It's the little lies people tell, not the big ones, that destroy confidence. You can see the big lies coming, which helps you set your defenses against them. The little ones nibble away at integrity.
So when Janet Reno assured the American public that the INS official who "rescued" Elián Gonzalez never pointed the gun at the little boy, and that he didn't have his finger on the trigger, you had to scurry back to the photo to see for yourself.
"That's what's so great about a photograph," said Ms. Reno. "It proves the very points that people might otherwise overlook."
Maybe President Clinton's attorney general really thinks so. But would millions of other Americans respond to "the photo" with such careful and tedious parsing of the facts? Probably destined now to join a handful of other spot news pictures that were pivotal in galvanizing public opinion, the AP picture of the obviously terrified little boy had to be Ms. Reno's least desired result of the action she ordered.
So why follow up the nationwide release of "the photo" with an official statement that stretched every reasonable person's credulity? And why claim, in the face of other facts directly to the contrary, that talks with Elián's Miami family "had broken down"?
I think there are four reasons:
(1) It's human nature to lie.
(2) It's the habit of politicians to push the limits of regular humans.
(3) It's the habit of the Clinton administration to push the limits of politicians.
(4) It's become the habit of the American people, if not to believe the Clinton administration, at least not to worry that its perpetual lies matter all that much.
In other words, the reason we keep hearing "little lies" is that they work. People tell them, and we let them get away with it.
I've mentioned before in this space a classic example of this point. You dealt with it just a couple of weeks ago when you filed your income tax return and had to decide whether to designate $3 for the next presidential campaign. The IRS piously promised you that your tax bill wouldn't be any higher if you said yes, or lower if you chose not to designate the dollar. The promise is false on the face of it.
Clearly, if the federal government spends $100 million for an election campaign, which it does every four years, that money has to come from somewhere. The promise on the tax form implies that the $100 million appears out of thin air. But in fact the money comes, just like every other dollar the government spends, from taxpayers like you and me. So even if you didn't technically have to add $3 to this year's tax bill, you can rest assured that those same dollars will be part of next year's tax bite. They have to be.
Clearly, the issue here is not so much the 10 cents a year such a policy extracts from every man, woman, and child in the country. We're pretty prosperous, and we can probably afford that.
What we can't afford is the pretense. A government willing to lie to its citizens about a small amount like that has already proven it can't be trusted. So why should its citizens trust it to speak the truth about really big issues?
The Elián Gonzalez issue itself has been hard enough without adding the issues of honesty and trust to the equation. Weighing parental rights on the one hand over against the evils of totalitarianism on the other is, in the best of circumstances, a complex debate. But if such a debate is to go anywhere at all, credibility, honor, and integrity among the major players have to be a given. But with Janet Reno, her colleagues, and her boss-all of them people who can look at a picture and deny what everyone else sees-credibility, honor, and integrity are the qualities everyone knows instinctively now are missing.
Yet just as with the impeachment crisis a little more than a year ago, the truly telling factor these days isn't so much what we're learning about the people doing all this lying. Most of them could be gone in a few months. The scary factor is what we're learning about the people who are being lied to. They will still be around to reckon with.