“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.” Elvis Presley
During the greater part of the 60 years I have been following presidential politics, the term”truth” has seldom been an issue. There were exceptions, like the Joe McCarthy era in the early 1950s when the Wisconsin senator claimed there were 205 communists in the State Department and that the Roosevelt-Truman era was characterized by “Twenty years of treason.” But he was an outlier, a man who was eventually censored by his own Republican-led Senate in 1954, and who subsequently drank himself to death three years later.
Whether it was Eisenhower vs. Stevenson, Kennedy vs. Nixon, or Reagan vs. Carter, the issues were clear and the differences of opinion had do with such matters as the role of the government in our lives, the best way to contain Soviet Russia, the various levels of public spending, taxes and many other legitimate policy differences. The debates were never about “The Truth,” but how best to approach the issues at hand.
The fact that truth was seldom an issue does not mean that presidents were not above lying when it served their purpose. When, prior to the 1940 election, President Roosevelt promised American mothers their sons would never have to fight on foreign soil, he certainly knew better. Eisenhower was less than truthful when, in 1960, he denied our CIA was spying on Russia by taking aerial photos from U-2 planes flying at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet. When Francis Gary Powers was shot down during such a flight, the truth was obvious. It’s now evident that President Johnson lied repeatedly about how the war in Vietnam was going, along with the fact that he knew the war was not winnable without resorting to nuclear weapons. And then there was President Nixon and the numerous lies about Watergate.
Today it seems that “truth” is an issue more than policy. Is the so-called caravan making its way to our southern border a group of innocent victims of terror and oppression in Central America seeking legitimate asylum in the U.S.? Or, in the words of President Trump, is it an”invasion of violent criminals, many gang members, some terrible people, that could include Middle Eastern terrorists”? Is the Mueller probe a “rigged witch hunt” as the president maintains, or an honest investigation into the extent of Russian meddling in our 2016 election, a probe that involves many people close to the president and might involve the president himself.
Since the the days of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece, philosophers have been asking the question, “What is Truth?” but the answer still nags at us. Nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that the most profound words in the New Testament were said by Pontius Pilate: “What is Truth?” (John 18:38).
To former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, “Truth isn’t truth.” President Trump’s statement, “Don’t believe what you see and hear,” makes sense only when you take into account what Monsieur Bergeret’s dog said to his master in an Anatole France 1901 novel. “My master becomes larger as he approaches, and smaller as he recedes; I am the only being that keeps the same size no matter where I go.”
As was said a long time ago: “Facts have the everlasting grandeur of stars. They are beyond the reach of clouds and fog — both natural and man-made. Although some people shut their eyes — stars continue shedding light. Similarly, facts have an enlightening constance, despite swirling storms and confusion. Darkness merely intensifies the light of stars. Facts remain, visible and invisible.”
Gary Wayne Walker of Fresno is a writer and lecturer focusing on 20th century American political history.