When is a lie a ‘big lie’?

Burton’s remark is understandable but over the top

Californians know John Burton, a former state senator who now chairs the California Democratic Party, as a shoot-from-the-lip brawler with a great big heart who sometimes goes over the top in making his points. He became famous outside California when he appeared on The Daily Show and dropped so many F-bombs that interviewer John Oliver observed, “You curse more than a West Coast rapper.”

Burton’s latest flare-up occurred during an interview with San Francisco radio station KCBS conducted Monday from Charlotte, N.C., site of this week’s Democratic National Convention. Referring to the Romney-Ryan campaign, he said, “They lie and don’t care if people think they lie.” He then compared their lying to Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels’ concept of “the big lie,” which is a whopper repeated so often that people come to believe it. The comment made headlines nationwide.

Burton is right that the Republicans have been lying, as verified by several fact-checking groups. That’s reprehensible, but is it equivalent to Goebbels’ “big lie”? No, because the German Nazis used the big lie to create a destructive mythology surrounding Jews that supported their extermination by the millions. That’s what Goebbels meant by “big lie.”

Burton apologized for his remark, sort of. “If Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan or the Republicans are insulted by my describing their campaign tactic as the big lie—I most humbly apologize to them or anyone who might have been offended by that comment,” he said in a statement.

We understand what Burton was trying to communicate with his reference to Goebbels. The Republicans seem unashamed to say whatever they want, no matter how demonstrably false it is. If they don’t want to be called liars, the solution is simple: Stop lying.

In the meantime, John, take a breather.