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McCain's Big Chill Moment

10/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ever wonder how John McCain can run exactly the type of campaign he decried for years?

Jeff Goldblum's character in The Big Chill knew how:

Michael: "I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex."

Sam: "Nothing's more important than sex."

Michael: "Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?"

[from The Big Chill]

It's how very smart public officials can do such stupid things, like patronize prostitutes while in office. It's how government and corporate leaders can constantly act in ways that they know are illegal or unethical. It's how John McCain can justify, to himself, the type of campaign he is running.

Rationalization, rationalization, rationalization.

No doubt, there are psychological factors in some cases. And the usual suspects -- greed, arrogance, ambition, hubris -- always make an appearance.

But when highly successful people act in ways contrary to what they know is right, they have always bought into a rationalization that lets them sleep at night (at least until the whole thing blows up in their face).

Consider John McCain's response to the questions he got on The View about his "lipstick on a pig" ad. He claimed that 1) the ads were not lies; 2) that Barack Obama "chooses his words carefully" so he must have been aiming them at Sarah Palin; and 3) you should see what he (Obama) is saying about me (McCain).

Thus John McCain talked himself (and/or was talked) into approving a deliberately misleading ad that eight years ago he probably would have found repugnant. You can imagine a conversation something like this:

McCain Campaign Operative (Steve Schmidt?): "The ad does not technically make any false statements of fact."

McCain: "That's not what Obama meant when he used the 'lipstick' saying. He wasn't talking about Palin."

MCO: "How do you know what was in his head? And he's a lawyer. He chooses his words carefully. He could have chosen a different analogy. You think it was an accident that he picked this one?"

McCain: "Well, maybe you've got a point there. You're sure the ad doesn't say anything untrue?"

MCO: "Parse the words - no false statements. And anyway, look what he's saying about you - it's far worse. They're saying you're a Bush clone, over and over again. Nobody's his own man more than you."

McCain: "Damn right. I've hated Bush ever since 2000 in South Carolina. They know that. That's a real lie. Okay, let's go with the 'Lipstick' ad. No doubt he was trying to call Sarah a pig. What a sexist."

These rationalizations are usually internal, silent conversations between the individual and his/her conscience. Perhaps John Edwards justified his recent affair by convincing himself that Bill Clinton had plenty of affairs which didn't keep him from being elected president; so why shouldn't he, John, be allowed to have just one? How many CEOs have rationalized their outsized pay packages and golden parachutes by pointing out to themselves that their millions are far less than the hedge fund billions taken home by less talented execs -- so what if millions of Americans are losing their homes or their jobs?

In one sense, does it make a difference why government and corporate leaders abuse their positions? At the end of the day, if they act improperly maybe it doesn't really matter why.

But it may help to explain seemingly inexplicable behavior, and maybe to curtail it in the future. When we see Rudy Giuliani announce the end of his marriage on television, or Jim McGreevey resign because he's leading a double life, we scratch our head and wonder how they convinced themselves they could get away with such behavior.

The answer is that at some point along the line, they all rationalized their behavior away. Either by justifying it -- "not so bad, or less bad than what so-and-so did"; or by convincing themselves they won't be caught -- "if it wasn't for the blue dress, he'd have been fine;" or by concocting a reason why, even if caught they will be able to escape serious consequences -- a new crisis du jour will distract the media's attention.

Some do escape. Some don't. John McCain, by steamrolling the media's questioning of his misleading ads, is clearly hoping the public will not be able to see through the fog and clutter, and that the ad's allegations will vaguely, insidiously stick with many voters.

A rationalization is simply a way to fool yourself. As Jeff Goldblum's Big Chill character said, we all do it every day.

But it's one thing when we rationalize the extra scoop of ice cream by eating it standing up. It's another thing when government officials use rationalizations to violate the public trust and lie to voters. They need to recognize that even if they're fooling themselves, they're not fooling anybody else. And the American people are growing disgusted by it.