At his daily White House coronavirus briefing/2020 campaign rally earlier this week, President Trump induced much merriment among the assembled scribes by proclaiming with a straight face, "I cannot tell a lie."
Upon hearing this boast, I feared that Glenn Kessler, who claims in his role as Washington Post fact-checker that Donald Trump has told exactly 73.5 million whoppers as president, might have a seizure. Thankfully, Glenn is okay.
Although Americans prefer presidents who tell the truth, that's not always what our political system produces. We may not get it in 2020, whoever wins. Earlier in his career, Joe Biden wasn't seen as a politician with, let us say, a fetish for verity. But it's never too late. Biden could take his cue from Jimmy Carter, who promised voters while running for president in 1976, "I will never lie to you." Carter had other ways of getting on people's nerves, but it must be said that this was a promise that was mostly kept.
It's a complicated subject, presidential prevarication, and I've written about it at length in other venues, but it's been a long week, so I'll get to the point.
The search for an honest president is as old as our republic. Older, actually. George Washington had a reputation for veracity before he created the presidency. I've noted previously how the famous story of 6-year-old George Washington swinging his axe at one of his father's cherry trees -- and confessing to it with some version of "I cannot tell a lie" -- is probably true, and not the fable cynical moderns proclaim it to be.
I won't relitigate that matter this morning, but I will point out that Abraham Lincoln read the biography by Mason Weems that contained that story. "Away back in my childhood, the earliest days of my being able to read," Lincoln recalled, "I got hold of a small book. … Weems's ‘Life of Washington.'" Lincoln took what he read there to heart: His "Honest Abe" nickname predates his presidency.
Now, I doubt that President Trump has ever heard of Mason Weems, but like any red-blooded American of his generation, The Donald absorbed by osmosis, if nothing else, the lessons about George Washington's candor, and I assume he was alluding to it, even if subconsciously, in the White House on Monday.
Mark Twain had fun with famous circumlocution. According to biographer Archibald Henderson, Twain once quipped: "I am different from Washington; I have a higher, grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won't."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.