May 19, 2011

Promises, Promises; OR, It's legal to Lie to Voters

... by Walter Brasch

With less than a week before the election, Marshbaum has been campaigning furiously.

"A chicken in every pot! Natural gas drilling will save the universe. Free health care for everyone!"

"Marshbaum!" I commanded, "you can't make those kinds of promises."

"You're right. I don't want to offend the health care industry. There's a lot of campaign money there. I'll just make up something else."

"You just can't make up campaign promises."

"Sure I can. It's easy. How about 'Vote for Marshbaum and win a date with Bette Midler?'"

"You don't even know Bette Midler."

"I like her movies," he said casually.

"It has nothing to do with her movies," I said.

"Think someone doesn't like her singing? I sure don't want to offend anyone. I could make it a date with Angelina Jolie. How about Brad Pitt for the women? Justin Bieber for teens?"

"MARSHBAUM!" I screamed. "Get reasonable!"

He thought a moment. "You're right. Angelina and Brad are probably out wasting their time doing some kind of charity work. How about 'Elect Marshbaum and you'll never pay taxes again!'"

"That's ridiculous," I said. "No one will believe you."

"Doesn't matter if they do or don't as long as they vote for me."

"But you'd be lying to the people," I said.

"Look at campaign posters," Marshbaum commanded. "They all say the same thing. You can just change the candidates' names and faces and no one will even notice."

"People don't vote for someone based upon posters," I said.

"You think voters actually read those newspaper articles or go to debates? It's all name recognition. You have more posters and ads than the next guy, and you win. You get three words on a poster. Try 'fair,' 'tough,' and 'experienced' Add a picture of the family for newspaper and TV ads, and mix it in with campaign promise not to raise taxes, and you have election assured."

"There's probably some law that prevents politicians from lying."

"Even for being a journalist, you're rather dense," said Marshbaum. "The FCC says it's OK to lie."

"The Federal Communications Commission gives its approval?" I asked skeptically.

"The FCC says that radio and TV stations can't refuse to run political ads even if the station management knows the ads are outright lies. Law says if a station takes even one ad from one candidate for federal office, it has to take all ads from all candidates for that office, even if the ad is highly offensive."

"I'm sure when Congress wakes up they'll change this insane law." Marshbaum just laughed. "Most people don't believe most of what they see on TV anyhow," I sniffed.

"Don't like the FCC and Congress? The Supreme Court said it was OK to lie," said Marshbaum.

"The Supremes said lying to the people is acceptable?" I scoffed.

"OK, not the U. ­­S­. Supreme Court, but A Supreme Court."

"Which one? In Kabul?"

"Albany. The New York Supreme Court."

"Marshbaum, not even New York's court could be that incompetent."

"Got it right here," he said, taking a wadded paper from his pocket. Case of O'Reilly v. Mitchell. Guy named O'Reilly sued a politician named Mitchell in 1912 and charged him with making promises that weren't kept."

"A promise is a verbal contract," I said. "I'm sure you read it wrong. The Court undoubtedly upheld O'Reilly's claims."

"Wrong, Newsprint Breath," said Marshbaum arrogantly. "Court said that politicians lie all the time, that promises in a campaign are just that. Promises. Verdict for the politician. Case closed."

"But that occurred before World War I," I said. "Undoubtedly, some court overturned it."

"It's precedent," Marshbaum said. "It's on the books. And the ruling was based upon the First Amendment rights of free expression. Just like the FCC ruling. How about 'Vote for Marshbaum and he'll wash all your dirty laundry?'"

"Marshbaum," I said disgustedly, "there's already too much dirty laundry in the legislature and Congress."

"Problem solved," said a smug Marshbaum, "when the voters see my plan to give everyone a free clothes washer and dryer, they'll overwhelmingly vote for me."

"You can do whatever you want, but just remember that some politicians actually tell the truth."

"Name one who did and got elected!" he demanded.

"Honest Abe," I replied.

(For the legal scholars out there, the case of O'Reilly v. Mitchell is cited as 85MISC176, 148NYS, 88 SUP, 1914. For those who aren't lawyers, reflect upon Hitler's belief that "the victor will never be asked if he told the truth." Walter Brasch's next book is Before the First Snow, available in pre-orders at

Posted by Walter Brasch at May 19, 2011 08:35 PM | Guest Writings | Technorati links |