Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Old Clichés are the Best Clichés

C. S. Lewis wrote an essay which he entitled, “Read the Old Books.” The assumption behind his admonition was that a book that had stood the test of time, and was still in print, or at least readily available, had something about it that was valuable – worth keeping.

It is true even of clichés. I awoke this morning, after a short night, having watched election returns until 2:30 a.m., thinking of the worn old cliché, “Honesty is the best policy.” Just like most of the teaching in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the cliché, “Honesty is the best policy” seems to be an invitation to defeat. When most of the world around you attempts to deceive or manipulate you, being honest only seems to make you vulnerable. It is easier to just play the game – to play it better than all those other guys.

It was impossible to watch Mr. Romney’s concession speech without feeling, and sympathizing with, the pain he was experiencing. At least it was impossible for me. As I awoke this morning I began pondering how things could have ended differently. My mind ran back to the Republican Primary days, and I thought of John Huntsman, like Mr. Romney, a devoted Mormon.

John Huntsman was a former Republican Governor of Utah who served for a few years as the U.S. Ambassador to China in the first Obama administration. He resigned the Ambassador’s post to run for President in the Republican primary. Most Americans may have forgotten him; he was always out on the flanks beyond Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Tim Pawlenty. He seldom got to make his point but when he did he stood out from the crowd in a way that impressed me. While all the others were bending themselves into whatever shape they perceived the electorate to want, regardless of positions they had assumed in previous years, or even previous debates, Huntsman remained true to the principles he had espoused for years. Of course, he didn’t win the nomination. Honesty was not in high demand during those debates.

So why do I say that honesty is the best policy? It occurs to me that Mr. Romney could have followed the course that John Huntsman did. After all he was viewed, early in the primary season as a moderate, former Massachusetts governor. I viewed him in those terms and argued that, of those in the primary who had a real chance at winning the nomination, Mitt Romney was probably the best man. But I as watched him twist and turn and morph from one kind of man to another it became clear to me that we could never know, ahead of the election, or even possible after the election, who he really was or what he stood for.

I’m not enough of a political scientist to ascertain all the reasons for Mr. Romney’s defeat but it seems to me that he never became any one thing long enough for the American people to become comfortable with him. His opponent, Barack Obama, on the other hand, despite all that could be said against him by his opponents, remained essentially the same person through his presidency and the campaign for re-election.

So, am I saying that Mitt Romney could have won if he had told the truth about who he is and what he believes? That is impossible to know. My feeling is that he would not have won the Republican nomination. He would have been quietly shuttled off to one side like John Huntsman.

But who would you rather be today, John Huntsman, who has the satisfaction of knowing that he did not sacrifice his principles for the chance to win (or lose) a presidential contest, or Mitt Romney who, as one commentator said last night, will have as the first line of his obituary, “Mitt Romney, who ran an unsuccessful race for the presidency and lost to Barack Obama, died today”?

Bill Clinton, whose lies – and lying lifestyle – were at least as egregious as those of Mitt Romney over the last few months, is testimony that one can rebuild a tarnished reputation. My hope is that Mr. Romney will choose likewise, to use his remaining years to show us who he really is. My gut tells me that there is much potential for good in him. But it would have been a shame if the kind of deception he practiced in the campaign had led to the presidency.

Many may still argue with the contention that honesty is the best policy. It is pretty hard this morning though, to argue that inconsistency and dishonesty is a good policy. Or even, in the long run, a winning one.

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