When we say to someone – “Please tell me the truth” – we ask because we would rather have it – the truth – than something else.
But when I beg this of another, I am really asking that the person be true, because I judge that our relationship expects or demands it. I have concluded that our relationship can handle both truth-being and truth-telling – the former being the condition of the latter.
We remember the explosive court room confrontation in the movie A Few Good Men (1992; director Rob Reiner):
Col. Jessep: “You want answers?”
Kaffee: “I think I’m entitled to them.”
Col. Jessep: “You want answers?”
Kaffee: “I want the truth!”
Col. Jessep: “You can’t handle the truth!”
What does it mean to tell the truth? It means first a personal capacity to think one’s way to reality through the operations of a critical intelligence. We attend to relevant data; we work to understand what it means (What is all this? What is the pattern?); we put our insight to the test by the demands of reasonableness (Is what I have understood true? Is this real? A fact?); we make a judgment, and then submit to the truth, conforming our life to it. We become true through the exercise of such habits – truth-being – and so become able to tell the truth habitually – truth-telling.
John 8:31 Jesus then said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
One of those facts (i.e., reality) is that we know people who have developed a capacity not to tell the truth, either hiding it or from it; either distorting it, or deliberately proposing to others a falsehood. Truth in the case of such persons has become something that they get to decide about, a right that they judge that they possess – “Should I tell the truth in this circumstance to these people, or not?” For such people, truth is optional, because there is something more important than truth-being and truth-telling.
Recall from the biblical record that famous dialogue between Jesus and the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate:
John 18:37 So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” 
Pilate knows what is more important than the truth. It is him! It is his reality and his truth that has his highest allegiance. It is his independence and his plans … that cause him to overlook the Truth when it – so profound a grace! – is standing right in front of him: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
It seems valuable and timely, in this season of Presidential politics, to consider this question of truth – what actually truth is, and how one establishes it. Is it not a fact that we feel concerned, and often, that our public officials and the media tell us their truth and not the truth? We sense how we are being managed by sophisticated marketing strategies, whose purpose is to convince us that this or that is true, rather than demanding that we have what we need to think for ourselves, to think with them towards the truth.
But when a person has to convince someone that he or she is telling the truth, it often means that the person is not telling it. We recall that the original meaning of the English verb “to convince” means “to overcome, conquer, vanquish; fig. to overpower.” (OED)
It is a demagogue (not a good kind of political animal) who is in the business of convincing us of his or her convictions. Why needing to convince? Because a demagogue is not in the business of truth, or having his or her hearers know the truth for themselves. He or she is in the business of getting followers. “I am the truth you need. Vote for me. I will take care of things. Just give me the power.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “demagogue” this way: “In bad sense: A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator.”
By contrast, a statesman (OED – “A person … who takes a leading part in the affairs of a state; a skilled, experienced, and respected politician”) is one who demands that citizens grow up and demand of themselves, each one, the discipline of thinking for himself or herself. He or she also expects citizens, and without indulgent cynicism, to stay alert always to the human capacity for self-deception and intellectual laziness. And any vote a citizen makes, he or she wants to be a vote for greater mutual responsibility, responsibility for the common good of all, and that good in accord with the highest human aspirations. A statesman is in the business of finding companions in a great endeavor, not followers.
What does it mean to tell the truth?
It does not mean that we let others do our thinking for us, and then deciding whether we will let ourselves be persuaded to follow them. This was the drama of Pontius Pilate, who certainly had all the means at his disposal to be able to gather the relevant data about Jesus, to understand the meaning of all of that, and then to make a mature judgment about the truth of this man Jesus standing before him. But Pilate, instead, let a mob do his thinking for him, because for him, and many who have followed his example through history, there is something more important than truth-being and truth-telling.
Fr. Anthony de Mello, SJ (1931-1987), in One Minute Wisdom, tells this story:
To a disciple who was always at his prayers the Master said, “When will you stop leaning on God and stand on your own two feet?”
The disciple was astonished. “But you are the one who taught us to look on God as Father!”
“When will you learn that a father isn’t someone you can lean on, but someone who rids you of your tendency to lean?”
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 8:31–32.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 18:37–38.