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Bishop Spong On: Politics

The essay below was published on February 22, 2006.

Truth and the Present Administration

“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” That is the ninth commandment in the famous group of ten that are so frequently invoked by members of that Republican political coalition known as the “Religious Right.” Somehow the Ten Commandments anchor the ethical basis of life that they want to impose on the American nation. However, spokespersons for the Religious Right are not particularly even handed in the application of these ancient laws. If it is the adulterous misconduct of former President Clinton, they are livid with righteous rage. If it is the deceit, the misinformation, and the attempt to hide or bend the truth to the point where it says something quite different from reality on the part of the current administration, they are remarkably restrained if not completely silent. Lies do not seem to be covered by the Commandments if their conservative allies utter them.

The way the shooting accident in Texas involving Vice President Richard Cheney was handled is only one more illustration in a long line of manipulating truth for political gain. May I say quickly that I have no reason to doubt that the shooting of Mr. Whittington was anything more than a tragic accident for which I am sure there is deep regret. I grieve for both the Vice President, for the guilt and pain that foolish mistakes bring to others is intense. My sympathy also goes to Mr. Whittington and his family. Human beings must always embrace the fragile quality of existence. The prayer book of my church warns us to be aware constantly of “the shortness and uncertainty of human life.” This accident makes that phrase quite apt.

However, the way this tragedy has been handled is clearly and deliberately misleading, obviously placing political need into the dominant position over both truth and Mr. Whittington’s well being. First, the news was suppressed for 18 hours. Suppression always lends intrigue and heightens suspicion. Second, an investigation of the episode was not conducted by the sheriff’s office until the next day. When the information was presented to the public, we were first told that the injury was slight; that was not so. Those claiming to be witnesses then told us that the victim himself was to blame. Not only did the Vice President ultimately accept responsibility for this action, but we also learned that the ‘witnesses’ were at least a hundred yards away at the time. Next we were told that alcohol was not involved although no tests were done and tests done 24 hours after the event would hardly be conclusive. Mr. Cheney later said that he “had one beer” at lunch and “a high ball” that evening before sitting down to a roast beef dinner.

Finally, the news was broken by the Vice President’s hostess who called a personal friend at the local paper to give her a “scoop.” The fact that members of this family are registered lobbyists was not noted until later. This “scoop” effectively kept the national news media at bay, missing all of the high profile Sunday political shows that are so often filled by members of this administration when they want to get their story out. It would be 36 hours later, on Monday morning, before the national press and television got the story fully, or so they thought, to the public. New details, however, dribbled out as each day passed. Surely, if all we had been told was all there was, the political price would have been only embarrassment, destined to disappear quickly in the rush of history. The stalling, delaying, misinformation, however, gave the clear impression that more was involved than embarrassment. As details did become public, the story grew more ominous. The injury was serious. It took the Vice President four days to own his responsibility on a friendly Fox News program, still avoiding a national press conference. More importantly, this episode reminds us that truth has been battered by this administration on numerous occasions; indeed the violation of truth has been a constant tactic. Things we accepted at face value, because we trusted our sources, may need to be revisited.

When Mr. Bush ran for Governor of Texas, his military records with the Texas Air National Guard were mysteriously and permanently lost. Bureaucratic incompetence, they claimed. He had an honorable discharge that would have to do. When Dan Rather later developed more data on this subject, he did not check his sources adequately. He apologized for this mistake but the truth about this matter is still suspicious and undisclosed.

