One of the most common complaints about politicians, if not the most common, is that they're a bunch of dishonest, disingenuous liars. Of course, campaigns force politicians to make impossible promises, and into the pockets of moneyed interests. And human beings —especially those in power — are just generally unscrupulous and disreputable. Still, that doesn't make it any less aggravating when another elected official violates the public trust.
The flip side of this is that it's extraordinarily refreshing when, on a rare occasion, a politician tells the unvarnished, uncensored truth. In honor of National Honesty Day, here are 11 truth-telling politicians who regardless of what else they've done, deserve at least a little bit of respect for being honest — for better or for worse.
A lot of Hillary Clinton's supporters weren't pleased when Barack Obama chose Biden to be his running mate in 2008 over Clinton. Biden, perhaps in an attempt to win the favor of those supporters, heaped mounds and mounds of praise upon Clinton. So much praise, in fact, that he upstaged himself and Obama when he flat-out said that his future boss might have made a mistake in choosing him to be VP.
"Hillary Clinton is as qualified, or more qualified, than I am to be Vice President of the United States of America. Let's get that straight," Biden said at a rally. "She is qualified to be President of the United States of America, she's easily qualified to be Vice President of the United States of America. And quite frankly, that might have been a better pick than me."
Well, at least you can't accuse him of being arrogant.
In 2009, Republican Senator Arlen Specter switched his party affiliation, thus granting Democrats the 60 votes they needed to pass health care reform. That was great for Democrats, and horrible for Specter. When asked why he switched, the Senator was blunt. Probably a bit too blunt.
"My change in parties will enable me to be re-elected," Specter said with a grin.
It didn't. Specter's primary opponent quickly used that quote against him in an attack ad a week before the vote, and Specter lost the primary.
After finishing a stint as a Senator from Montana, Baucus was nominated by President Obama to serve as ambassador to China. You'd think that, as a general rule, ambassadors should have at least some expertise on the country to which they’re posted. But you'd be wrong, as Baucus demonstrated during his confirmation hearing.
“I’m no real expert on China,” Baucus casually said when asked about China’s plans to impose an air defense zone over international waters.
Amazingly, the Senate confirmed him anyway, and he’s now the ambassador to China.
During his underdog campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, Rick Santorum was asked why he supported No Child Left Behind. His answer was refreshingly honest, if not terribly helpful for his primary campaign.
"It was against the principles I believed in, but when you’re part of the team, sometimes you take one for the leader," the former Senator said to a round of boos.
He wasn't lying. He also wasn't going to be winning any presidential nominations any time soon.
There’s not a lot of reasons to like Mitch McConnell, and he’s done plenty of disingenuous things during his career (like filibustering his own bill, for example). However, he does get credit for being honest about the GOP’s priorities as a political party. In 2010, the Senate Minority Leader admitted that, far from striving to enact policies or pass legislation, Republicans simply wanted President Obama to lose.
"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," McConnell said in an interview.
When asked about that quote in a follow-up interview, McConnell said, "Well, that is true."
This little-known Nevada lawmaker made national headlines in 2013 when he was asked if he’d ever vote to legalize slavery, if that was what his constituents wanted. The question was bizarre, but Wheeler’s answer was even worse.
"If that’s what they wanted," Wheeler replied. "I’d have to hold my nose, I’d have to bite my tongue, and they’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yeah."
Here’s some free PR advice for politicians: Always be against slavery. No matter what the context is, say you're against it. There are a lot of difficult policy questions out there, but this is not one of them.
At a 2008 campaign stop, then candidate Obama tried to explain why Democrats have tended to have trouble attracting votes in the Midwest. He started off talking about how decades of job loss in the region could cause widespread discouragement. True! But then he arrived at his conclusion.
"And it’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations," Obama said.
It was one of Obama’s few gaffes in the entire campaign, and the backlash was swift. He later said that if people were offended, "I deeply regret that," but maintained that "the underlying truth of what I said remains."
Rob Ford’s unbridled honesty could probably fill a list of its own. Bizarrely, the Toronto mayor is often at his most truthful when discussing his own substance abuse.
"Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine," Ford finally admitted when asked if he’d smoked crack cocaine. "But am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Probably, in one of my drunken stupors."
In another interview that same week, Ford admitted that "I've just got to maybe slow down on my drinking," and earlier, when questioned about a video depicting his crack cocaine use, the mayor replied that "I want to see the video. I can barely remember it. I was very, very inebriated."
During his gig as Mayor of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Bob Ryan was frequently accused of alcohol abuse. However, unlike almost any other politician who faces that accusation (other than Rob Ford) Ryan didn’t deny it.
"I’m an alcoholic, let’s face it," Ryan said during a legislative meeting in 2010. "I know it. I've known it for many, many years. Some people may have a drink or two. I’m not one of those people."
After his drunken meanderings wound up on YouTube, Ryan was booted from office in a recall election.
Harry Reid gets points for saying what everyone is thinking: "I can’t stand John McCain," the Senator Majority Leader said during the 2008 presidential primary, abandoning the respectful tone Senators generally adopt when discussing one another. Three years earlier, he referred to President George W. Bush as "a loser." The point here is that if it’s on Harry Reid’s mind, he’s probably going to say it, which is what led to his unnecessarily vivid depiction of Nevada tourists in 2008.
"In the summertime, because the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you can literally smell the tourists coming into the capitol," Reid said. "That may descriptive, but it's true."
Nowadays, Weiner is remembered primarily for his salacious Twitter escapades and failed New York City mayoral campaign. But during the health care reform debate two years prior, he went on an tirade on the House floor that made him something of a minor hero in progressive circles, and will probably go down as one of the bluntest accusations ever made in the House of Representatives. It really must be seen to be believed.
"The Republican Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the insurance industry," Weiner bellowed. "That’s a fact."
Outraged, his Republican colleagues quickly interrupted him and asked him to retract his remarks. He agreed...and then doubled down.
"Make no mistake about it," Weiner screamed. "Every single Republican I have ever met in my entire life is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the insurance industry!"
It's almost enough to make liberals wish he was still an elected official. Almost.