In Washington, the Hard Truth is Hard to Come By

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Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr contrasts the disclosure by presidential candidate John Edwards that his wife's cancer has returned with Washington episodes of non-truth-telling.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There's word today that a Justice Department official involved in the firing of U.S. attorneys will take the fifth at upcoming Senate hearings. A lawyer for Monica Goodling, who served as White House liaison for the Justice Department, says she will refuse to answer questions when called to testify, citing her constitutional protection against self-incrimination.

NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr says the whole U.S. attorneys affair can be seen as part of broader culture of deceit in Washington.

DANIEL SCHORR: The front-page story tells of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales being contradicted by e-mail messages of what he says was his level of involvement in the firing of U.S. attorneys. And now several senators are calling for him to step down.

Another front-page story tells of former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles being contradicted by e-mails on his link to super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

It seems almost exceptional when John Edwards tells the simple truth about his wife's cancer. It may be that electronic record keeping has raised a new peril for officials who seek to conceal unpleasant facts. But the urge to avoid unpleasant truths is not new. One doesn't have to go further back than President Reagan in the Iran-Contra scandal to remember mistakes were made, or President Clinton, I did not have sex with that woman, to be reminded of the urge to obfuscate at the very top. President Nixon hardly needs to be mentioned.

Higher level prevarication has been the subject of academic study. Dr. Sissela Bok, in the 1978 book called "Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life," wrote that lying cannot be wiped out, but it can be counteracted.

Lynne Cheney, in the 1995 book "Telling the Truth," wrote that thanks to untrustworthy officials, our culture and our country have stopped making sense.

And Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt, in a 2005 book titled - let's see how I say this - (unintelligible) writes about deceptiveness presentation short of outright lying.

Griles has now pleaded guilty, thus acknowledging that he tried to get away with a lie. The attorney general still insists in the face of evidence to the contrary that he was not involved in the firing of the attorneys. That drama remains to be played out.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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