POLITICS : Finding the Truth Where Nothing Is Black or White

<i> Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)</i>

Sen. Robert W. Packwood (R-Ore.), after long silence in the face of sexual harassment charges against him, has come out fighting on behalf of his public image. He says he will correct the many false things that his 17 accusers--maybe 18, by last count--have said about him. You might think this enterprise of Packwood’s a hopeless one, but in fact, the senator is not so crazy for thinking he has a chance to change the prevailing view of the realities in his case. If there’s one thing the public is used to nowadays, it’s the notion that what we think are true facts about public life probably aren’t.

Foreign observers have long noted that Americans are more fascinated than other peoples by stories about how the appearance of things, in government or out, is fundamentally different from the truth underneath. This interest in surface versus essence is not the same as the bitter cynicism to be found in a totalitarian country where the general population has no power in public life.

Instead, the American preoccupation with illusion and reality--with the “inside story,” with mystifiers and con men--probably has something to do with the fact that social and political realities here are indeed highly changeable; a citizen has to maintain a flexible view of the state of the environment, the way a sailor has to learn to walk on a rolling deck.

For one thing, the country is dedicated to progress and proud of it. As a consequence, things scientists and other experts tell us one day may be disproven the next. Haven’t officials tried for years to clean up Mexico City’s air pollution by controlling automobiles? It turns out the main culprit in fouling the atmosphere may not be the maligned autos but the Mexicans’ cooking gas. Have Americans, at great expense, gotten rid of all those nasty substances in our refrigerators that threatened the ozone layer? Well, the stuff now used as a replacement may, according to a recent piece in a major scientific journal, hurt plant growth.


In a country as big and bumptious as ours, other realities also change fast enough to bruise a citizen’s faith in how much you can really know about things. On one day last week, Shannon Faulkner looked indomitable as she finally won her battle to be admitted to South Carolina’s formerly all-male Citadel; two days later, she was a stressed-out ex-knob talking about how her staying would have been a kind of “dis-justice.” One day Norma McCorvey was the woman who under the pseudonym “Jane Roe” had become a heroine of the pro-choice movement as the plaintiff in Roe vs. Wade; the next day she announced to the country that she was now a born-again Christian and basically against abortion.

We also take frequent blows to our sense of the facts around us because we are such pragmatists and care so deeply about these facts. As a result of this general caring, when public figures hold policy or philosophical debates, they often do so, not on the basis of their real sentiments, which are usually partisan or ideological, but by insisting that their facts are true--or at least that their opponents’ facts are false.

Thus a bunch of famous writers and Hollywood stars is currently campaigning in behalf of black journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a policeman in Philadelphia, by insisting that the established facts of the case are not established at all. In the same way, some opponents of the Clinton Administration, instead of expressing general moral sentiments about White House corruption, focus on facts purporting to show that Vincent W. Foster Jr. died from something more nefarious than suicide.

The public is treated to baroque technical debates about the facts of income and wealth distribution or of workers’ productivity when the real question in dispute is the amount of inequality that should be tolerated in America. When the country commemorates the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the opposing parties argue about how many casualties U.S. officials expected if an invasion of Japan proved necessary; they are really arguing about whether we are a good country or an evil one.


These factual disputes are more confusing because of the erosion of the bipartisanship that marked some areas of U.S. politics in the recent past. Thus there is something of a stalemate in the House ethics committee between Democrats, ready to accuse Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) of heinous violations of political morality, and Republicans, who think Gingrich guilty mainly of his success in turning the tables on the once-dominant House Democratic Party. The two camps will not just shout generalities at each other; instead they will probably produce two different factual descriptions of what Rupert Murdoch knew about Gingrich and when he knew it.

Add to this partisanship a final ingredient: the country’s shrinking faith in official and media wisdom of all sorts, and it starts to become clear why so few things today seem a matter of true or false, so or not so, reality versus deceptive illusion, black or white. The system has gotten very good at producing grays.

In this climate, it is not so far-fetched to think that many people will come to see Packwood’s case as one of those grays. After all, he will say, how can we trust years-old accounts? Notions of appropriateness in the area of sexual conduct have undergone a revolution; how, then, should we properly describe the letter and spirit of his sexual advances? How do we know whether they were encouraged? Whether they were such as to exert coercive power? Whether they were viewed as oppressive at the time? What do we know about the motives, personal or ideological, of the accusers, and about whether they have now reconstructed the past to fit today’s sexual politics?

There are enough uncertainties here so that listeners’ response to Packwood’s telling of the facts will probably reflect their broader feelings about the sexual issues that divide U.S. politics. So why shouldn’t Packwood take a crack at redrawing this particular factual map? The odds are that, sooner or later, his revisionism will come into style.