NEW YORK — I promise to tell the truth in this column.

But am I lying?

Or do you just think I’m lying? Do you figure, “Well, he says he’ll tell the truth, but you know newspaper guys. They’re just trying to sell papers.”

If so, you’re no different from most Americans in this election year. You don’t expect the truth. You haven’t heard the truth in a long time. Heck, you might not recognize the truth if it jumped up and offered you “free cash prizes!” — since whenever that happens, we assume someone’s lying, right?

Nowadays the truth is disposable, like a candy wrapper. There are so many lies out there, tossing one more on the pile hardly seems noticeable.

So we have a president who had the audacity to say, “Read my lips, no new taxes!” — then raised taxes anyhow. Now he comes back four years later and says, “I raised taxes once, but I will never do it again. Never, ever!”

And we’re supposed to believe the words “Never, ever” somehow carry more truth than “Read my lips.”

Or do we just assume he’s lying? Lies become monsters

We see Ronald Reagan on network TV, raising his actor’s voice about the
“the importance of family values,” yet we know his own children barely talk to him; they write books about what lousy parents he and Nancy were. Do we just assume Reagan is lying?

And Bill Clinton says in a campaign speech Friday, “I want an America that values families” — yet a few months ago, he was involved in that Gennifer Flowers mess, hardly the stuff that keeps families together.

Do we figure he’s lying, too?

Here in New York, there is an incredible story developing. A 74-year-old former congressman named Mario Biaggi, who went to prison for accepting bribes, is running for Congress again. He was released last year — after serving only 26 months of an eight-year sentence — because, supposedly, his health was bad. Heart problems. His doctors said he might die under prison conditions.

But suddenly, Biaggi, a free man, is walking around as if 20 years younger. He is shaking hands and making promises. He told a New York Times reporter, “The campaign has nourished me” to health. He said this while eating fried potatoes and a cheese omelet, a logical choice for a man with deadly heart trouble, right?

Biaggi — who was convicted of taking nearly $2 million in bribes — refuses to even acknowledge that he spent time in the slammer, referring to it only as “when I was away.” It is an increasingly common form of lying in this country: Simply ignore the truth. Don’t say it. Don’t speak the words, and somehow it will go away. So Clinton doesn’t say the words “draft dodge” and Bush doesn’t say the words “savings and loan scandal,” and somehow it all goes bye-bye. It’s like the kid who puts his hands over his eyes and says, “If I can’t see the monster, then he can’t see me.”

These are people we elect to rule us?

Why don’t we demand higher standards? Trust disappears

The answer is, because our standards have been lowered everywhere. The lie is expected. We go to buy a used car, and we cringe when the salesman approaches, because we know that he’ll pelt us with lies to make a sale.

We get letters that begin “YOU HAVE WON A MILLION DOLLARS” and we throw it in the trash, uninterested. A lie. We see ads for “cheap” airfares, then spot the small print and don’t bother reading. A lie.

We hold up heroes who are largely myth, like actors and rock ‘n’ roll stars, who tell us how much they love their current husband or wife (a lie — they divorce six months later) or how great their new project is (a lie — it stinks). We have Woody Allen and Mia Farrow — who were glorified for years by the media for their “special” relationship — now admitting it was all a lie, and accusing each other over as horrific a subject as child abuse.

These are our heroes? Actors? Athletes who promise “loyalty” ? Business shams like Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley? You think of some of the biggest stories of recent months, and they center around lies: the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Kennedy rape trial, the savings and loan scandals.

If you ask me, the reason for this proliferation of untruth is simple: There is no shame left in our country — and shame is traditionally the only weapon to defeat lies. In some ancient societies, getting caught in a falsehood destroyed the honor of a family. Who would dare try it?

But today, getting caught just elicits a smart-aleck reply like, “So I lied. Sue me.” Or worse, “I had to lie to get what I wanted.”

No shame. And for some reason, we accept this as a reasonable attitude in this country. As long as we do, that’s exactly the kind of leaders we’re going to get.

And that’s the truth.

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