton: Only 27 percent see Trump as honest and trustworthy.
Back in 2008, candidate Barack Obama told Clinton in a debate, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
Forty years after a presidential candidate promised never to lie, we’re heading for a November showdown between two candidates most voters see as not honest and trustworthy. This election may come down to which one is likable enough.
© 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.