The people, not government, need to sort out the truth

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If, as Augustine said, “one never errs more safely than when one errs by too much loving the truth and too much rejecting of falsehood,” this column might go down as the most “erroneous” I’ve ever written.

And a recent case ruled on by the state of Washington’s Supreme Court is one of the most frustrating those justices ever faced.

The case involved a 2002 state Senate race. Green Party candidate Marilou Rickert sent out campaign brochures stating that longtime Democratic incumbent Tim Sheldon “voted to close a facility for the developmentally challenged.”

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In fact, Sheldon twice voted against a budget that would have closed the facility.

Sheldon easily won the election but filed a complaint with his state’s Public Disclosure Commission. The commission sided with him and fined Rickert. It ruled she acted with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

But an appeals court overturned the commission’s decision. Washington’s Supreme Court agreed. It ruled that a 1999 state law prohibiting candidates from not telling the truth was unconstitutional.

It hurts to write this, but the court made the right decision. Understanding why is more important.

The court didn’t condone Rickert’s action. Rather, it recognized the limits of government to ensure people behave honestly.

Governments can collect taxes, make laws and drop bombs. But it cannot make people honest. It certainly cannot make political candidates tell the truth in campaign ads. Voters must sort out the whole truth.

Fortunately, a large majority of voters in Washington paid attention, saw through Rickert’s campaign ad and used the ballot box to punish her.

But will enough Kentuckians see through the haze of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Beshear’s recent campaign charge?

The Associated Press reported that Beshear said Gov. Ernie Fletcher had “shortchanged education.” Yes, big-spending Beshear accused the Fletcher administration of not spending enough on education. This despite the fact that Kentucky is spending more than $4 billion this year – nearly half the state budget – on elementary and secondary education.

There are many things Fletcher has failed to do when it comes to education. But spending our hard-earned tax dollars is not one of them. If Kentucky had the equivalent of Washington’s public disclosure commission, it would also have to conclude that Beshear’s latest campaign charge deserves a fine.

But the responsibility for straightening out such campaign smack doesn’t belong to some government commission. It’s our responsibility – Mr. and Mrs. Kentucky citizen – to make campaign spin tactics politically unpopular and to demand honest answers from policymakers.

Why do we come down hard on athletes who wouldn’t admit they used steroids to win medals or break homerun records, but ignore politicians who use subterfuge to get high-paying government jobs, amass power and spend our money like drunken sailors on leave?

We must place a higher premium on the truth.

A “USA Today” poll several years ago indicated that only 56 percent of Americans teach honesty to their children. It’s no wonder that the Josephson Institute in Los Angeles also discovered in a survey of 36,000 students in 2006 that more than 70 percent of American high-schoolers responding admitted to cheating on a test. Yet, 92 percent of the same respondents said they’re “satisfied” with their personal ethics and character.

Our individual actions hold much greater consequences than any government “truth commission.”

“It doesn’t bode well for the future that so many kids are entering the workforce to become the next generation of corporate executives and cops, politicians and parents, journalists, teachers and coaches, with the dispositions and skills of liars, cheats and thieves,” said institute founder Michael Josephson.

There are some Kentuckians – I occasionally hear from them – who don’t care for this kind of straight talk. They’re slothful and eschew responsibility. They want some law or commission or agency or program to do all the work for them, including teaching future generations about honesty.

If enough of us act this way, watch out. We’ll become a historical footnote. Author Edith Hamilton said of the Athenians: “When the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”
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