"Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom." -- Thomas Jefferson
No legacy is so rich as honesty." -- William Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well
"Honesty is the best policy." -- Your mom, probably (but also Sir Edwin Sandys)
The sentiments above are certainly grounded in good intentions, and probably in a lot of truth as well. We can probably agree that taken entirely by themselves, in a vacuum, honesty is good and dishonesty is bad.
We don't live in a vacuum, though, and it doesn't take us long to discover that honesty isn't always the best policy, does it? The simplest and most obvious example is that it would be a world drowning in chaos if everyone just went around being honest with everyone all the time. Tell your friend the sweater she's wearing today is hideous, tell the stranger on the street that he looks like he'd be really good in bed or that something about his face just makes you want to punch it really hard: chaos! In fact, a solid majority of the time as we're just bumbling around the world at large, I'd say that keeping one's mouth shut is definitely the best policy. Maybe honesty is second-best, but it's a pretty distant second.
A related, less ridiculous exception to the "best policy" rule arises where whatever good being honest could accomplish is outweighed by the damage the truth might do to the person who hears it. Parents of young children do this all the time (probably while simultaneously proclaiming honesty the best policy). Another exception: If you've done something the knowledge of which you know would hurt a loved one and you've no intention of doing it again, you might reasonably choose to keep it to yourself, and that in fact "honesty" in that case might serve to alleviate your own guilt, but wouldn't be any good for anyone else.
Last, and most upsetting, are the situations in which choosing honesty or dishonesty just doesn't matter anymore. The spouse who correctly suspects you of cheating might not care much that you ultimately fess up to it and say whether it was boredom, weakness, or temporary insanity. Honesty isn't a magic wand that sets things right; if truth is ugly, one probably doesn't have the right to expect to gain a lot by later being honest about it.
It's too late to tell that to Mark McGwire, who learned the hard way starting about two years ago, when he admitted in this statement and in this TV interview that he had used steroids during his playing career, and apologized for doing so.
The internet is often a surprisingly impermanent medium, and I can't find very many of the articles, dated from McGwire's retirement following the 2001 season through the end of 2009, from BBWAA members with Hall of Fame voting privileges who said that if McGwire would simply admit what he did and offer an apology, all (or much) would be forgiven. They were out there, though, and the idea was pervasive. Here's Bruce Jenkins saying McGwire (and others) should come clean in 2006; here's a reference to a 2007 article by Ken Rosenthal about it (the article itself appears to be unavailable); here's one from 2008; here's a 2007 blog post noting that "sportswriters are moralizing about how McGwire should confess."
McGwire gave them exactly what they asked for. In both his written statement and his interview, he said when he started taking steroids and why. The written statement says: "I used steroids during my playing career and I apologize," as well as, "I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize, and, "I shouldn't have done it and for that I'm truly sorry." The interview repeated very similar sentiments, many times over.
Despite taking the punditry's advice, McGwire reaped not forgiveness but outright anger. Mike Lupica said McGwire's apology propagated a "worldwide lie," presumably because McGwire didn't give the level of detail Lupica wanted, or confess that he took them to hit baseballs further rather than for reasons of health (which he may or may not have), or give a medical opinion he's unqualified to offer on how much steroids had helped him. Tom Haudricourt, so hopping mad he very nearly abandoned the English language entirely, said that McGwire's statement that he didn't believe PEDs helped him hit home runs (and if you were McGwire and had been more talented than everybody all your life, would you?) "goes completely against the science of the substances." This person, writing for HuffPo, said that "McGwire must think we're stupid." Then there's this profoundly silly thing.
These weren't nitpicks or rational deconstructions of McGwire's words. This was anger -- pure, seething, burning, almost hateful anger. That anger has shown up in the Hall of Fame balloting too, of course. McGwire's support had peaked (just barely) at 23.7 percent on the ballot just before his fit of honesty; in the two ballots since, It has dipped to 19.8 percent and 19.5 percent. With the addition of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, and Curt Schilling to the field for 2013, even many of McGwire's supporters can't find room for him in their allotted ten ballot slots. He probably won't fall below five percent and off the ballot this time around, but Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas hit the ballot next year and he will be in real danger then.
There is an important lesson here for anyone who played through "The Steroid Era," and maybe a lesson for all of us, if you want to be all cynical about it: Honesty is definitely not the best policy. At best we can say that honesty might have helped McGwire in that it's kept the media from harassing him out of his hitting coach gigs, but it sure hasn't done a thing for his legacy or Hall chances. The outward message, from writers and fans alike, that the lies and question-dodging were what really bothered them, and that a confession would make things better, help the player, help us all heal, was in itself a lie. The infinitely uglier reality was that it's no fun being all haughty and angry against a mere strong suspicion; McGwire's concerned critics wanted he and the others to confess so they could throw their righteous fits of anger without any pesky ambiguity or the slightest shade of doubt that had been there before.
It's the drugs that they hate, not the lying about them. We want honesty, but only because we want blood; it won't do a damn thing for the players involved. I hate what's been done to McGwire, but I'm glad he was there to set that example, to teach that lesson to everyone else who might be tempted to "come clean." I still think that eventually -- though far too late for McGwire -- all the moralizing and hand-wringing will pass. But that takes time, and turnover, and knowledge. Honesty is a nice-sounding idea and everything, but McGwire was damned either way.
UPDATE: I wrote the foregoing on Thursday night; on Friday night, the New York Times reported that officially-zero-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong was "considering publicly admitting that he used banned performance-enhancing drugs and blood transfusions during his cycling career." Uncanny, isn't it?
It's worth noting that Armstrong has less to lose by confessing than McGwire did. Before McGwire's big reveal, you might've found folks who believed McGwire was "innocent," that he hadn't been on any illegal or banned substances (keeping in mind that androstenedione was neither at the time; it was a "nutritional supplement"). or people, like me, who simply weren't willing to speculate -- and some of those benefit-of-the-doubters were Hall of Fame voters. At this point, though, there can be essentially no holdouts on Armstrong, in the face of (as noted in the Times article) a 1000-page report that relied on "hundreds of pages of eyewitness testimony from teammates, e-mail correspondence, financial records and laboratory analyses."
He also has more to gain. McGwire might reasonably have believed he'd be more widely forgiven after his admission, and he arguably needed it to clear the air before taking the hitting coach position with the Cardinals, but can't have thought that the confession would simply fix everything. But with Armstrong, everything that can be done to him has already been done; all his titles have been stripped, and he's been banned for life from all sports governed by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
In light of that, this follow-up report from the Washington Post makes some sense: there, it's reported that Armstrong made "overtures" to the U.S. ADA about confessing -- presumably with the aim of partially lifting his ban and letting him compete in triathlons -- but that the dialogue has since been "halted." That would suggest that Armstrong has already learned the best lesson he could from McGwire: if you're being honest for any reason beyond conscience-clearing, be sure to get it in (binding) writing first.
For the rest of the "Insights" series on baseball and some big philosophical concepts, see the series index.