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Washington, Lincoln set standards for honesty

Washington, Lincoln set standards for honesty
Washington, Lincoln set standards for honesty
Judy O'Bannon

We, as a nation, have just celebrated Presidents’ Day. Two of our great presidents were born in February; George Washington, our first president, was born Feb. 22, 1732, and our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was born Feb. 12, 1809. Both have long held legends of their commitment to honesty. With these stories of their truthfulness, they set the foundation for all our “commanders in chief” to follow.

As a kid, I remember being told the myth of young George chopping down his father’s cherry tree. His response, when asked if he had done it, was the often recited, “I cannot tell a lie. With my little hatchet, I chopped down your cherry tree.” While there is some skepticism as to the accuracy of this tale, it is documented that President Washington was, indeed, a very honest man. For more than 40 years, he served in some type of public office. Historians have accredited him with establishing what is called “ordered liberty” as opposed to dishonest confusion.

And, all these many years since his death, President Lincoln is still called by the affectionate nickname “Honest Abe.”

These outstanding leaders understood the importance of setting an example in developing our national integrity.

I remember my now-deceased husband who spent many years in public service telling our kids that the strongest tool a legislator has at their disposal is a reputation for integrity and honesty. “Give a colleague distorted information once and their trust in you is forever gone,” he would say. Without the ability to trust, negotiations and a following consensus are nearly impossible.

Look where we are today. We seem to be a society that features enemies pointing fingers and claiming all sorts of questionable accusatory statements while puffing up their own actions. There used to be a television program titled “Truth or Consequences.” It was sort of a wacky program with often very favorable consequences.

Today, do we even pretend to reward honest or dishonest statements with appropriate responses? Has lying become acceptable as the “new normal”? What are the consequences of giving out false information concerning military actions or governmental accomplishments?

Recall another folk story of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf.” It is the tale of a boy who repeatedly declared a state of emergency only to be found out that he most often exaggerated the urgency of the situation. After so many false alarms from the lad, people failed to respond when he really was attacked by the wolves and eaten by the fierce critters. What a clear message. After constant false information, no one pays attention or believes what they hear.

A participatory democracy such as ours depends upon citizens gathering verified facts and forming opinions and taking action. Faulty information gives faulty results.

In a time of rapid change and ever-widening influences, the consequences of making mistakes can be catastrophic. There is no time to correct an overstated assertion in an international confrontation. Missiles can fly in a matter of seconds as a result of bombastic rhetoric and accusations.

A lie isn’t just an actual false word or so. Name calling with an exaggerated and tainted description of a person or situation can paint a misleading impression that causes unjust and unproductive results. Implying someone is a “no-good lazy dullard” has a long-term effect on how that person is perceived even though it is not true.

Technology has given society a whole new arsenal of ways to send false impressions. Photo-shopping pictures of events and people to distort the impression they give is also a form of a lie.

This current political season is full of additional opportunities for foreign or domestic hackers to send fake and damaging messages via social media.

How can we tell what is accurate about our candidates in a climate like this? There are organizations that fact-check statements made by officeholders, candidates and their campaigns. Check them out and be sure you have found a reliable source that you can trust. If something said or that you read sounds exaggerated, look into it. We have a lot of news sources these days. Don’t just watch the same news outlet every day. The television news channels seem to each have their own bias. I find that Public Broadcasting that runs on KETV out of Louisville and WFYI from Indianapolis give the best clear and non-partisan information. Public radio is another good source of information checking.

But, most of all, all of us must watch what we say and do and make sure our words and actions aren’t causes to inflame prejudice and violence. Don’t let our kids think that it is innocent teasing to taunt and inaccurately label others. Respect for others and responsible behavior are cherished traits in lasting cultures.

Our constitution set up a pretty good system of governance. It isn’t perfect, and times do change, but the basic premise of “One nation under God with liberty and freedom for all” is still the bedrock of our country. Damaging lies and misleading statements do not support such a form of democracy. Attack ads, smear campaigns and fear mongering have no place in the homeland we hold dear.

The folk tales of presidents Washington and Lincoln hold as true today as they did hundreds of years ago when they first set the standards for leadership in our nation.

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