MN-GOV: Mark Dayton and the Merits of Truth-Telling

In my rather limited knowledge of great literature, one of my favorite passages is in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck decides upon a truly ...
by | December 28, 2009

In my rather limited knowledge of great literature, one of my favorite passages is in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck decides upon a truly desperate course of action: telling the truth.

I says to myself, I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place is taking considerable many resks, though I ain't had no experience, and can't say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here's a case where I'm blest if it don't look to me like the truth is better and actuly safer than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it's so kind of strange and unregular. I never see nothing like it. Well, I says to myself at last, I'm a-going to chance it; I'll up and tell the truth this time, though it does seem most like setting down on a kag of powder and touching it off just to see where you'll go to.

Politicians often seem a little bit like Huck Finn: habitual spinners who don't realize that the safest course of action is sometimes to tell the unadorned truth. They forget that the media loves it when politicians seem unusually honest (think John McCain circa 2000) and the American people don't mind either.

I was reminded of Huck Finn when I read this morning that former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, a Democratic candidate for governor in Minnesota, admitted that his alcoholism relapsed while he was in the Senate and that he's suffered from depression for many years. Here's Dayton's explanation for telling the truth from the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

But Dayton says he believes going public with his struggle with depression and alcoholism is part of the price of admission to the political arena in 2010. "I'm presenting myself to the people of Minnesota for their consideration for governor, and they have a right to know this about me," he said. "I want to reassure people that I feel extremely confident of my abilities. I feel stronger, more confident and more capable within myself than I ever have."

It's refreshing to hear politicians acknowledge their personal demons without being prompted by a police report or a hike along the Appalachian Trail. But, is it actually politically smart? Maybe, but only if the politician is telling the truth and the whole truth. That brings me to the follow-up coverage in the Star Tribune:

After first describing his twin struggles in a Star Tribune opinion column published Sunday, Dayton spoke to a Star Tribune reporter Sunday morning, but would not fully elaborate on the revelations. Asked when he started drinking again, how much and whether he drank at work as a U.S. senator, Dayton refused to answer.

"I don't think there is anything more to say," he said of his drinking. "That's what I'm disclosing. I'm not going to say anything more about it."

He also declined to offer many details on his lifelong depression, which he characterized as mild.

Before these revelations, I didn't think that Dayton stood much of a chance of being elected governor of Minnesota. Democrats have lots of other formidable candidates and Dayton has baggage completely independent from his alcoholism and depression (alcoholism and depression are "diseases" not "baggage" anyways). Still, I think the former senator isn't doing himself any favors with a halfway truth-telling.

Dayton risks resembling Mike McGavick, the 2006 Washington Senate candidate who preemptively revealed that he had been arrested for DUI. His honesty was praised -- until subsequent revelations indicated that he hadn't been entirely forthcoming about the details of the DUI.

The lesson: What really hurts politicians is when they make a big deal of telling the truth, but don't follow through. You might say that the public can tolerate being lied to, but they don't like to be lied to about being lied to. And, it should be noted that when Huck Finn resolved to give honesty a try he told Miss Mary Jane "every blame thing."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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