SEATTLE — Some time back, I wrote a column about what I called the “Clintonization” of North Carolina politics. I observed that many of the state and local leaders we had elected in recent years have dissembled and prevaricated their way through such issues as tax increases, school improvements, Outer Loops, and the higher education bonds.
Unfortunately, the trend isn’t contained within the borders of our own state. Its namesake, he of the wagging finger and lack of shame, has lowered the bar for the politically active across the country. Yes, American politicians have never exactly been paragons of veracity. And it hasn’t take a Bene Gesserit truthsayer to figure this out. But at least in the past, politicians who were caught in lies tended to pay some kind of price. Now they deny, then get caught, then shed a tear, and live to lie another day.
I’ve just seen the process play out in Seattle, Washington this weekend, where I was speaking at a luncheon cosponsored by three fellow think tanks in the Pacific Northwest: the Washington Policy Center, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, and the Discovery Institute. During my stay, I’ve learned that the hottest political story in the state is the fate of Tim Eyman.
He’s not an elected politician — but he might as well be. Eyman is perhaps the most prominent political activist in the state. He has headed up several recent anti-tax initiative campaigns, including one subjecting all future state and local tax increases to a public vote. Can’t say I dislike the goal, but Eyman has recently fessed up to diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars from contributions to his initiative campaigns into a personal account. There was nothing illegal in the move, but Eyman had promised his supporters that he wouldn’t take a salary from their contributions to the cause. He lied. Now he has come forward to tell his story, talk about his wife and two young children, and elicit sympathy.
Judging by letters to some of the local newspapers, many of his ideological compatriots in the tax-limitation movement are willing to overlook his deception. Some specifically cited the Clinton example, saying that if the former president could get away with his pack of untruths, surely Eyman’s comparatively minor infractions should get a pass. Furthermore, many are warning that if Eyman’s political fortunes sink like a stone, there may be no effective leadership against a new, huge tax-increase package to squander billions of taxpayer dollars on light rail around Seattle (hey, Washingtonians, join our club of pain).
This is, of course, exactly the problem. Telling the truth should be a nonnegotiable part of the contract that anyone seeking to play a role in public life should be willing to sign and honor. The former president may have stumbled his way down the racetrack, not just lowering but knocking down all the hurdles in his way. Instead of shuffling along behind him, however, the rest of the political class should stop, set the bars back up, and try to regain some semblance of the public trust.