Juan Williams, the 'Greater Good' ... It's All Semantics

Dogs and other "less than human" critters probably don't lie. People are different. They can and do lie, frequently. It is said that George "Cherry Tree" Washington never told a lie. If so, he must have been a disagreeable chap with few friends. "Do you think I'm fat, George?" "Yes, dear." Polite people generally don't say that sort of thing, even if they have to lie (or fake a coughing fit) to avoid it.

In recent years, the concept of polite lies has expanded to the increasingly vast universe of political correctness, where approved lies are encouraged and not telling them can get you fired -- pronto. Politically incorrect truths are "inconsistent with [NPR's] editorial standards and practices, and undermined [Juan Williams'] credibility as a news analyst with NPR." Some credibility; some news analysis! Happy fund raising week! NPR and its affiliates may need it more than ever. There is no truth (probably) to any rumor that Helen Thomas has been hired to replace Williams.

No matter the absurdity of a mere opinion, it is not a lie to the extent that it does not purport to state a fact -- either about what was done or said or about what the speaker thinks was said or done. It is my opinion that the honorable (but floundering) Barney Frank is no less despicable than fortunately incarcerated but equally honorable Bernie Madoff, and I can express that opinion truthfully. It may not be accurate as to Messrs. Frank and Madoff, but it is not a lie because I stated that it is merely my opinion and it is. On the other hand, if knowing for a fact that the moon is made of rock (having been there and brought back to Earth moon rock samples), Neil Armstrong were to claim to think it is made exclusively of Gorgonzola cheese, that would be a lie because it is not his opinion.

In politics, lies as to objective facts and the nature of one's opinions concerning them are not always easily distinguishable. When Barack Obama, our incredible shrinking president, declaimed against the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision during his State of the Union address on January 10, he said:

[L]ast week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections. (Applause.) I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.

Citizens United, based on apparently inconvenient First Amendment prohibitions against infringement of free speech, involved a small non-profit corporation with "an annual budget of about $12 million. Most of its funds are from donations by individuals; but, in addition, it accepts a small portion of its funds from for-profit corporations." It produced a film unfavorable to Senator Clinton to be presented during her run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination during a "blackout period" (thirty days before primaries and 60 days prior to elections). It was produced and to be distributed independently of any political party or candidate. During oral argument, the government conceded that books produced by or for unions or corporations could fall under the same prohibition as movies. It was apparently a tough concession to make.

The decision that the statutory prohibition was in violation of the First Amendment is applicable to for-profit as well as to non-profit corporations, no distinction having been made in the statute. It also opened a door for unions (which have been outspending corporations almost 3:1. Oh well). Justice Sotomayor dissented, and Attorney General Kagan presented the final oral arguments for the government.

The decision had nothing to do with contributions to political parties or candidates, and it affirmed the constitutionality of existing disclosure requirements, stating: "we find the [disclosure aspects of the] statute valid as applied to the ads for the movie and to the movie itself." Nor did the decision upset statutory restrictions on foreign donations. It stated, among other things:

We need not reach the question whether the Government has a compelling interest in preventing foreign individuals or associations from influencing our Nation's political process. Cf. 2 U. S. C. §441e (contribution and expenditure ban applied to "foreign national[s]."

President Obama must have known that he was being "less than candid" either about what the Supreme Court had actually done or about his understanding of it. He is, after all, a world class constitutional scholar and very bright; at least he would have us so believe. President Obama could presumably have asked his attorney general or solicitor general what the actual decision did. He did not say, "I haven't read the Citizens United decision, so this is just based on my gut feeling that the justices who decided the case are beastly union-hating corporate shills." Still the beat goes on.

There's no evidence for it, but it is claimed that those dastardly corporations might even outspend unions due in part to dirty foreign money -- which some unions (the SEIU and Teamsters, for example) may well themselves use for political purposes; lots more is on the way. President Obama may have opened a Pandora's box. Mr. Justice Alito's silent mouthing of "not true" may have been impolite, but it was well deserved and true. Perhaps he does not think that the president should just follow his heart as emphatically as some would like, rather than the laws and the Constitution.