Politics, Lies and Audiotape

IT'S ONE OF HOLLYWOOD'S FAVORITE TROPES: A cynical politician becomes weary of his own platitudes, startles the world by confessing his lies and is then rewarded with a popular groundswell of support for speaking the truth. From the Depression-era "Gabriel Over the White House" to the 1998 fable "Bulworth," the "mad as hell" mea culpa has seduced media dreamers for decades.

But does it work in the real world? Maybe not, if this week's events in Hungary are any indication. On Sunday, an unknown leaker released a 25-minute audiotape of Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany privately chewing out members of his Socialist Party a month after their April 23 reelection. "We [deleted] up. Not a little, a lot," Gyurcsany said, arguing for the necessity of emergency post-election austerity measures. "We have done nothing for four years. You cannot tell me of any significant government measure we could be proud ofÂ…. I almost died of having to pretend for the past year that we were actually governing. Instead we lied day, night and evening. I don't want to do this anymore."

Refreshingly blunt, for sure. But did a grateful nation hoist the truth-teller on its shoulders? Not quite. Angry demonstrators set fire to the state television building, attacked and injured more than 140 police officers, torched a dozen police cars and demanded Gyurcsany's figurative head. It was the worst public violence in the streets of Budapest since the Soviet-quashed revolution 50 years ago next month.

Gyurcsany is under intense pressure to resign, or at least scale back his economic reforms, but so far he's standing firm. The leak may even make it easier for him to sell his austerity package, a theory bolstered when the prime minister quickly published a lengthy transcript on his blog. Given that the violent demonstrators number only in the low thousands, it's conceivable that the telegenic young politician may yet pull a mini-Bulworth, or at least be able to do what his Socialist predecessors did 11 years ago shortly after winning election: bring the previous government's election-year spending binge into check.

But for the first time since Hungary reinstituted free elections in 1990, the previous government is the same as the one in power. And therein lies an important lesson: Some politicians will indeed lie "day, night and evening" if they can get away with it, especially to preserve their own power. Hearing an elected leader admit as much is both refreshing and depressing. If Hollywood ever decides to tell its own version of this week's events in Hungary, which aspect it emphasizes will depend on what happens in Budapest in the coming weeks and months.

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