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The words should suit the crime
On telegraphs as e-media, Manchurian candidates, and what Theodore Roosevelt would have to say about conspiracy to defraud the United States
In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt wrote words that are depressingly resonant today: "Nothing so pleases the dishonest man in public life as to have an honest man falsely accused, for the result of innumerable accusations finally is to produce a habit of mind in the public which accepts each accusation as having something true in it and none as being all true; so that, finally, they believe that the honest man is a little crooked and that the crooked man is not much more dishonest than the rest."
■ Roosevelt wasn't addressing the legal system alone. He directed his ire at the false accusations often circulated in ordinary life and amplified by the coverage of the press. Even in Roosevelt's day -- when the only electronic medium was the telegraph -- the trouble of inconsistency in public expectations of honesty was an obvious one.
■ A former President of the United States stands accused of a substantial number of crimes related to his failed bid at re-election. The accusations -- including conspiracy charges and attempts to defraud the country -- are weighty. They are all the more so because in significant and numerous ways, they took place in plain sight.
■ The habit of vilifying one's political rivals -- calling George W. Bush a "war criminal" or asserting that Barack Obama was a Manchurian candidate -- is all too widespread. It is practiced by people who ought to know better, whose behavior rubs off on others who ought to know more than they do. And it is ultimately a corrosive habit, in no small part because of precisely what Teddy Roosevelt foresaw.
■ Politicians make mistakes. They sometimes act on dubious information or for reasons that are not completely in the public interest. Many exaggerate, some fib, and a few just flat-out lie. The public, and especially the most prominent of commentators and well-esteemed leaders among us, ought to be harsh on those who are dishonest, particularly when their dishonesty is out of malicious intent. A few politicians deserve to spend time in prison.
■ For the rest, the vitriol should be proportional to the actual offense. It's not an act of dishonesty to believe differently than others; in a democracy, we need good and honest rivals. A "loyal opposition" is an indication of good civic health. We can lampoon, satirize, and ridicule others for their choices, as the First Amendment ensures we may.
■ But when the words devolve into assumptions not only of bad faith but of criminal or corrupt character, we open the door to that "habit of mind" Roosevelt warned against: To assume that "everyone" in public life is worse than wrong, they're evil. And if everyone is accused in the same extreme terms, then it's hard to tell when someone really is knowingly and intentionally trying to subvert the Constitution.