Joined at the nose

The Clinton tradition is now a Gore habit as well

Issue: "The 2000 vote," Nov. 4, 2000

Eerily early in the second Clinton administration, I asked WORLD's top-notch designers and illustrators to do a photo-illustration for this page of President Bill Clinton with a Pinocchio-like nose. It was not merely a cartoon, but an adaptation of an actual photo of the president. When we carried that photo in our March 29, 1997, issue, we were the first periodical I knew of to employ such a device.

Mr. Clinton's reputation as an "unusually good liar" (to use the exact words of one of his Democratic colleagues, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska) had not yet been so firmly established. It was only later that a stretched-out nose became a regular symbol within the media for the man who now has only three months left to further soil his high office.

I mention the issue here for three reasons. The first is that I had opportunity last week to revisit the whole matter of the ethics of political cartooning. I met with a group of students, faculty, and administrators from a self-consciously Christian college, and discussed some of the hard feelings that had followed publication in the student paper of cartoons of college administrators with-you guessed it!-Pinocchio-like noses. Wasn't that an unbiblical mocking of those God had put in places of authority? So I suggested a test I think might properly be applied to any cartoon: There should be no implied accusation that the cartoonist (along with the editor using the cartoon) is not willing to state explicitly. So if the image is of Pinocchio, the periodical must also be willing to say bluntly: "Sir, we think you have lied." In other words, no mere hinting is permitted. Cartoonish allusions, without specific charges, are out of bounds. Put up, we sometimes say, or shut up.

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The second reason I revisit the modified photo of Mr. Clinton is that our use of that picture started a debate that hasn't ended to this day. Second thoughts set in right away, and a few readers were outraged. Indeed, just two issues later, my second thoughts were serious enough that I included the photo in a list of things I actually wished we had done quite differently. A cartoon was one thing, I said in that apology, but to stretch an actual photo probably constituted an ethical stretch as well. Yes, I was willing to say, and did say, in so many words that Mr. Clinton had lied. Still, we concluded then, maybe we should leave caricatures to the cartoonists. In the end, events over the following several years-and the incredible boldness of the president's falsehoods-led me from time to time to think I needed to apologize for my apology!

But the presidential campaign of Al Gore is the third and major reason for right now revisiting the issues relating to Pinocchio's nose. When the final story is written about how a significant Gore advantage at late summer turned suddenly into a horserace, I would suggest that the ultimate answer has to do with the gratuitous lies Mr. Gore told during the first televised presidential debate. Perhaps the American people at long last began to say that enough is enough. Here was a fellow, ahead in the polls and with everything going his way-but then wham!-just out of the clear blue, and with no great need to do so, he doesn't just exaggerate a little bit, but he makes something up out of whole cloth and all but dares the media and the population at large to check him out.

None of us, crooked and sinful though we may be, likes to be lied to. Adulterers and thieves may wink at each other while engaging in their respective wrongdoing-but when one of them finds himself or herself the victim of the lying, things tend to unravel pretty fast.

Bad as Bill Clinton's sexual immoralities have been for this country, and much as he will be remembered for them, the far greater damage he has done to our culture is his flagrant disregard for truth. The very essence of truth is that you can't pick and choose which issues are all right to lie about and which ones deserve honesty-but Mr. Clinton has regularly tried to teach us that we can trust him on the "big" things even while he's broken trust on the "little" ones.

Yet rather than understanding such perversity and then distancing himself from it, Mr. Gore has endorsed it as his own. The bottom line in the election coming up in a few days is that Mr. Clinton's political partner for the last eight years, rather than learning the dangers of dishonesty, has embraced lying so radically for himself. There's some small comfort in the hope that he's not so artful a liar as is his current boss. But the fact that he tries it at all is a discouraging commentary on our progress as a civilized people.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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