Hillary Clinton
(March 2007)

This would be funny if it wasn't so predictable.

Commemorating the "Bloody Sunday" civil rights march of 1965 in Selma, New York Senator Hillary Clinton was spiritually and emotionally in the moment. Also, it appears, politically and linguistically: while addressing a black church, the Illinois-raised Clinton suddenly affected a deep South accent. ABC News reported that " 'I' became 'Ahhh,' 'far' morphed into 'fahhhr,' and 'mayor' suddenly sounded like 'mare.'" Her speech was videotaped, and it is indeed strange to hear a Northeast senator suddenly begin to sound like Foghorn Leghorn.

Leave it to the Clintons to devise new and outlandish varieties of dishonesty never covered in ethics classes. Woody Allen once made a movie called "Zelig" about a strange man who had no identity of his own, and who involuntarily morphed into a member of whatever group he was exposed to. Senator Clinton is almost certainly not a sufferer of Zelig's fictional malady, however; after all, this is a woman who suddenly discovered that she had been a life-long fan of the New York Yankees as soon as she found herself running for the U.S. Senate in New York, after many years of proclaiming herself a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan. That unlikely conversion, like her sudden drawl, simply confirmed deep suspicions even among those inclined to support her political views that this was someone who couldn't be trusted to speak and act from the heart.

It would be hard to imagine a more trivial unethical act than adopting a phony accent when you are well-known to your audience. It is not as if Senator Clinton was going to convince anyone at an Alabama that she had been raised in Mayberry. But trivial dishonesty that could fool no one is what the David Manning Liar of the Month usually recognizes. When prominent, powerful, admired individuals display a casual willingness to misrepresent the truth, it sends a destructive message to the public and reinforces a belief that dishonestly is only wrong when it causes tangible harm. Such obvious and unabashed dishonesty does cause harm, however, by increasing society's tolerance of dishonesty as a component of character. Those who are comfortable with small lies are more comfortable with large ones, so even a silly, pandering, calculated drawl is cause for caution. The very least we should be able to expect of our leaders is that they be straightforward about who they are, even if they are unsettlingly vague about what they believe.

As for the practiced Clinton defenders who will doubtlessly argue that Hillary's sudden corn-pone dialect was inadvertent, they need to be told that their explanation would be even more alarming. Dishonesty is bad, but involuntary dishonesty, like Zelig's involuntary transformations, is pathological.

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