Knaves, Fools, Villains, and Hypocrites: How Do They Live With Themselves?
Mistakes were quite possibly made by the administrations in which I served.
— Henry Kissinger (responding to charges that he committed war crimes in his role in the United States’ actions in Vietnam, Cambodia, and South America in the 1970s)
If, in hindsight, we also discover that mistakes may have been made .?.?. I am deeply sorry.
— Cardinal Edward Egan of New York (referring to the bishops who failed to deal with child molesters among the Catholic clergy)
We know mistakes were made.
— Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase (referring to enormous bonuses paid to the company’s executives after the government bailout had kept them from bankruptcy)
Mistakes were made in communicating to the public and customers about the ingredients in our French fries and hash browns.
— McDonald’s (apologizing to vegetarians for failing to inform them that the “natural flavoring” in its potatoes contained beef byproducts)
This week’s question: How can you tell when a presidential scandal is serious?
A. The president’s poll numbers drop.
B. The press goes after him.
C. The opposition calls for his impeachment.
D. His own party members turn on him.
E. Or the White House says, “Mistakes were made.”
— Bill Schneider, CNN’s Inside Politics
As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid. Most of us will never be in a position to make decisions affecting the lives and deaths of millions of people, but whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, on a small scale or a national canvas, most of us find it difficult if not impossible to say “I was wrong; I made a terrible mistake.” The higher the stakes — emotional, financial, moral — the greater the difficulty.
It goes further than that. Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or plan of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Politicians, of course, offer the most visible and, often, most tragic examples of this practice. We began writing the first edition of this book during the presidency of George W. Bush, a man whose mental armor of self-justification could not be pierced by even the most irrefutable evidence. Bush was wrong in his claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; he was wrong in stating that Saddam was linked with al-Qaeda; he was wrong in his prediction that Iraqis would be dancing joyfully in the streets at the arrival of American soldiers; he was wrong in his assurance that the conflict would be over quickly; he was wrong in his gross underestimate of the human and financial costs of the war; and he was most famously wrong in his speech six weeks after the invasion began when he announced (under a banner reading MISSION ACCOMPLISHED) that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”
Commentators from the right and left began calling on Bush to admit he had been mistaken, but Bush merely found new justifications for the war: he was getting rid of a “very bad guy,” fighting terrorists, promoting peace in the Middle East, bringing democracy to Iraq, increasing American security, and finishing “the task [our troops] gave their lives for.” In the midterm election of 2006, which most political observers regarded as a referendum on the war, the Republican Party lost both houses of Congress; a report issued shortly thereafter by sixteen American intelligence agencies announced that the occupation of Iraq had actually increased Islamic radicalism and the risk of terrorism. Yet Bush said to a delegation of conservative columnists, “I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions.”
Of course, George Bush was not the first nor will he be the last politician to justify decisions that were based on incorrect premises or that had disastrous consequences. Lyndon Johnson would not heed the advisers who repeatedly told him the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, and he sacrificed his presidency because of his self-justifying certainty that all of Asia would “go Communist” if America withdrew. When politicians’ backs are against the wall, they may reluctantly acknowledge error but not their responsibility for it. The phrase “Mistakes were made” is such a glaring effort to absolve oneself of culpability that it has become a national joke — what the political journalist Bill Schneider called the “past exonerative” tense. “Oh all right, mistakes were made, but not by me, by someone else, someone who shall remain nameless.” When Henry Kissinger said that the administration in which he’d served may have made mistakes, he was sidestepping the fact that as national security adviser and secretary of state (simultaneously), he essentially was the administration. This self-justification allowed him to accept the Nobel Peace Prize with a straight face and a clear conscience.
We look at the behavior of politicians with amusement or alarm or horror, but what they do is no different in kind, though certainly in consequence, from what most of us have done at one time or another in our private lives. We stay in an unhappy relationship or one that is merely going nowhere because, after all, we invested so much time in making it work. We stay in a deadening job way too long because we look for all the reasons to justify staying and are unable to clearly assess the benefits of leaving. We buy a lemon of a car because it looks gorgeous, spend thousands of dollars to keep the damn thing running, and then spend even more to justify that investment. We self-righteously create a rift with a friend or relative over some real or imagined slight yet see ourselves as the pursuers of peace — if only the other side would apologize and make amends.
Self-justification is not the same thing as lying or making excuses. Obviously, people will lie or invent fanciful stories to duck the fury of a lover, parent, or employer; to keep from being sued or sent to prison; to avoid losing face; to avoid losing a job; to stay in power. But there is a big difference between a guilty man telling the public something he knows is untrue (“I did not have sex with that woman”; “I am not a crook”) and that man persuading himself that he did a good thing. In the former situation, he is lying and knows he is lying to save his own skin. In the latter, he is lying to himself. That is why self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing. “There was nothing else I could have done.” “Actually, it was a brilliant solution to the problem.” “I was doing the best for the nation.” “Those bastards deserved what they got.” “I’m entitled.”
Self-justification minimizes our mistakes and bad decisions; it also explains why everyone can recognize a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite. It allows us to create a distinction between our moral lapses and someone else’s and blur the discrepancy between our actions and our moral convictions. As a character in Aldous Huxley’s novel Point Counter Point says, “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a conscious hypocrite.” It seems unlikely that Newt Gingrich said to himself, “My, what a hypocrite I am. There I was, all riled up about Bill Clinton’s sexual affair, while I was having an extramarital affair of my own right here in town.” Similarly, the prominent evangelist Ted Haggard seemed oblivious to the hypocrisy of publicly fulminating against homosexuality while enjoying his own sexual relationship with a male prostitute.
In the same way, we each draw our own moral lines and justify them.