From 1989 until 1998, “Seinfeld” ruled the television airways in the United States and around the world.
The brilliance of the show was that within each 23 minutes the writers (mostly led by Jerry Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David) would include one or two everyday-life story lines that every viewer could relate to (“Smelly Car,” “The Chinese Restaurant,” “Festivus,” etc.)
The character of George Costanza was created on the premise that George was an unabashed and unrepentant liar. He rarely even tried to hide it, often displaying his constant deceit as a badge of (dis)honor.
To a potential girlfriend he claimed he was a wealthy architect. To his boss, he created a non-existent charity (The Human Fund), followed by George lying about being handicapped and needing a scooter. Lying for George wasn’t even a character trait as much as his core human operating system.
In one iconic scene that sums up George’s character and his own existential self-acceptance, he turned to Jerry and said with the assured voice and slow cadence of a wise oracle, “Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”
I think about George Costanza today in regard to the current political climate. You can’t type the words “politician” and “liar” into a Google search box without freezing your computer from the flood of search results. Are today’s politicians all lying, or do they really “believe it?”
A case study in the dark political art of Costanza:
In the summer of 1996, U.S. Senator Robert Dole, in the midst of a presidential campaign, appeared along with his wife, Elizabeth, on the “Today” morning show with Katie Couric. While the goal for Dole, a Republican, was to convey his softer side during the interview, he ended up going full-Costanza in what is still considered one of the most epic political interviews, or melt downs, in history.
When first asked by Couric to defend his significant financial and vocal political support from the tobacco industry in the face of the compelling health issues associated with smoking, Dole attempted to blow some serious smoke of his own. “You know, there is a mixed view among scientists and doctors whether it’s addictive or not,” he said, absurdly suggesting that there was no clear evidence linking smoking to any health risk.
When Couric incredulously reminded Dole that it was 1996 (not 1896) and that former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop had defined and declared many years’ prior the serious health risks associated with tobacco, Dole pulled a double-down-Costanza by claiming Koop might have been “brainwashed” by the “liberal media.” A bold claim (even for George Costanza), given that President Ronald Reagan nominated Koop, a lifelong Republican, in 1981.
To me, it was even more disturbing watching Dole’s wife sitting passively beside him while he Costanza’d the entire issue of tobacco and its devastating health effects.
You see, Elizabeth Dole was already a president – the president from 1991 to 1999 of the largest health organization in the world, the American Red Cross. And while she did take a brief sabbatical from the Red Cross during her husband’s presidential campaign, how could the leader of our most respected health organization just sit there passively, inches away, as Bob Dole denied the clear and compelling dangers of tobacco, while impugning the character and honor of a former U.S. surgeon general?
Dole was an educated man and he clearly knew in 1996 that tobacco had direct and dangerous health consequences that were indisputably proven by the medical and scientific communities. Why did he blatantly lie in that Katie Couric interview?
Like George Costanza, maybe Dole and many politicians practice that same dark, soulless art of, “It’s not a lie, if I believe it.”
I can only assume that Dole “believed” his dangerous lies in support of his political ambitions and that his wife blindly “believed” in him with a power greater than her own oath to those she served at the American Red Cross.
Twenty years later the Costanza effect lives on.
Recently, Donald Trump has taken to the streets with his claim that in general, organized politics is “crooked, unfair, and corrupt.” Curiously, his current ire is specifically focused on his own political party with his plaintive cries that the dark lords and power brokers of the GOP are conspiring against him. This is the same Trump who claimed with certainty that he had evidence proving President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and might be a Muslim.
Regardless of political party or partisan persuasion, we all must demand deeper truths, greater evidence, substantiated facts, and smarter thinking directed towards constructive solutions, not wild hyperbole with no purpose beyond the partisan power of reckless fear-mongering.
Let’s start with today’s irrational “debate” and denial (mostly from the Republican Party) about climate change – a reckless political position that should be given the same credence and credibility as Dole’s indefensible defense of tobacco in 1996.
“It’s not a lie, if you believe it,” shouldn’t be the justification or standard for our elected officials to follow. There is too much at stake for all of us to believe them.
Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.