Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
Friday, February 12, 1999

The Salem Evening News

Even Presidents lie ...
but that doesn't make it right

By Barbara Anderson

Well, it's all over but the consequences. We now have the phrase "everybody lies" hanging in the air where the children can see it.

Listen, kids, the people who say this are all admitted liars, so maybe it isn't true.

Maybe there are people who either tell the truth or refuse to answer, but never lie. Maybe they believe that lying is morally wrong, or they realize that one lie can permanently damage their credibility, or they simply don't care enough about other people's opinions to bother avoiding the truth.

Of course, telling the truth in court can get you in serious trouble if you've committed a crime, so you also want to avoid breaking the law. And just say no to extra-marital sex, because telling the truth about that can get you in trouble too.

I told a lie once, not about a crime of course, but because of a teenage crush.

It happened in 1957, my first year of high school. Because of a scheduling conflict I was in a freshman English class with "commercial" students who were classified already as "not college-material."

Since I had no intention then of going to college, which would have delayed my plan to see the world, I didn't mind. In fact, I was happy to be seated near a boy I'll call "Flint" because he looked like the frontier scout on the TV series "Wagon Train."

Flint was not only good-looking, he was smart and nice. But I suspect now that he may have suffered from dyslexia because he had difficulty with reading assignments.

Instead of the usual nun, we had a student teacher whose job  was to get us through a semester of Dicken's "Great Expectations." We were assigned one chapter a night; I read the whole book immediately to get it over with.

"Miss Foolishly Naive" let us correct our own daily quiz and give her the grade when she called our names. I'm sure many of my classmates have not read "Great Expectations" to this day. They were clever enough not to give themselves A's, but kept their cheating credible by telling her they were getting average scores. Flint, who was honest, did the homework and managed to score a C or D each time.

Then, one day he flunked the quiz. I could tell that he was embarrassed, especially since all the other kids had their usual medium grade. So, impulsively, when my name was called, I dropped my usual 100 percent down to 80. He looked at me, surprised. "It was a tough chapter," I remember saying, sympathetically. He smiled in agreement. I felt great.

Until the guilt hit me. I had lied. Never mind that it didn't do a thing for my own advancement, I had told a non-truth. My father would be disappointed if he knew. And, less importantly, I was probably going to hell when I died.

I must pause in this narrative to tell you about my father. Dad never lied. He also never fibbed, fudged, or misled. And he expected the same absolute truthfulness from me. In fact, it was not a law or a rule with him, it was merely a "great expectation." There were no exceptions, even "little white" or "kindness."

He wouldn't go out of his way to hurt someone's feelings, but if you looked awful in that new dress, you'd better not ask his opinion. And yet everyone loved him because, if he did say you looked good, you knew it was true. I wanted to be just like him, to have my rare compliments valued, my word trusted, my honor intact.

But here I was with a lower-than-honest English grade that I couldn't live with but had no intention of correcting with an admission to Miss Naive.

Fortunately, my early reading of the Dickens novel was wearing off. The next few days, I honestly got less than perfect marks. I computed the amount that had to be added each day to average the grade I should have received had I given myself the 100 I deserved instead of an 80 that one time.

At the end of the assignment, I was a truthful "A student" again. And I had learned my lesson: nothing, not even a smile from someone who looks like Flint McCullough, is worth the guilt of having told a lie.

So it's time to tell the children that maybe almost everyone does lie, at least once in a lifetime, but generally comes to regret it. The truth is, everyone doesn't make a habit of lying, and neither should they.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. She writes regularly for the Viewpoint page. Her biweekly column also appears in other publications.

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