“I am not a crook.”—Richard Nixon, Nov. 17, 1973

“I am not stupid.”—Barack Obama, 2013 (twice)

When I first read it, I was amazed at President Barack Obama’s stupidity-disavowal. It seemed to me that he had abandoned his best, perhaps only, defense against a charge of deliberately lying about the Affordable Care Act (we must never again call it Obamacare). I’m referring, of course, to this superwhopper: “And if you like your insurance plan, you will keep it. No one will be able to take that away from you. It hasn’t happened yet. It won’t happen in the future.”

The president said that at a meeting of the American Medical Association on June 15, 2009 even as the ACA was being drafted. On Sept. 26, 2013, days before the ACA website rolled out and dropped into an apparently bottomless abyss, President Obama had this to say to a large, enthusiastic audience at Prince Georges Community College in Largo, Md.: “That means that no matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.”

After my thoughts on the matter matured, I saw that our president actually had chosen the most advantageous response to bad news about the dog’s mess once known as Obamacare. Voters are more at ease with mendacity from their leaders than with incompetence.

History teaches us that some politicians have shown considerable competence, while none of them have ever been entirely truthful. Some leaders have triumphed even in the midst of audacious and vivid fibs. They always will receive forgiveness if they succeed. But nobody is forgiven bungling, botching and blundering. When Obama denies stupidity, he compels us to infer mendacity: If he’s not a fool, he must be a liar, and it’s better to be liar than a fool.

“You can always tell when a politician is lying. His lips move.” This quip by the famous 18th century wit, George Cyril Oldchestnut, has endured for almost 300 years because of repeated intergenerational confirmation. If our literary heritage were complete, we might have its equivalent in Latin or classical Greek. Plato and Aristotle agreed that the professional teachers of rhetoric called sophists were not interested in the truth, but in teaching their students how to persuade. Their clients were all aspiring politicians who wished to learn how to sway audiences.

To repeat, voters are willing to forgive a considerable measure of fibbing, evasion, misdirection, insincerity, ersatz emotion and “misspeaking” (misspokage?) in their political leaders, especially if they do it with some skill and style. Voters expect it. The consequences are usually trifling. What they can’t forgive is incompetence on a grand scale that affects them.

It was clear from the start that taking charge of American health care and insurance was a titanic task demanding competence at genius level. The Democratic leadership recently has added Sen. Angus King to a team of senators tasked to explain and justify the dog’s mess. King was more skeptical in 1994, when he wrote his gubernatorial campaign book. Here are quotes from page 106: “I must confess to considerable skepticism about the idea of turning out entire medical system over to the state.” And, “What has the government (state or national) done so well lately that makes us want to give them another 14 percent of the Gross National Product … and the power of life and death.”

King has never explained what happened between 1994 and 2013 to ease his skepticism. ACA results so far should have deepened his doubts about the government’s competence. Yet he’s been recruited as one of its cheerleaders. I’m thinking it’s about time for King to tell the world that he’s not stupid either.

As things stand, the incompetence issue seems likely to grow so grand that the implicit “I am not stupid I was only lying” defense may lose its effectiveness. I’m thinking in particular about Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s concern about the lack of young adults signing up. This scheme won’t work unless more young people sign on. Yet the administration ruled that young adults can stay on their parents’ policies until age 26.

What on earth did they expect?

John Frary of Farmington is a former congressional candidate and retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and publisher of www.fraryhomecompanion.com. Email to [email protected]

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