In the 2000 Republican primary Governor Bush, bankrolled by politically savvy American business leaders heavily concentrated in the oil and energy industries including Enron and Halliburton, put up a war chest for the Bush campaign of $200,000,000. This effectively scared away most serious Republican challengers like Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander, John Ashcroft, Dan Quayle and Orrin Hatch, clearing the field substantially for Mr. Bush. The one contender who did not take the hint wasArizona’s Senator John McCain. After declining to compete in the Iowa caucuses that year, Senator McCain defeated Governor Bush in the New Hampshire primary by a 49% to 31% vote, with the relatively unknown Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer running far behind, thus stopping the Bush juggernaut in its tracks and necessitating the raising of even more money for the Bush effort. On to South Carolina they moved and there the character assassination of John McCain by the Bush operatives took place. McCain’s war record was challenged and minimized. His life as a tortured prisoner of war for five years in what was called the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was said to have been no hardship. He was accused of fathering an illegitimate child by a Vietnamese woman, making that child brown skinned, thus playing to the overt racism of many South Carolina Republicans among whom there are almost no people of color. Governor Bush meanwhile went to speak at BobJonesUniversity, famous for its racism and support of segregation as well as its anti-Catholicism and rabid fundamentalism. Senator McCain’s religion was attacked so vigorously by such religious Bush supporters as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell that he seemed little better than the anti-Christ. One of America’s genuine military heroes had his reputation gutted by those who posed as the “disciples of Jesus,” including the one who announced in the campaign that “Jesus Christ is my favorite philosopher.”

That primary turned the tide and assured the Bush nomination. Governor Bush tried to extract himself from some of his “false witness” by apologizing to New York’s Cardinal O’Connor for playing the anti-Catholic card in that primary.

When the killing fury of September 11, 2001 struck, this administration used that attack to move its already developed plan to invade Iraq to the front burner. As the case for war was made to the public, truth once again was sacrificed. War is necessary “because Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological and atomic weapons.” None of that was true. “Iraq was behind the 9/11 attack,” was the particular theme of the Vice President. That too was and is not so. Then the war began and truth continued to be battered.

“We do not do torture!” Then the Abu Ghraib photos became public and theGuantanamo abuse uncovered. “We are defeating terrorism,” yet the evidence reveals that Iraq in general and Abu Ghraib in particular are today major citadels for recruiting terrorists. “The mission is accomplished,” a statement our president made in combat gear on board an aircraft carrier on the West Coast in May of 2003 when less than half of the casualties that our armed forces would sustain had been inflicted. “We are building democracy in the Middle East,” yet now we know that when the ineffectual Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari was re-elected by one vote in the new Iraqi Assembly, it was with the help of a block of 32 votes delivered by Islamic cleric Moktada Al-Sadr, whose militia dominates most of Baghdad and Basra today and who has been a leading force in the insurgency. Then we watched the terrorist organization Hamas achieve power in Palestine and the President of Egypt postpone elections for two years to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from taking over his government. That is building democracy?

We were told that ‘executive privilege’ prohibited this administration from revealing who was on the Vice President’s energy advisory board when one of the advisors, Ken Lay of Enron, became a political liability. We are now told that ‘executive privilege’ forbids the release of the details of why the response to Hurricane Katrina was so inept that mobile homes costing the government $850,000,000 are stored today in Hope,Arkansas while the homeless of New Orleans are being evicted from hotels because the hotel bills have become so large. We are told, “the president meets many people in social gatherings and receptions and barely knows Jack Abramoff.” Then the pictures of the two of them almost arm in arm are published and details are released about how Bush regularly asked Mr. Abramoff about his children whose names he appears to know well and Karl Rove’s top assistant appears to be Abramoff’s former top assistant. The distortion of truth goes on and on.

The primary reason that “bearing false witness” is part of the Ten Commandments is that no society survives unless the words of its citizens are trustworthy. The commitment to truth on the part of its elected leaders is even more important. The way this embarrassing shooting episode was treated by this administration brings their constant inability to be truthful front and center once more. I see no evidence that this administration has the ability to correct itself. The subversion of truth to power is too deep a mark of its character. Correction must come from the confrontation by other parts of our checks and balances form of government including the Republican Senate, the Republican House and yes, even the Republican Supreme Court. The integrity of truth is more important than party loyalty. I hope Senator William Frist, Majority Leader John Boehner and Chief Justice John Roberts are listening.

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