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Can politicians be trusted?

By CNN's Barry Neild
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Street violence aside, there was something exhilarating about this week's public reaction to the Hungarian prime minister's confession that his government was guilty of playing fast and loose with the truth.

More than 10,000 people stormed the streets of Budapest on Monday night after Ferenc Gyurcsany admitted: "We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening, and also at night," -- a conversation that had presumably been taped in the afternoon.

The public anger reveals that until now, Hungary's voters had presumably believed that Gyurcsany's government had actually been telling the truth, an assumption many might laughingly dismiss as naive.

A cynical statement perhaps, but government leaders worldwide can hardly claim to have an unblotted copybook when it comes to setting the record straight.

From junior candidates insinuating their battered brogues onto the doorsteps of elderly voters to smartly suited veterans fighting to keep their names out of brewing scandal, politicians are routinely perceived as untrustworthy.

As the old adage goes, you can tell when a politician is lying -- he's moving his lips.

The corridors of power and, indeed, the corridors of low-security penitentiaries are strewn with examples of right honorable representatives behaving downright dishonorably.

In Britain, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer, two members of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's government, have both served time behind bars for perjury.

Aitken memorably railed against press allegations of impropriety with a declaration he would "fight the cancer of bent and twisted journalism with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play." He was jailed for 18 months.

Without straying into unsavory detail, it was, of course, someone else's lips that got former U.S. President Bill Clinton into hot water, but he certainly didn't help matters with his dogged insistence that: "I never had sexual relations with that woman."

Clinton's predecessor George H. W. Bush went so far as to draw attention to the impending falsehood emanating from his mouth in 1988. "Read my lips: No new taxes," he said, prior to overseeing an administration that subsequently hiked taxes.

But the fabrications of Bush and Clinton pale beside those of late President Richard Nixon. "I am not a crook," he said in 1973, clearly lying through his teeth as his government stood knee deep in the crooked dealings of the Watergate scandal.

Nixon, of course, got his comeuppance. He was forced to become the first U.S. president ever to quit office, resigning to avoid inevitable impeachment.

Misty-eyed historians often cite Nixon's clumsy demise as the end of an age of innocence in U.S. politics as voters realized that even presidents were willing to sacrifice truth, justice and the American way in search of a quick vote.

While this fact may only just have dawned on the citizens of Hungary's young democracy, CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley insists their feeling of betrayal may not be entirely misplaced.

"Not all politicians lie," says Oakley, although he concedes that many now have spin doctors to do their dirty work for them.

But, says Oakely, Gyurcsany's confession bodes ill for his career.

"It never helps to admit lying. Ideally the public would possibly forgive a mistake or two if politicians were candid about it, but that culture doesn't exist."

Dr. Glen Newey, a professor of politics at Britain's Keele University, told CNN that politicians telling whoppers often act as barometers of functioning democracy, indicating that a demanding press and public are capable of steering politicians into stormy seas.

"If you have a ferocious media ensuring accountability, it is not very surprising that politicians are forced into a position where they come across as slippery or they find that rather than saying nothing at all, they have to say something false."

And, says Newey, the fact that untruths have been so readily uncovered in Hungary are a positive health check for a country that only held its first elections in 1990 after emerging from a Soviet regime that brutally suppressed a popular uprising almost exactly 50 years ago.

"Under the old communist regime, this would be less likely to happen. Although leaks are undesirable and not exactly textbook examples of democracy, they do indicate that democratic values are still functioning."


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Richard Nixon: "I am not a crook."

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