Why ‘Truth’ Is James Comey’s Word of the Year

2018 delivered an unprecedented cascade of lies

James Comey
Dec 10, 2018 · 3 min read
Illustration by Matt van Leeuwen

TTruth exists. There are things in our lives that are either true or false. It is raining hard while I type this. That is true. It is not my perspective or your perspective. It is raining here in Virginia. And if you are sitting beside me looking out the window and you say it is not raining, you are lying. Your belief is not honestly held; you are a liar. And the principle applies broadly. Is it true or false that more people attended Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration than Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration? That is false, and demonstrably, objectively so. If you say otherwise, you are lying.

This notion that the truth exists, and that it matters, has long been at the center of American life. We have always measured our leaders by their connection to the touchstone of truth. They all depart from it from time to time; that’s the nature of political leadership, and of humans. In an effort to please or justify or avoid, politicians make false statements. George W. Bush did, when he said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Barack Obama did, when he said that if you liked your doctor you could keep your doctor under his proposed health care bill. And then they spent the rest of their terms, and likely the rest of their lives, explaining their tether to the touchstone. “I really believed,” or “I didn’t know,” or “I misspoke,” or “I’m sorry.” But we, and they, measured the distance to the touchstone. We held them accountable to the truth.

This was the first full calendar year of Donald Trump’s presidency, but it represented a continuation of the assault on the truth — on the very notion of “truth” — that began just after his inauguration with the First Lie, the one about the inauguration crowd. So many false statements followed the first one, so many lies, that we have become numb to them. And in that numbness from thousands and thousands of false statements, there is danger. There is a risk that the flood of lies will wash over the touchstone of truth and melt it like a sandcastle at the beach. And then, what are we, exactly?

America is a country that, by most historical measures, shouldn’t exist. Americans don’t come from a common heritage, language, religion, or culture. We have none of the normal glue to form this collection of humans from across the globe into a nation. Instead, we are an experiment: For 242 years, we have been held together by a set of values. We have always fallen short of our espoused values — after all, we held truths to be self-evident while holding humans as slaves — but our values are the glue. Together, we hold truths. One of our most sacred values is that the truth exists, that it must be sought and spoken. Our founders created systems of government and justice designed to have the best chance of finding the truth, by crashing human interests against each other. The whole design rests upon oaths and promises, solemn commitments to tell the truth.

If we lose that, if we become numb to the melting of the touchstone, what remains of our country? The question is frightening, but millions of Americans see the threat, and are responding. The media has been working, in fits and starts, to report the truth, and the lies. Their reward has been a constant stream of attacks from the President, attacks designed to destroy the media’s credibility and the very idea that truth is knowable, but they have kept at it. In part, the media has stayed on the case because the American people have kept at it. Rather than withdrawing, numb, they have stepped forward. An overwhelming majority support the work of a special prosecutor to find out what is true about the conduct of the President and his associates. More people voted in the 2018 midterm elections than in any similar election in memory. Those voters handed control of the House of Representatives to the opposition party. The design of the Founders — that crashing of interests to get at truth — will work to protect our democracy.

In 2018, we defended our values. And that’s the truth.

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