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Why politicians lie and why we want to believe them

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Story highlights

At the heart of the "birther" controversy is an argument about political lies

Psychologists say politicians stretching the truth is "part of the social fabric"

Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and John Edwards have all been caught up in political deception

Washington CNN —  

Wolf Blitzer and Donald Trump’s heated showdown this week over claims of a conspiracy to conceal President Barack Obama’s true birthplace was, at its core, an argument about lying.

Trump and other “birthers” believe the president, mainstream media outlets, the courts and the state of Hawaii are all lying, conspiring in a cover-up that began with Obama’s birth announcement in a Honolulu newspaper in 1961.

Those who maintain the president was born in Hawaii – and has produced an authentic birth certificate to prove it – believe Trump and the other side are willfully ignoring the facts in front of them and spreading lies for political gain.

Despite a frustrated GOP, anti-Obama ‘birthers’ still persist

“It’s very complicated, the way we process information,” said Ron Riggio, an organizational psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College speaking broadly about the nature of lying. “It’s the politics of audacity. The more outrageous and audacious the lie is, the more people say ‘that’s got to be true because why would someone make something like that up?’”

While many politicians are truthful, honest public servants, too many politicians and their surrogates often lie, and voters often let them get away with it, Riggio contends. In the world of politics, lies are that relative no one really likes but everyone reluctantly invites to Thanksgiving dinner.

From Richard Nixon – “I’m not a crook” – to Bill Clinton – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” – to Marion Barry – “It’s all made up… I don’t know what happened” – to John Edwards – “The story is false… It’s completely untrue, ridiculous” – American politicians have had a history of political deception, or at least stretching the truth.

Edwards not guilty on one count; mistrial on other charges

In 2007, Edwards, who at the time was a leading candidate for president, lied about his mistress and baby when the National Enquirer caught him at the Beverly Hilton Hotel visiting the child. The jury in his conspiracy and illegal campaign contributions trial Thursday found Edwards not guilty on one of six counts. The judge declared a mistrial on the other five counts.

And last year, disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner looked CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in the eye and lied when confronted with evidence of illicit Twitter photos. He later admitted the deception and resigned from office.

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“From a leadership perspective, so often the lies politicians are involved in are part of leaving an impression about information,” Riggio said. “So much of it is the little white lies that are part of the social fabric. But when it crosses the line that the public truly believes is important, then it becomes a big problem.”