Thursday, August 18, 2016

A decade ago — while criticizing the George W. Bush administration, actually — comedian Stephen Colbert coined a new word, “truthiness.” He said, “We’re not talking about the truth; we’re talking about something that seems like truth — the truth we want to exist.”

The Wikipedia entry for the word (word of the year in 2005) characterizes it as a truth “known” intuitively by the user without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts.

In this year’s campaign, there’s a whole lot of truthiness going on.

Take former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claim to Fox News’ Chris Wallace two weeks ago that FBI Director James B. Comey validated all of her public comments about her private email server. Not really. Four Pinocchios from The Washington Post.

Or take a whole series of statements from Donald Trump. Like the pan-Islamic legions celebrating wildly on the streets of New Jersey as the World Trade Center towers were aflame and collapsing on Sept. 11, 2001. Or his statement in March, when he defended the intentional killings of terrorists’ families because “they knew what was happening. They left two days early, with respect to the World Trade Center, and they went back to where they went, and they watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center, flying into the Pentagon.”

None of that really happened, of course.

And then there was the moment Monday when Mr. Trump, hammering the Obama administration about political correctness, departed from his prepared remarks to say that the neighbors of the San Bernardino terrorist couple, beyond witnessing suspicious behavior, “saw bombs on the floor” — a claim for which there is absolutely no evidence.

Campaign surrogates have joined in. Katrina Pierson, Mr. Trump’s eerily ubiquitous spokeswoman, tried to pin the blame for Capt. Humayun Khan’s heroic 2004 death in Iraq on Democrats: “It was under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that changed the rules of engagement (ROE) that probably cost his life.” I’m not sure what ROE change she was thinking about, but the death, of course, was five years before Mr. Obama’s presidency.

She also accused the Obama administration of igniting or reigniting (it wasn’t clear) the war in Afghanistan: “We weren’t even in Afghanistan by this time. Barack Obama went into Afghanistan, creating another problem. That was Obama’s war, yes.” Actually, a significant U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan has been continuous since October 2001, and President Obama’s short-lived “surge” in 2009 was a continuation of his predecessor’s buildup there.

Democratic surrogates seem to have a little more style but no less truthiness. As responsible and respected a senator as Claire McCaskill may be, she stuck a little too close to campaign talking points Sunday when she told Mr. Wallace that Mr. Obama’s ill-advised withdrawal from Iraq (which really did light the fuse for the emergence of the Islamic State) was solely the product of “the status of forces agreement that Bush negotiated. We couldn’t leave our troops in Iraq even if the president wanted to because the parliament in Iraq was refusing to give them immunity.”

The response belies the multiple victory laps the president took, celebrating with numerous audiences: “I ended the war in Iraq.” It also leaves unanswered the question as to how we now have nearly 5,000 American troops in Iraq still without a status of forces agreement from the Iraqi parliament.

The senator also couldn’t avoid a creative timeline of her own: “It was also important to realize that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, by what he did in his country, allowed ISIS to get strongholds and recruit. That was the work and support of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who is Trump’s best buddy.”

I appreciate the sarcasm, but the Russians were marginal players in Syria until just a year ago. I blame the Russians for a lot, but pinning the creation of the Islamic State on them is a murky, tenuous, triple carom bank shot, at best.

When Mr. Wallace pressed the senator that there actually were some serious questions of policy, Ms. McCaskill defaulted to what has become a routine Democratic tactic: hide behind the American armed forces. “The language that Donald Trump has used as it relates to ISIS is disrespectful to the military that is out there fighting ISIS every day.” Actually, I know a lot of men and women in the military who would like to see some questions of policy and strategy really answered.

Of course, we can all be accused of truthiness at one time or another. We are all tempted to grab narratives, or stories, or so-called facts simply because they fit our preconceptions.

But I have lived and worked in parts of the world where a dark master narrative was all-controlling. Specific facts were neither interesting nor relevant because they could be selected or shaped to fit an already agreed-upon big picture.

Thus, for many on the Arab streets, there is rarely an evil that cannot be chalked up to Zionists. For many Shiites in Iraq and Iran today, Barack Obama really did found the Islamic State. And an increasing number of Turks know that the CIA was behind the recent coup attempt.

Although the word was created recently by a comedian, the reality of truthiness has been a dark hand for a long time.

Facts, real facts, should matter more, and an unusually long shadow of truthiness on an American presidential election should be very concerning.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at

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