By Tom McLaughlin; cross posted from SoVaNow.com
Loyal readers will remember that back in the day when Robert Hurt was our congressman — not that long ago! — yours truly would complain occasionally about the copious helpings of baloney sandwiched into Hurt’s weekly constituent column, a regional newspaper tradition dating back to longtime 5th District Congressman Dan Daniel. Hurt’s prose stylings were chiefly recognizable for their rote, robotic quality — maybe automation is a bigger threat to all of our jobs than I realize — so it was actually with a sense of anticipation that I greeted the handover of the format to Rep. Tom Garrett, Hurt’s successor.
Garrett’s been in Congress for almost four months now. (Before being elected in November — the 5th District was an open seat with Rep. Hurt’s pending retirement — Garrett served as a Virginia State Senator from Buckingham.) Our new congressman’s early columns at least have expressed a point of view (and a stylistic flair) that doesn’t sound like the work product of lobbyists, as Hurt’s column always seemed to be. Whereas our previous representative was as reliable as Old Faithful when it came to stuff like spouting the Wall Street line on financial regulation, Garrett has been much less predictable in his choice of column topics. This was demonstrated by a piece that Garrett wrote in February about his visit to the German Bundestag. The subject matter was a little weird and far removed from the concerns of his 5th District constituents, but one couldn’t but help to admire the effort.
But now the traditional 5th District column is gone, kaput, out of order until further notice. The congressman’s office hasn’t submitted a new column in weeks. Curious about this, I ventured over to Rep. Garrett’s official website this week to see if he posted any updates there. Nope. Being the crackerjack investigative reporter that I am, I then went to the congressman’s Facebook page to see if he had decided to post videos of himself on Facebook Live, which seems to be a thing among politicians these days. Struck out there, too. Maybe there’s just not much going on in Washington that Garrett wants to discuss with the folks back home.
But as so often happens in this business, you go looking for a particular story and come away with a different one entirely. On April 13, Rep. Garrett — or a staffer writing in his name — posted words by Thomas Jefferson on his Facebook page: “The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.” A stirring call to arms by the great Virginian; unfortunately for Garrett, the quote is a total fake. A bunch of commenters jumped on Garrett’s Facebook page to call out this right-wing claptrap, yet our congressman has declined to correct or take down the fraudulent representation of Jefferson’s words. In doing so, he joins the long list of Republican leaders in Washington (and closer to home) who seem to subscribe to the dictum that truth and honesty are for suckers, unless we’re talking about alternative facts of the Kellyanne Conway variety.
I don’t know about you, but personally I find this flouting of factual discourse to be unacceptable, and more than a little disgraceful. Coming from someone who’s made his share of errors during a long reporting career, one thing you learn — or should learn — in public life is the responsibility to correct the record whenever your statements are shown to be inaccurate or misleading. I’d add that as a matter of personal integrity, all of us have a responsibility to be truthful to the best of our capabilities. This is an obligation that exists regardless of setting, public or private.
Alas, our current president is a breathtaking liar to whom no rival exists among run-of-the-mill trimming politicians. There’s never been a commander-in-chief (or leader in general) who didn’t stretch various facts to fit a particular narrative, but it’s one thing to fudge and exaggerate and dissemble and another to do such violence to the truth that even the coroners are sickened by what they see. Donald Trump’s rank dishonesty is no longer even a matter of serious dispute, but there’s still the question of whether we as a country will come to view such behavior as more or less to be expected. When our congressman jumps on Facebook and posts a fake quote by Thomas Jefferson without compunction or correction, we have part of the ominous answer.
Back in the fall, this newspaper published a front page news story on a similar social media dust-up involving Del. James Edmunds, who has quite a following among local constituents on Facebook. Edmunds, an avid Trump supporter, posted a link on his page about Hillary Clinton that came straight from a fake news site. Unto itself, that act was unremarkable — after all, it can be hard to know in the vast sea of media outlets which are credible and which are not. (And none is perfect.) What made the episode noteworthy was Edmunds’ reaction to constituents who pointed out the fraudulence of the source and asked him to disavow its bogus story. Our delegate refused, offering the lame excuse that “I didn’t post it, I just shared it.” You can almost hear Rep. Garrett saying the same thing.
I suppose Garrett’s disregard for historical accuracy is going to sound to a lot of folks like a proverbial slippery slope that no one has tumbled down yet. No harm, no foul — what’s the Monticello Foundation going to do about this citational trainwreck, file a lawsuit? Where this casual disregard for the congressman’s loose talk goes awry is in the apparent belief that the damage is contained to Facebook. It never is whenever people make a habit of spouting falsehoods.
Consider, for instance, Garrett’s incessant doubletalk on subjects such as health care, about which congressman spouts vague rhetoric about prioritizing “health care” over “health insurance” — as if one were separate from the other. A member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, Garrett opposed the Donald Trump- and Paul Ryan-backed American Health Care Act, a truly horrid Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill that went down in flames in the House of Representatives before it could even come up for a vote. While perhaps we owe a debt of gratitude to Garrett for playing a small role in the AHCA’s demise, no one should be fooled about what is going on here: Garrett opposed the Trump-Ryan legislation not because it would have harmed constituents in the 5th District, but because the proposed changes in the law would not have been harmful enough. Garrett will never state the matter plainly, but the policies he supports would make individual health coverage even more expensive and less useful than it already is, all to serve the cause of cutting taxes for rich people and boosting insurance company profits, in that order. Given the dire need for quality health insurance among so many of his constituents, it’s no surprise that Garrett would resort to fudging these and other facts.
Controversy over health care aside, politicians who peddle falsehoods do not have your best interests at heart. In the arena of factual discourse, rookie-ball performers like Tom Garrett, James Edmunds, Frank Ruff and the rest can’t compare with a Sultan of Not on the level of Donald Trump. But maybe we wouldn’t have Trump to deal with if first the ground hadn’t been carefully laid for his never-ending assault on truth and decency. When public figures at any level spout verifiable untruths and refuse to be held accountable for their words, they are complicit in whatever else may follow.
Here are some actual words by Thomas Jefferson, courtesy of Monticello.org: “(T)here is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible & he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second & third time, till at length it becomes habitual, he tells lies without attending to it, & truths without the world’s beleiving him. this falshood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, & in time depraves all it’s good dispositions.” Thomas Jefferson, Aug. 19, 1785, writing from Paris to his friend Peter Carr. How about posting that quotation on your Facebook page, Congressman Garrett?