Read Danny Ayalon’s opposing view here.
Should Jews support leaders who lie?
The simple answer would be no. It depends partly on how you define lies. Leaders may be likely to lie sometimes, but there are white lies and then there are more dangerous lies. When you ask the question in reference to President Donald Trump, for instance, you have to recognize that he’s a habitual liar, and you can’t figure out what’s true and what isn’t. A leader like that is really dangerous, because he obviously shouldn’t be deciding weighty questions, for instance deciding between war and peace. That’s dangerous for the whole country.
I don’t know if truth is essential to Jews any more than to other religions. I think every religion considers truth important. And every person, regardless of religion, has to try to be truthful. I think the ethics taught in Judaism are good, but that doesn’t mean every Jewish leader follows them. I can’t conclude that Jewish leaders are more honest than other leaders. I would just add that Jews feel embarrassed when a prominent Jewish person is revealed to be dishonest, and we take that almost personally. That’s a normal reaction.
Is respect for truth a central value for democracies?
Yes, respect for truth is fundamental to democracies. That’s a good way to frame the problem we’re having now. We’re suddenly living in an alternate reality where people think that whoever they elect can do and say anything, even if what they do or say has no relation to the truth. The fact is that you can’t be a leader and support the general welfare if you’re motivated by your own version of reality and your own self-interest and if you can’t see your responsibility to the public interest. Distortion of the facts is very damaging to democracy, as we are witnessing right now, when the president is in continuous denial: Not only does he distort the facts but he attacks all those who speak the truth. You can’t represent the public if you try to destroy those who speak the truth.
“Habitual lying is dangerous to the public interest. A leader should obey the law and be a model of good behavior. As the mantra right now has it, nobody is above the law.”
Of course, lying happens quite often in wartime. We just learned recently about how we weren’t told the truth in Afghanistan. And we know from the Pentagon Papers that we also weren’t told the truth about Vietnam. I don’t think it’s appropriate to lie in wartime either, because we often see long-term repercussions that can be much worse than any short-term benefit. Lying in wartime can lead nations to wage war when there’s no chance of victory, when lives are lost in vain. Telling the truth about war and the loss of life is very important in democracy. It’s essential.
Do moral flaws or failings make someone a better leader?
I don’t think so, no. It depends how you define moral flaws. No leader, no human being, is perfect, but I think that as a leader you have to have an overarching commitment to what benefits the public, and the public needs to know that the leader has that moral sense. Leaders are supposed to serve the country, not themselves alone. Minor flaws are another matter. There’s some ego in every leader who wants to stay in office, and that’s not a serious moral failing, but if it’s exaggerated and habitual, then he or she can’t serve the public interest. Habitual lying, for instance, is dangerous to the public interest. A leader should obey the law and be a model of good behavior. As the mantra right now has it, nobody is above the law.
Can other qualities outweigh serious moral weakness? If a leader does lie, what qualities do you look for instead? It’s hard to answer that in theory. It depends on the situation—on what kind of lie and what impact it has. Bill Clinton told lies, but I still admire him. I believe he was a good president even though he lied about his sexual behavior. People would say it was public behavior because it happened while he served in public office, but I think it was outweighed by his good government on policy issues.
Should leaders be held accountable for lying or other transgressions? Yes. That’s the process we’re witnessing today.
Madeleine Kunin served as governor of Vermont from 1985 to 1991 and as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland from 1996 to 1999. Her latest book is Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties.