On October 28, 1956, Radio Free Budapest came on the air. The voice of the announcer, well-established during the years of Stalinist terror, read the first statement of the new regime as Soviet armored divisions were reported leaving the country, and an independent government struggled to take office.
"We lied in the morning, and lied in the evening," the voice said, "we lied in daylight and lied at night. We shall lie no more. We shall once again be faithful to the Broadcasters' Oath, engraved in London on the walls of the British Broadcasting Corporation when the era of wireless communications was born."
In America, we are brought up to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth - another great British legacy. Our entire society functions on the understanding that we speak the truth as a matter of course. That is how business deals came to be done on a handshake, that is how journalists reciprocated for the unprecedented gift known as the First Amendment. That is what so many immigrants have to learn in a hurry, especially if they come from countries where people are used to saying whatever comes to their mind.
In America, perjury used to be so rare and so severe an offense - morally as well as legally - that customs forms, indeed many documents, simply relied on the signatory's assurance that the information therein contained was true.
All that is in the past.
It must have started before, but 1992 was definitely the Year of the Lie. For the first time, a team running for president and vice president of the United States didn't just exaggerate its own virtues and the opponents' shortcomings - it relied increasingly on outright lies as the campaign progressed
Lying - such an ugly word. If it bothers you, stop reading because it is the subject of this column.
When it became obvious that the president lies as a matter of course, some of his people were uncomfortable for a little while, but only for a little while. Before our disbelieving eyes, the cabinet member, the senator, the congressman, the law professor, the school teacher, the journalist, all began to lie. One could almost read their thoughts after the first foray into hitherto uncharted territory - "it's that easy?" they seemed to be saying to themselves.
They lie to our children about America's history. They lie to black people about America's Constitution. They lie to old people about Republican intentions. They even lie about our form of government, calling our constitutional republic a "democracy."
And so to the presidential campaign of 2000 in which one of the two candidates lied his way through, having trained under a master for eight whole years. What better preparation for the unexpected post-election opportunity to destroy whatever they had left intact of America's persona. And the troops, battle-hardened since impeachment days, perform without breaking a sweat.
Where is Walt Disney when we need him? We ought to have a television program called Pinocchio 2000 in which the images of the liars are adorned with a nose that grows exponentially, just as in the famous cartoon. Would it serve as a wake-up call?
Hard to tell. Vice President Al Gore, who wants to be president, has stood before the cameras and recited repeatedly with a straight face that all he wanted was a full and honest count, no matter what the result. This must rank with "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." And there is no one to ask, "Sir, have you no shame?"
No, instead we watch congressmen, senators, celebrated attorneys and, yes, journalists, stand before the camera and lie about something a court had ruled literally a minute earlier.
They now call it spin.
It's a lie.
The U.S. Representative in Palm Beach County lies about "disenfranchised" voters. The lead attorney lies about court decisions in Illinois. The vice presidential candidate lies about military ballots. The news caster...
Let's examine how the newscaster does it. For a week now, we have seen the minority leader of Florida's House of Representatives interviewed roughly four times every day. The same person, the same message, the same words, even. Each and every time, she begins by repeating we ought not to think that the majority Republicans have any say in what the House does - all of it is run by the Bush brothers. Not once does the reporter ask what the source of her information is. The network simply puts her on several times every day - that is how the network lies.
The biggest lie is the forest of American flags Mr. Gore uses as backdrop. Since the time he sold us out in Kyoto, the vice president can no longer claim to care about America. I doubt that he much cares about children or old people, white or black people, Jews or Christians, homosexuals, indeed anybody. Watching Al Gore, it is hard to miss the condescension and contempt for all that pours forth from every pore of his body.
But to top even that, a supreme court has now lied. On November 17, the seven justices of Florida's Supreme Court entered an Order begun with the words, "In order to maintain the status quo..." The last sentence of the same paragraph is an emphatic encouragement for a continuing change in the status quo.
We ought not to become liars in response. But we must find it in our hearts to look them in the eye and say, "you are lying."
Could we try, just once? The effect might be revolutionary.