On Obvious Lies and Sen. McCain

I have long been fascinated by the self-evident public lie. Sometimes the product of desperation, sometimes arrogance, sometimes contempt, each example poses a set of equally unattractive interpretations. Does the liar really believe the obvious lie is true, in which case he or she is deranged? Does the liar think that enough people will believe something so demonstrably false, meaning that he or she holds a deplorable lack of respect for the intelligence of the public? Is the liar so fearful and cowardly that he or she cannot summon the integrity to admit what is obvious, even though doing otherwise looks ridiculous? Or, as is surprisingly often the case, does the liar have so little regard for the truth and such a deficit of shame for lying that he or she doesn’t care that the lie is obvious?

When elected officials and others holding high office resort to the obvious lie in a matter of any importance, it should disqualify them from continuing in office. An obvious lie obliterates public trust. For example, when Janet Napolitano had the gall to pronounce department’s anti-terror airplane security measures a success because, be sheer luck, passengers foiled the so-called “Underwear Bomber,” she forfeited any future trust in her honesty of competence. (She is still Secretary of Homeland Security, however.)

The excuse sometimes offered by obvious liars after the fact is an ethics “Catch 22.” They argue that an obvious lie is a harmless lie, because nobody could possibly believe it. (Over on “The Ethics Scoreboard,” a spectacular version of this argument launched the continuing feature of “The David Manning Liar of the Month,” after Sony tried to justify its use of a fictional movie critic, “David Manning,” to attach glowing—but fake— blurbs to lousy films, like the Rob Schneider comedy “The Animal.” When its deception came to light, Sony protested its practice was harmless because nobody believed critical praise in movie ads anyway.) The defense conveniently ignores the question of why anyone would offer a lie they didn’t expect anyone to believe. It is really a consequentialist scam: if I try an outrageous lie and it works, great; if it doesn’t, then it wasn’t a lie.

What do we make, then, of Sen. John McCain’s stunning claim in a recent Newsweek interview that “I never considered myself a maverick” ? This could stand as the epitome of a transparent lie. McCain’s entire presidential campaign, to a nauseating degree, was built on the premise that he is a maverick. His ads—approved by him, per commend of the F.E.C., said he was a maverick. He said so himself, in his stump speech, repeated all over the country. If he never considered himself a maverick, why did he keep saying he was one? After proudly calling himself a maverick for years, how could he possibly expect anyone to believe that he never considered himself one?

On Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked McCain to explain. The senator had one shot, and it was to say this: “You know, sometimes when you’re in a campaign mode [McCain is in a tough primary fight in Arizona against challenger J.D. Hayworth] and you’re giving interviews left and right, things come out wrong. Obviously I have referred to myself as a maverick. What I meant to say was that being a maverick by itself isn’t anything to be proud of. I’m a maverick in the sense that I fight for what I believe in, even if it means fighting alone. I meant to say that I never considered myself just a maverick.”

Instead, Sen. McCain ducked the question, not once, but twice. Thus all we can conclude is that McCain, at a time when he knows that his long record of bucking the conservative Republican agenda is putting him at risk of losing his job, is desperately trying to convince voters that an unavoidable fact doesn’t exist. In this he is emulating the greatest of all obvious lies, Jimmy Durante’s classic response in the Rodgers and Hart musical “Jumbo.” As he tries to sneak a huge elephant out of the circus, Durante was stopped by a sheriff who barked, “Where do you think you are going with that elephant?” Durante’s reply: “Elephant? What elephant?”

Durante’s obvious lie is a joke, but McCain’s is not. John McCain’s career has been built on his character,honesty, courage and integrity, and in denying his own elephant, the Senator denies all three. When a public figure whose greatest assets are supposed to be these begins trading in transparent lies, it is time for him to retire, no matter who the alternative is. The culture of deceit and manipulation in politics has eroded his values and ethical instincts.

We are always better off with a maverick than a transparent liar.

8 thoughts on “On Obvious Lies and Sen. McCain

  1. I think there is a fifth possible reason for this behavior to go with the four you mention. Each of the five is probably true on one occasion or another.

    I have always suspected that some “obvious liars” take that route because they honestly don’t know what a lie is, or what the truth is. To them, political speech isn’t supposed to convey information; it is supposed to further an end that may have little to do with the content of what is being said.

    This notion, long lurking in what I pretend is my mind, crystallized a few months ago when I read of a North Korean journalist saying: “We don’t find history; we write it.” To the obvious liar, the difference between a truth and a lie is no more (and possibly less) significant than the difference between the reporter’s decision to use Courier or Times New Roman. It’s a minor feature of the statement, and they’ve heard that some people might care about it, but they’re interested only in “the big picture” and can’t be bothered to worry about either facts or fonts.

    • That’s a good one, and I think one that applies a lot…too much. Hell, any is too much.

      I really loved John Stewart’s comment on McCain’s statement, which he said was like the container of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!”

      “How can the container not believe it’s not butter,” he asked, “when it says right on the container THAT IT’S NOT BUTTER???”

  2. I don’t see John McCain as a Liar, I see him as a man who speaks his mind. Sometimes that can lead you into trouble when you have people over analyzing every thing you say. I like what he stands for and I will vote for him again.

    • Well, sure—you can see it anyway you like, as long as you do recognize that this is just obstinacy on your part and not reasoned analysis. It is not n answer to say “McCain just speaks his mind” when doing so causes him to not only deny what he himself has been asserting is true, but that he ever asserted it. Your comment would apply just as well if he suddenly announced, “I am the Queen of Rumania!” Ok, he’s “speaking his mind,” AND he’s insane.

      When someone says something untrue, that he knows is untrue, that he is told is untrue, and refuses to acknowledge its falseness (McCain HAS referred to himself as a maverick, so he must have once thought of himself as one, OR he was lying when he said so repeatedly,) then one is, by definition, a willful liar at least in this instance. This makes his integrity less reliable, because “what he stands for” is legitimately in question. Or, one can just ignore what he says and do what you want whether it is consistent or makes sense or not. Just don’t be proud of it, because it’s nothing to be proud of.

  3. This oddly reminds me of the Carrol’s White Queen.

    Maverick tomorrow, maverick yesterday, but never a maverick today.

  4. What an ignorant ending. It is not time for him to retire, ESPECIALLY because of the alternate. JD Hayworth is full of corruption, full of immoral and unethical behaviors. Anyone Republican who would gamble on him losing his seat to a Democrat again is crazy! The one thing I know for sure is we need checks and balances in Washington or our economy could be ruined forever!

    • You’re talking political issues. I’m talking about ethics. If you can’t trust John McCain for straight talk, what good is he? I’m glad I don’t have to choose between Hayworth and McCain, but when you keep electing the lesser of two “evils,” you validate bad conduct and bad character in our elected officials.

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