Honesty has never been an absolute requirement for political candidates.

Even George Washington was known to mislead people on rare occasion, according to biographer Ron Chernow.

Chernow and most historians agree that Washington deserved his reputation as an honest and trustworthy businessman, military commander and political leader. But he could, contrary to legend, tell a lie.

The story about Washington admitting that he chopped down a cherry tree, and saying, “I cannot tell a lie,” is, well, a lie. It was invented not by Washington, but by an early biographer.

Still, by today’s standards, Washington’s honesty is impressive.

Now, it’s acceptable to justify the dishonesty of political leaders and publicly endorse double standards. Consider the cases of Michael Cohen and Michael Flynn.

Both used to work for President Donald Trump. Both were convicted of lying to federal authorities regarding actions that were performed on behalf of Trump.

Both admitted that they had lied.

But Trump and many others defend Flynn. The president called Flynn “a wonderful man” who had been treated “very, very unfairly by the media.”

Even after the former national security officer and career military officer pleaded guilty to lying to federal authorities, Trump claimed on a national TV show that authorities had found that Flynn had not lied.

He was, frankly, lying about lying.

Michael Cohen’s case brought a much different reaction.

After it was clear that Cohen would plead guilty and aid federal authorities in the investigation of the Trump campaign, the president called Cohen a “rat.”

When Cohen appeared to testify before a House committee, Republicans pounded him, claiming his word was worthless because he was a convicted liar.

“You’ve claimed that you’ve lied but you’re not a liar,” said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Georgia. “Just to set the record straight if you lied, you are a liar by definition.” That comment, reported in an Associated Press piece about the February hearing, was one of many examples of Republicans trashing Cohen.

It’s reasonable to doubt Cohen’s credibility. He does lie. A lot.

The same could be said of the president.

During a recent campaign rally in Michigan, Trump made false claims about where his father was born, the health effects of wind turbines and the amount of federal disaster relief sent to Puerto Rico. The dishonesty prompted eye-rolls among Republicans, but no apparent disappointment or anger from the same officials and pundits who earlier declared they could not abide dishonesty.

Selective outrage is not just a Republican ailment.

For example, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, repeatedly bashes Trump for his lies, but she defended Jussie Smollett, the actor who lied about being attacked in Chicago. She supported the controversial decision made by a Chicago prosecutor to drop the false-reporting charges against Smollett.

Not Trump. He was so angry about Smollett’s alleged crime that he claimed he was going to have the Department of Justice investigate.

Yet, the president thinks authorities should free Paul Manafort, who was convicted on multiple counts of bank fraud and tax fraud.

Trump has said repeatedly that federal authorities should not have prosecuted his former campaign manager, and he berated special counsel Robert Mueller for uncovering Manafort’s crimes.

“It’s a very sad situation,” Trump said to White House reporters about Manafort’s prison sentence. “Certainly on a human basis, it’s a very sad thing. I feel badly for him.”

What is sad is that we now treat honesty as a mere political tool — demanding it of others when it serves a partisan purpose and renouncing it to suit our needs.

Neither our government nor our society can survive such continued assault on basic principles.

Perfection is not expected. But we should demand an even-handed recognition that honesty is a good thing. We should still care when politicians — regardless of their political affiliation — lie.

We need not all set the bar to the same height. But we do need a bar, and the standard should be the same for Democrats and Republicans, regardless of who we voted for in 2016 or who we want to win in 2020.

 

A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.