The suspicion that politicians are inclined to tell lies is as old as politics itself. Yet when a politician is caught in a lie, the consequences are often dire, at least in democratic countries. Indeed, proving that a politician is a liar is just about the only way to get rid of him or her quickly and terminally, which is why the attempt is so attractive to political opponents.
But what, exactly, is a lie in politics? Few cases are as clear-cut as that of Anneli Jaatteenmaki, whose short-lived stint as Finland's first woman prime minister recently came to an end. She had attacked her predecessor during the election campaign for being fork-tongued about Iraq, saying one thing to US President George W. Bush and another to the Finnish people. Her knowledge was based on Finnish foreign office records. Had she seen them? She began to equivocate and in the end said that she had not. When the opposite was proven and a secret document was found in her possession, she had to go.
Another campaigner under investigation by his parliament for being ``economical with the truth'' is German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But his case is very different. The opposition, still smarting from its narrow defeat in last autumn's election, accuses him of not having told the truth about Germany's weak economy and the consequences for the national budget.
Almost a year after the election, a parliamentary committee of inquiry is still interviewing ``witnesses.'' But it does not look as if it can get very far. At most, deputies will be able to offer the public a fresh example of a favorite trick in politics: to tell the truth was told and nothing but the truth, but not exactly the whole truth.