The Central Intelligence Agency has some tips for spotting liars. Unfortunately, most of them also sound like stage directions for a GOP primary candidate: “Failing to answer.” “Attacking.” “Denial.” Even, “Bringing up religion.” One particular hint is unusually relevant these days: “Being too specific.”
Carly Fiorina’s continuing distortions about what she saw, or didn’t see, on the Planned Parenthood sting videos would set off alarms all over Langley on all those counts, but it’s her level of primary-color, pointillist embroidery on the truth—in that and other instances—that truly sets her apart from the rest of the field.
Call it Car-lying. Describing things into reality is a trademark of Fiorina’s, a style of mendacity that sets her apart from career politicians. Indeed, the reason she doesn’t come off as a politician is she’s still in marketing.
At Hewlett-Packard, employees said she “embellished” the company’s “future products, strategy and even history,” adding a fictitious personal visit from Walt Disney to the true story about Disney Studios being an early client. She was brought into HP to be brash and exciting, to “drive a stake through” the “community-minded” and “collaborative” “pocket-protector paradise” of cautious expansion that existed before she got there. And she did! The Compaq merger that defined her unsteady tenure was a function of her own salesmanship: “The moxie to risk shareholders’ money on a huge acquisition… exceeds the courage of most mortals,” as one more positive assessment put it. Or, put another way: “Fiorina had one significant weakness as chief executive: she just wasn’t very good at running the business.”
Perhaps the best example of Fiorina’s cynical hucksterism is her brief stint as a consultant to the very agency that might have seen through her: the CIA. Then-Director Michael Hayden asked her to serve on a board charged with helping the agency navigate “demands for greater public accountability and openness.” Her advice? Don’t stop doing the stuff that make people want to hold you accountable—mass surveillance or torture—just make people think you’re being accountable. Or, as she recommended: “be very creative about [being] transparent.”
Indeed, exuberant chicanery may be the only crossover skill Fiorina can bring to her campaign from the business world. She managed the business side of her last campaign about as successfully as she did HP, which is to say: Not only did she lose, but by paying off her self-funded loan to the campaign first, she got a golden parachute and her employees got the shaft.
Fiorina does more than tell the “big lie,” she tells a big lie of a thousand parts, throwing placeholder disinformation at her interrogators with such practiced cool that observers just assume she must know what she’s talking about. Hence the soup of numbers in her military requisition demands at the last debate: “50 Army brigades,” “36 Marine battalions,” “350 naval ships.”
Fiorina’s numbers came from a Heritage Foundation study—though not one that has anything to do with the question on the table, which at least began with “Have you met Vladimir Putin?” and drifted more fuzzily into “the military issue.” Heritage’s alarmist report is a faux-empirical “readiness” index, designed to either estimate the U.S.’s ability to conduct two simultaneous, conventional regional wars or goose defense spending (maybe both!); but it’s not an actual plan for a real-world military engagement. Do you think River City would have bought the con if it had been “a lot” and not 76 trombones leading the big parade?
Pressed by Chuck Todd on her Planned Parenthood video lies, Fiorina didn’t just repeat that she had seen something that does not exist, she accused the organization of something that the “sting” video’s makers hadn’t: “Planned Parenthood is aborting fetuses alive to harvest their brains and other body parts. That is a fact.” To be clear, with this statement, Fiorina isn’t just repeating a mischaracterization she already told (that Planned Parenthood “harvests” organs that are intact after an abortion). Rather, she is saying that Planned Parenthood aborts fetuses alive, for the purpose of harvesting their intact organs. She added, “Planned Parenthood will not and cannot deny this because it is happening.”
That last bit is a hoary nugget of rhetorical flim-flammery on par with “When did you stop beating your wife?” It tries to reinvent lack of engagement as admission of guilt. Except Planned Parenthood has denied allegations of illegally “harvesting” organs—and six different state investigations (Pennsylvania, Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, South Dakota, and now Missouri) have backed up those denials.
Instructively, what’s disturbing about Fiorina’s falsehoods isn’t that she lied, or even that she seems to believe her own lies. It’s not even, really, that her lies get bigger every time.
No, what should give you pause is that by sheer force of articulated will she has fabricated her own reality, to the point that her Super PAC spliced together a different video to illustrate just what it is she said she saw. Think about it: If Fiorina had stuck to some kind of emotionally-charged but non-specific description of the video, there would be no second round of debate. As it is, Fiorina didn’t just lie—she created a storyboard.
The Super PAC YouTube contribution is as dishonest a use of found footage as any “Paranormal Activity” rip-off, yet somehow her supporters suspend their disbelief. That may be because, unlike fans of direct-to-on-demand ghost stories, Republican primary voters haven’t really seen anything like this before.
Confident generalization is the native language of a Washington professional; studied ambiguity is their background noise. The reason red meat works so well is most political speech is thin gruel. Pat truisms are what make politicians sound like politicians (and parties often indistinguishable from each other): it’s what makes America great, education important, families treasured, and apple pie delicious.
We talk about “dog whistles” because what politicians really mean or really want to communicate is usually cloaked by superficial inoffensiveness and preservation of plausible deniability is the lodestar of any halfway decent flack. Disregard for those conventions on a personal, philosophical level is why the howling, unambiguous racism of Donald Trump and the obvious yet soft-spoken bigotry of Ben Carson have broken through. On policy, however, the only thing that distinguishes their vagueness from career pols is its hilarious blatancy.
By contrast, Fiorina’s brazenly explicit prescriptions are almost pornographic: especially in the sense that what she’s describing is unattainable in real life. People see her steely, echoing assertions as discipline. But she’s not displaying the focus of a real leader—just the conscientiousness of someone who has to keep her lies straight.