The Real Loser – Truth – NYTimes.com
Candidates accordingly believed that being caught in an outright lie could damage their careers. (As Daniel Patrick Moynihan reportedly said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”) They tended only to bend the truth, not break it.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman denounced Republican financiers as “bloodsuckers” and “gluttons of privilege,” but grounded his inflammatory language in the facts of Congress’s legislative record. He denied his “give ’em hell” reputation, saying later only that “I used to tell the truth on the Republicans, and they called it that.”
Two years later, Richard M. Nixon, running for the Senate from California, said his opponent, Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, was “pink right down to her underwear,” a red-baiting remark, but one that referred to statements she’d made calling for global disarmament and civil rights for women and blacks.
The brass-knuckle 1964 campaign is remembered for Lyndon B. Johnson’s alarmist “daisy ad,” which suggested that Barry M. Goldwater’s election might lead to nuclear war. But it rested on statements Goldwater had made indicating a loose attitude toward nuclear weapons. (“Lob one into the men’s room in the Kremlin,” he once joked.)
The attack ads devised by the strategist Lee Atwater for Vice President George Bush in the 1988 campaign, one of the dirtiest ever, were grounded in at least a kernel of truth. Mr. Bush’s opponent, Michael S. Dukakis, might not have deserved blame for the furlough program that let Willie Horton commit additional crimes, but at least the program and prisoner were real. Atwater exploited these events, but did not invent them.
At least four factors since the 1970s have lowered the cost for politicians who lie and, more important, repeat their fabrications through their attack ads. First is the overall decline in respect for institutions and professionals of all kinds, from scientists and lawyers to journalists and civil servants.