I.F. Stone, the great liberal muckraking journalist of the 20th Century, always said that his operating principle was that "all governments lie." Stone functioned during such long national nightmares of deception as the Vietnam War -- the source of the famous term "the credibility gap" -- and Watergate. But I think even Stone, were he still alive, would be appalled at how routine and even banal that lying has become in modern politics. You would think that the arrival of the Internet -- with its legion of amateur fact checkers -- would "hold them accountable," but in fact we seem to be moving in the other direction.
Two recent examples that have irked me: Both involved big-city Democratic mayors. One happened right here in our fair city.
Here in Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter managed the recent papal visit -- and anything relegated to it that carried the slightest whiff of controversy -- on what could be called the A Few Good Men principle. He seemed convinced that the public couldn't handle the truth.
Initially, when news of the draconian security box -- excuse me, Papal Fun Zone -- began to leak out, the mayor kept a low profile except to say that it was all the Secret Service's fault, and he even muttered under his breath about so many questions about a so-called Pope Fence...even though as it turned out, there was indeed a Pope Fence. Eventually, City Hall tried to be more public with the public -- but then they finally told people, long after unsuspecting citizens had bought their non-refundable train passes, that in order to get real close to the papal stage you would need a ticket that you couldn't really get because most of the good tickets had already been doled out to area Catholics and World Meeting of Family attendees. Mayor Nutter said he hadn't mentioned this because no one had asked.
OK...So far, so bad -- but we're talking mostly about deception and the occasional half-truth. But then there was this: Nutter's assurance that Pope Francis' arrival wouldn't be a drain on taxpayers, that the World Meeting of Family was going to pick up any cost associated with the event.
Taxpayers, rest easy. Mayor Nutter reiterated Tuesday that any city money spends on the papal events this weekend, estimated at $12 million, will come back.
There's a signed contract to guarantee it.
"We're getting reimbursed," Nutter said. "It's all worked out in the contract. We're not getting extra money; we're getting compensated for our actual costs and the number. . .is an estimate based on past experience and a variety of other factors. We won't actually know true costs until after the event and a significant amount of analysis and calculation of personnel and equipment is done."
That was that then. Now, the city says it's out about $8 million for the papal visit. Mayor Nutter's explanation:
Nutter said Wednesday that the city always intended to cover costs leading up to and following the pope's visit, as it does for parades, presidential appearances, and other big events.
"What I said, what I thought I said, and certainly what I meant, is, they would be billed for addition costs that went with the actual two-day event in the city of Philadelphia," Nutter said.
"There is always a distinction between what the organization pays vs. what is a part of the normal city responsibility and obligation when we have an event."
Huh? I guess the mayor is arguing that, in so many words, it all depends on what your definition of the word "cost" is. Bill Clinton would be proud. You can parse whether or not the mayor "lied," but there's no dispute that he didn't fully level with the people of Philadelphia. And to what end? Did he really think the citizens would greet Pope Francis with torches and pitchforks if they knew about the $8 million budget hit. Like most dishonesty, it looks so much worse now than if he'd been honest the first time.
At least no one died when Mayor Nutter lied. It's a little harder for his City Hall counterpart, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to make that claim. Although the Chicago mayor's fingerprints aren't always traceable, it seems clear that his administration went to extraordinary lengths to keep the video and other details about the police killng of 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald under wraps for more than a year.
That's not surprising. For much of the early part of this year, Emanuel was also in the political fight of his life -- facing a difficult primary fight on his left flank from Chuy Garcia. With Garcia bidding to become Chicago's first-ever Latino mayor, the first-term incumbent Emanuel couiln't win the balkanized primary runoff without considerable African-American support -- which likely would have evaporated if voters had seen the all-but-assassination (the officer is now charged with 1st-degree murder) of a young black suspect. Meanwhile, even though no lawsuit had even been filed, McDonald's family and city attorneys negotiated thoughout the primary runoff season and agreed on a $5 million payment that wasn't announced until Emanuel was out of the politicial woods.
And what did Emanuel tell journalists and activists who said that the public had a right to see the police dashcam videos of McDonald's killing? He said it was impossible to release the footage because of pending investigations -- although the investigators later said that wasn't really the case. Tonight, it's being reported that the U.S, Justice Department will launch its own probe of the Chicago police.
That's a start, but it's not enough. The truth is that Rahm Emanuel was re-elected under completely false pretenses -- a situation that he and his minions engineered. He needs to resign immediately, for the good of his city. As for Mayor Nutter, he's leaving office in a few weeks but this is certainly a stain on his reputation for running an honest City Hall. And it's something that voters need to account for if and when Nutter runs for another office in the future.
I lumped these two incidents together because they -- despite their very different natures -- have one thing in common: Arrogance. Michael Nutter and Rahm Emanuel both seem convinced they can run their cities better when the little people are kept in the dark. And you know what, for a short time that might work. I'm one of those crazy people who believes that results don't matter without honesty. And I think that in Chicago, for sure, and eventually in Philadelphia, events will bear that out. We can handle the truth.