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For all its faults, at least Illinois wasn't Washington

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Thursday, July 20, 2017  |  Commentary  |  By Pat Gauen

Budget--State (8) , Governor (44) , Legislature (56)
I once wrote about a small fire department vilified for ignoring a call about a burning home whose owner had not bought a required subscription tag. A teenager died there.

It turned out that the volunteer department, operating on a shoestring, resorted to selling subscriptions after voters rejected a fire protection tax. The rule was to respond anyway if a person was in jeopardy. But the caller never mentioned anyone being inside.

It was a story in which public opinion shifted not because any fact had been wrong but because – like a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces missing – there hadn’t been enough facts to create an accurate picture.

Modern politics is often about trying to limit the pieces on the table. It’s called “spin.” Partisans cherry-pick helpful facts to make a better case for their ideology.

A colleague once suggested that a twist on the standard courtroom oath should become the motto of one top St. Louis PR firm: ”The truth, nothing but the truth, but for God’s sake not the whole truth.”

You could argue that not telling the whole truth is a form of lying. But there is usually a partisan on the other side holding additional – if also self-serving – puzzle pieces. Good reporters gather as many pieces as they can. Until lately, you could pretty much count on each single piece to be true.

While some public officials (and candidates) are masters of omitting inconvenient facts, only a single instance comes to mind of one who told me a bald-faced lie.

It was a now-long-gone Collinsville city manager who insisted that he had not asked troopers to patrol outside a contentious meeting between the local police union and the city council. I saw the Illinois State Police officers circling the block. Their boss later said the city manager had personally requested them.

Perhaps he was merely an early purveyor of “alternative facts,” a term coined some months back by presidential aide Kellyanne Conway as a poorly camouflaged euphemism for a lie. I am reminded of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s admonition: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.”

Of course, the New York Democrat was dead before the political ascendancy of President Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed master of persuasion. In the most generous recent polls, Trump still has an approval rating as high as 40 percent.

That is in effect a poll that says four in 10 Americans don’t seem to care whether the continually self-contradicting president is telling the truth. Moynihan was never speechless, but this might have put him close.

It seems fair to extrapolate that most of those 40 percent are as frustrated with pre-Trump presidential politics as most of the remaining 60 percent are with the situation in the six months since his inauguration. I am disheartened to presume then that most Americans have disapproved of one or the other of America’s recent presidents.

This is without considering that Republican congressional leaders ignored the will of more than 80 percent of the public by pressing for a Obamacare replacement that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said would cut coverage for up to 23 million people. (Those pesky facts again.)

In my own home of Southern Illinois, the three congressman — Republicans John Shimkus, Mike Bost and Rodney Davis – have opted for small-group meetings with constituents instead of big town hall sessions that in some places have raged with passion over proposed health care cuts. The three can fairly argue that they are already aware of the anti-GOP views, leaving open the question of whether a politician is obligated to accept an invitation to his own hanging.

By contrast, the recent battle in Springfield that led to raising the Illinois income tax, and producing the state’s first operating budget in three years, seems to have been the fruit of a grand debate using mutually accepted facts.

Oh, there was a ridiculous delay of years before addressing mismanagement. Then came partisan bickering over how to address a debt that grew hundreds of billions of dollars out of control — and about Gov. Bruce Rauner’s failed effort to attach pro-business reforms to the fix.

But Rauner did not say something one day and contradict himself the next. Nobody tried to ignore the enormity of the state’s financial crisis, nor quibble over specifics nor try to divert the public gaze. In the end, some Republicans even crossed over to help pass the majority Democrats’ proposals.

It feels odd to argue that political leaders in Illinois of all places – widely reviled as corrupt and regarded to be in the worst financial condition among state governments — did something the right way. But compared with Washington, yes.