The Art of Obama

The Judiciary Committee in the U.S. House was working at the time on the bill on partial-birth abortion, and I had given as a gift to the committee one of my best students from Amherst. He called me one night in disbelief: He had just seen a Democratic senator from California on “Nightline,” and she declared that she could support the bill only if it contained a provision to allow this grisly procedure if it were truly necessary for the “health” of the pregnant woman. “But the bill,” he said, “does contain a ‘health exception.’ How could she look straight into the camera and say such a thing?” The simplest explanation was she thought she could get away with it: Most people out there in the public would not know she was speaking falsely, and even if she were corrected, the correction wouldn’t reach most members of the audience who might have been lulled by her comments.

I am not exactly starry-eyed about politicians, but I shared some of the shock of my student over the audacity of the lie. That performance was just a mild rehearsal however, for a form of political theater that would reach its fullest cultivation as an art with Barack Obama. And instead of being something striking in its rareness, it would become woven into daily practice, as much a part of routine with this new president as breakfast and lunch. How else to account for the ability of Mr. Obama to stand before the Congress last week, and a nation-wide audience, and say, “One more misunderstanding I want to clear up – under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions.”

It was a manifest lie. But journalists would become so entangled in trying to read the minutiae in the bill that they would miss what was indeed so plain or manifest in the untruth before their eyes. And so writers trying to sort through the strands would point out that abortion would be covered, in one version, only in plans in which people opt for abortion and pay a premium. The Democrats contended that these were then merely “private” dollars, put up by the participants themselves.

But of course it was the thinnest fiction to say that these were “private dollars.” As one commentator suggested, imagine that the government allowed people to contribute voluntarily to the support of mercenaries in Iraq. Would anyone seriously believe that the federal government, collecting and disbursing, these funds would not be funding the mercenaries? Besides, as Richard Doerflinger of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pointed out, anyone subscribing to insurance supported by the government would have to pay the premium that supports all other abortions. At every turn, this belies the claim of “no federal support or subsidy for abortion” if one merely looked more closely. Or: if one read any of these provisions when set in the larger bill of which they were merely parts.

And if we stood back to take in the view of the whole, what would we see? In the first place, we see the bill brought forth under the most radical pro-abortion president the country has ever seen: a man who opposed the move even to protect a child who survived an abortion; who promised his supporters than any program of medical care would cover “reproductive” rights; and whose administration pushes that notion of “reproductive rights” at every conference under the United Nations, and in every place where there is discretion under our laws. This president has declared his intention to remove the protections of “conscience” put in place for doctors and nurses in dealing with abortion, and to repeal the Hyde Amendment that barred the use of federal funds to support most abortions.

Every level of the administration is filled with people who regard abortion as a medical procedure legitimate, desirable, urgently necessary. And so when the bill mandates “professional services of physicians and other health professionals”; when it seeks a new Health Advisory Panel to recommend other medical procedures to be covered; and when the recommendations are made to a Secretary of Health and Human Services who is famously pro-abortion – with all of these ingredients in place, what is one reasonably to expect? The presumption must be that abortion would be amply covered at many points unless there is an explicit move to forbid the coverage of abortion in the bill. And yet, when amendments of that kind were offered, they were routinely voted down in committee along party lines by the Democrats.

What is unique about Barack Obama was revealed during the controversy over his opposition, in Illinois, to protecting the children who survived abortions. When this news broke out in the presidential campaign, his response, audacious and clever, was to accuse his critics of lying for bringing the news. They would be tarred as liars for telling, about him, such a monstrous truth. And what worked in the campaign is now taken up as his standard operating procedure. What hasn’t been fully grasped about Obama is that he lies even when there is no need to lie; he lies in the way that concert pianists need to practice every day. For apart from the utility of it, he needs to practice, as any true artist needs to practice, for the sake of cultivating his art at its highest level.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.