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Lies, damn lies and John McCain

While he appears to have been a wanton and callow youth, John McCain tells us he discovered honor in a North Vietnamese prison camp. McCain has either forgotten what honor means, or sacrificed it on the altar of ambition.

Truth is integral to honor, and the definition cannot be stretched to include lying to the public. Yet that is exactly what John McCain is doing.

Everyone from editorial boards to Factcheck.org has assailed him for it, yet he persists. Newspapers and foundations are not the sole repositories of wisdom or decency in our society, and are themselves sometimes just plain wrong. However, when every objective observer agrees that McCain has shown a callous, blatant and reckless disregard for the truth, there ought to be a consequence. At the very least, John McCain has forfeited the right to tell himself he lives by a code of honor.

I’m not naive. I know this is a tough business where we thrive on transforming vague ambiguities into absolute certainties. In one of my first races, I advised attacking our opponent for voting to cut Social Security. He called it a lie, saying each time an amendment was offered to protect benefits, he supported it. We countered that unlike others, he voted for a budget that cut Social Security.

We won the biggest upset of that year by transforming an ambiguous record into an absolute stance, and our vanquished foe still no doubt considers me dishonest and disreputable. But at least we had an argument, we had facts, we had a case. And in every race I have done, no matter how much fur is flying, our attacks have always at least encapsulated a basic, if sometimes oversimplified, truth.

McCain crossed the line from truth to lie, from honor to dishonor. He is not the first to do so — the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth also lied. However, as much as they helped George Bush, they were not the candidate himself and Bush advisers have said publicly and privately (perhaps even honestly) that they would never have employed those tactics.

Yet John McCain himself stands behind the lies and the dishonor. There is not a kernel of truth in the statement that Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a pig. There is not an iota of reality in McCain’s attack on Obama’s supporting comprehensive sex education for kindergartners. As we all know, he voted to help children avoid sexual predators.

By McCain’s logic, Obama should be attacking him for wanting to make it easier for child molesters to prey on our kids. While some will no doubt counsel that course, arguing we need to match their dishonesty, I doubt we will see it — not because Democrats aren’t tough, not because we lack an instinct for the jugular — but because unlike John McCain, Democrats insist on acting honorably, on doing right as well as good.

Perhaps I’m only revealing my age or musical tastes, but I still remember Stephen Stills singing (or, OK, shouting), “But you know we’ve gotta do it … Cause if we don’t do it, nobody else is gonna. But you know if we can’t do it with a smile on our face, you know if we can’t do it with love in our hearts” — and I would add, with truth on our lips — “then, children, we ain’t got no right to do it at all. Cause that just means we ain’t learned nothing yet. And we’re supposed to be some kind of different ...”

John McCain told us honor made him “some kind of different.” But without truth there is no honor, and with John McCain there is neither truth nor honor.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.