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Voting for liars, drawn to sleaze

Former South CarolinGov. Mark Sanford addresses supporters CharlestS.C. Tuesday March 19 2013 after advancing GOP primary runoff race for vacant

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford addresses supporters in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday, March 19, 2013, after advancing to the GOP primary runoff in a race for a vacant South Carolina congressional seat. Sanford, trying to make a political comeback, was one of 16 Republicans running in Tuesday's primary. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

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Updated: July 16, 2013 6:28AM

I read the other day about a famous liar, Jonah Lehrer. Less than a year ago, Lehrer was a writer for the New Yorker, one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism. He was caught fabricating quotations and plagiarizing from other writers, and resigned in disgrace. Then in February, he got $20,000 from the Knight Foundation to give a talk about his lies and how he planned to redeem himself. And now he just scored a deal with Simon and Schuster for a book tentatively titled “A Book About Love.”

Looks like lying can be a good career move.

While governor of South Carolina in 2009, Mark Sanford cheated on his wife and lied about it to his constituents. He lied about misusing state travel funds to finance his long-distance affair. He admitted that he had “crossed the lines” with other women during his marriage. But last month he was elected to Congress, with the endorsements of Speaker John Boehner and other conservative Republicans.

Another big public liar is Democrat Anthony Weiner, a married man who sent sexually explicit photos to many women while he was in Congress, and then fervently denied it. He resigned just two years ago, but now he’s back in the limelight, running for mayor of New York. His website promotes his “ideas.” A poll in late May showed Weiner running second in a crowded field.

Maybe it is wrong to put journalistic liars and political liars into the same box. Journalists are supposed to seek the truth. Politicians lie all the time.

Celebrity liars appear to have great difficulty accepting that they might have to suffer some consequences. Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest cheaters in sports history, who forced his teammates to lie and cheat with him for years, but now he wants absolution so he can keep competing. Why does he think he can get away with that?

Maybe because others have already turned celebrity disgrace back into profit. Jim Bakker once ruled an empire of TV evangelism with his wife, Tammy Faye. Then it was discovered that he had been pocketing profits, cheating those who sent him money. And he cheated on Tammy Faye with Jessica Hahn. He was found guilty in federal court on 24 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy. He admitted that he hadn’t even read the Bible. After 5 years in prison, Bakker is now back preaching on TV.

Big liars have been successful in repackaging their immorality as simple errors. Anthony Weiner said recently about his infidelity, betrayal of public trust and lying, that “it was a personal mistake that I made.” After he won election last month, Sanford said, “People do make mistakes.” He and his supporters have attributed his victory to the forgiving nature of South Carolina voters.

I doubt those explanations. Conservatives who voted for Sanford are not at all forgiving of sins they attribute to President Barack Obama or any liberal. Partisan politics trumps morality every time, even for so-called “values voters” who preach family values and vote for philandering Republicans over Democrats every time.

Why, then, did Sanford win his Republican primary? There is something else at work in the public’s fascination with creeps. Here, reality television gives us the clue: many Americans want to see what the people they love to hate will do. Simon and Schuster are betting big bucks that the public will buy Jonah Lehrer’s book, just like Anthony Weiner’s contributors are betting voters will buy his “ideas.” People are seeking sleaze. They don’t believe these men have suddenly become paragons of virtue; they are buying into the next scandal.

Too bad for the rest of us. We’re stuck with recycled liars.

Steve Hochstadt is a history professor at Illinois College.

History News Network

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