When Barack Obama first ran for president, he promised that his administration would be the most transparent in history. Unlike George W. Bush who supposedly lied us into the Iraq war, this would never happen on his watch. He would be patently honest.
In fact, from the very beginning Obama was the opposite of transparent. After all, who knew what “hope and change” signified. These words were inspirational, not illuminating. They implied that Barack would make things better without indicating how.
Shortly after he was elected, the columnists Charles Krauthammer and George Will invited Obama to dinner. They did not know whether the new president would govern as a moderate or a liberal. According to Krauthammer, he still did not know after the meal was done. Moreover, he didn’t find out until Barack gave his state of the union address.
Exactly how opaque Obama would be became evident shortly thereafter. With the economy in steep decline, something had to be done. A stimulus package was promised and needed to be installed. But what would it be? Our new chief executive hadn’t a clue.
So what did he do? He subcontracted the task to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. They proceeded to cobble together a massive spending program that rewarded their friends. This was done strictly in secret. Not even Obama was admitted to their inner sanctum.
In any event, once the broad outlines of this legislation were made public, a question arose as to whether it would have an immediate impact. Obama assured the American people that it would because its projects were “shovel ready.” These, however, were mere words; words designed to disguise.
A couple of years later, when Barack admitted the shovel ready was not shovel ready, he did so with a smile and a wink. He knew that his previous explanation was a façade, but it worked; so what was the problem?
The same approach was on display with ObamaCare. Here the president promised that the American people would be allowed into the room while negotiations took place. Once again, however, these were behind closed doors. The actual horse-trading would have been too embarrassing to expose to view.
Then, of course, Obama advised his listeners that they could keep their doctors and healthcare plans. He knew this was untrue. Ezekiel Emanuel told him so. But that did not matter. The goal was to sell the program, not explain it. Not transparency, but obfuscation was the order of the day.
Barack Obama is an eloquent man. He was plainly one of our most articulate presidents. Whenever he got into a mess—such as the IRS scandal—he would find the language, e.g., there was not a “smidgeon of corruption,” to get him off the hook. It did not hurt that he sounded sincere.
Nor was it irrelevant that the mainstream media loved his performances. Reporters are wordsmiths. They appreciate a leader who is facile with a turn of phrase. That the president’s deeds did not match his explanations was beside the point.
Enter Donald Trump. He is far from eloquent. Given to repetitive hyperbole and crude invective, he has been dismissed as a bumbler and a tyrant. What is more, his tweets are excoriated as dishonest and provocative. As a consequence, critics from both sides of the aisle recommend that he desist.
And yet, it is also clear that Trump says what he means. Seldom does he pull punches. Seldom does he resort to window-dressing. This is a man who was accustomed to relating to construction workers in language they could understand. He, unlike Obama, learned to tell it like it is.
So let me be direct: Donald Trump is transparent. He may be the most transparent president we have ever had. For years people have demanded openness and honesty in the White House, yet when they got some, they screamed out in disgust.
How ironic is this? How strange is it that a man who is comparatively honest is lambasted as dishonest, while one who was habitually dishonest is praised for his candor? Apparently style counts for more than authenticity.
Why is this so? To paraphrase a famous movie, the American people evidently can’t handle the truth. They crave elegance, not bluntness. They don’t want transparency; they want lies they can believe.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University