The Lies We Tell Ourselves About Scandals

Do we really care if Herman Cain is lying?

US Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, Rep. Anthony Weiner, and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.
Herman Cain, Anthony Weiner, and Mark Sanford have all been subjects of recent scandals

Photographs by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images.

When it comes to scandals, we like to think that it is the clumsy cover-up, the lying that matters. As Maureen Dowd put it recently, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that it’s not the scandal that kills you; it’s the cover-up.” But is it really? Do we honestly believe that if Anthony Weiner had stood up on national television, right from the beginning, and admitted the full scale of his virtual forays, the American public and the Democratic National Committee, and editorializers of all stripes, would have said “oh fine”?

And of course with yet more women coming forward, Herman Cain is still saying “There’s not an ounce of truth to these accusations.” He has called the airing of previous allegations “a witch hunt.” We don’t know for certain what happened in any of these cases, but it doesn’t matter: The idea of his lying or evading—or what Dowd called “the cascade of malarkey”—has already become a central part of the public narrative. (“Man up and tell the truth,” demanded one influential political blogger. James Carville said the lying means he’s not fit to be president. A fellow conservative called for him to take a lie-detector test.)

The revelation that politicians evade certain uncomfortable truths when possible, that they are professionally trained to strenuously and creatively avoid answering certain questions, that they sometimes stretch that evasion into what the general public would probably categorize as “lying,” cannot possibly be news to us.

In private life, the idea of someone lying to cover up a sexual indiscretion is so banal as to be hardly worth mentioning. Of course they lie! And one could argue that the motives they have for lying, say, protecting their family, are not universally craven or ominous. If we are being entirely honest, wouldn’t many of us say that we can in fact understand and perhaps even sympathize with the impulse to lie?

And yet, the striking part of our ritual of public scandal is that pundits inevitably feign amazement that the politician tries to cover up the scandal. Every single time reporters, analysts, and citizens are astonished, outraged, shocked anew that the politician didn’t just go ahead and admit what he did. Much ink is spilled, trees are wasted, videos posted, and yet, nearly every single politician with even the slimmest, most remote hope that they are not absolutely 100 percent caught, and even most of those who are, continue to lie or evade.

Let’s just do the thought experiment: If Herman Cain had stood there, under television lights, and said: “I have been lonely, I have been misguided by power, and I have made passes at women who were perhaps unhappy that I did. I have perhaps overstepped in social situations in which I was still the boss, and I am sorry.” Would the liberals attacking him attack him less? Would the conservatives defending him defend him more? Would his rivals cease their jubilant attacks? Or would it make, in the end, no difference at all? I would think the last because our judgments are hardwired, our outrage so automatic, our scripts about these things already written.

We are not as forgiving or fluid in our opinions as we pretend; the idea that it’s the lie or the evasion that matters to us is a self congratulatory fiction. We are more comfortable objecting to the dishonesty, perhaps, in the chattering classes, in cities and other liberal pockets, because we like to pretend to a tolerance and sexual open-mindedness that we don’t quite have.

In situations like this it can be useful to look farther back: If we think of a man who survived a scandal like Bill Clinton, the fact that he lied originally, in that famous moment, looked right into the camera and said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” was not the salient feature of either the ultimate public forgiveness of his affair or his survival in the presidency. The truth is that we forgive our politicians or we don’t, whether they lie or they don’t, and the outcome is in no way dependent on that question.

In the past two decades the culture has retreated somewhat from the dangerous feminist reductionism of the phrase “the personal is political.” These days people are more comfortable saying they are outraged that, say, Mark Sanford lied about his Argentine mistress, and said he was hiking in the Appalachian trails, than admitting that they wanted him to lose his job over that affair; easier to say that what they mind is Anthony Weiner lying about tweeting, not his Internet flirtations themselves, since he seemed to have broken no laws. It is the hypocrisy of our public narrative that we continue to pretend that the lie is what we cannot forgive; it is part of our singular admixture of Puritanism and tolerance that we are not able to respond to these scandals honestly ourselves.