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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Lies, darn lies and politics

By MARGARET WENTE
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 30, 2003

Twice a week, I spend an hour doing sit-ups with a taskmaster named Jackie. I like her a lot. She runs her own small business, and is the mother of a charming infant. She doesn't give two hoots about politics, and she's not ashamed of it. She never votes, because the whole charade strikes her as meaningless.

She's got a point. Up close, what strikes you about political campaigns is their pure artificiality. Each candidate's utterances are crafted to feed the media beast, one news cycle at a time, with real voters wheeled in as handy props. Because genuine authenticity and spontaneity are dangerous, each candidate is heavily rehearsed. But because voters like authenticity, the candidates work hard to project it. On the rare occasion when a genuinely unscripted moment occurs, it's usually regarded by both the handlers and the media as a "gaffe."

There is no place for public candour in an election campaign. Tough questions are not meant to be answered, and unpleasant truths cannot be acknowledged. They merely serve as bridges back to the candidate's canned message. The imperative to stay on message means that candidates must routinely lie. And the more self-evident the truth, the bigger the lies that they must tell.

On Saturday, when four separate polls declared the Tories to be toast, Premier Ernie Eves insisted that the polls were wrong. On Sunday, he declared: "We are not toast." On Monday, when a fifth poll predicted a resounding defeat, he claimed that an invisible silent majority of voters couldn't wait to cast ballots.

Nobody, of course, expects a losing candidate to tell the truth. In fact, it would be shocking if he did. Lying is his job. And yet, the necessary lies of a political campaign impart an extra weirdness to a ritual that's already quite surreal.

For instance, it's not just the Tories who are toast. So are Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty's campaign promises. That list dates from last spring, when there was no official deficit and Ontario's economic prospects looked pretty good. Now it's obvious that we're deep in the hole, and that many of those promises are worthless. But will he say so? Are you kidding?

It's not that Mr. McGuinty is dishonest. But politics routinely forces people to say the opposite of what they know to be true. No wonder perfectly intelligent folks like Jackie tune out. She knows that most of what's said in a campaign is just gas.

The other day Mr. McGuinty came in to spend an hour with a group of Globe and Mail editors and writers. Naturally they tried to extract a fresh information nugget from him, and naturally they failed. After all, his entire job is not to get knocked off message. What's his strategy for putting together his cabinet? somebody asked. "I'm not even thinking about that," he lied.

This lie is harmless, and nobody is expected to take it at face value. (If you did, you'd have to conclude that the candidate is a total idiot.) It's the flip side of Mr. Eves's lie. It's what the script obliges him to say, and he knows we know it. It's meant to signify that he remains entirely focused on winning the election, isn't taking victory for granted, and doesn't want to sound arrogant. Still, it's ridiculous. So we were relieved when he finally said, "Sure, I've thought about it. But I'm not going to talk about it."

Trapped on the campaign bus, you can easily observe the neurotic co-dependency between the candidates and the media. They need each other, but they're not happy about it. The journalists, desperate for some unscripted moment that might create genuine news, do their best to knock the candidate off message. Sometimes they get a tidbit -- a minor inconsistency -- and do their best to pump it up into a story. But usually they are miserable captives to the photo-op du jour.

One day on the McGuinty bus we were transported to the SkyDome, which was to be the backdrop for his latest message. The dome was closed, and the whole place was dark. The press bus rolled onto the vast concrete floor and disgorged us into the cavernous gloom. The TV crews set up their lights and cameras, and a couple of guys tossed around a football as we waited. The candidate arrived in his own bus, then mounted a temporary platform somewhere near home late. Since we already had our briefing sheets, we knew what he was going to say. He said he's going to create 50,000 new places in postsecondary schools, and there are 50,000 seats in the SkyDome, so we could see that that's a lot. The cameras got their clip, and the print people wrote it down, then we all got back on the bus.

The experts wring their hands because voter turnouts are so low. But people know that much of politics is posturing, and that politicians rarely speak their minds. Some of us know this and vote anyway, and some of us don't bother. Jackie figures she's got better things to do than concern herself with political theatre of the absurd. I can't say I blame her.



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