A recent poll suggests that voters may have been willing to put Anthony Weiner's 2011 sexting scandal in the past. Then news broke that Weiner was at it again -- with the sexting, the barely-legal women and the threat that we would soon see more photos of his namesake body part circulating on the web. That was when the public began to cry out for Weiner to withdraw.
But what exactly is it that has suddenly put us off Weiner?
It can't just be that we're offended by Weiner's sexual proclivities and personal compulsions. After all, we were willing to give Weiner a pass for the 2011 scandal. And we can't now suddenly be claiming to have an issue with his lying. The 2011 scandal had lying too. Anyway, by now we've pretty much accepted that politicians lie. Hell, we accept that everyone lies. And that includes you and me. So committed are we to the socially acceptable, even socially mandated, practice of lying and being lied to that it seems we've conditioned ourselves to ignore the signs of lying. It's your basic "suspension of disbelief," except that instead of pretending to ourselves that Hogwarts could actually be a school or that Bruce Willis could actually kill all those bad guys, we pretend to ourselves that when you tell me that I don't look fat in these jeans, I believe you.
With that in mind, I'm guessing that the reason why we're finding ourselves turned off by Weiner is that he has somehow failed to maintain our suspension of disbelief.
It wasn't always this way. Following the 2011 Weiner scandal, Weiner worked his "I'm a changed man" narrative to the point where he was able to convince at least 26 percent of Democrats in New York City to suspend their disbelief. But when Weiner's narrative revealed the cracks from which Sydney Leathers and the fictitious Carlos Danger emerged in July 2013, that suspension of disbelief was shattered. Still, Weiner had an opportunity to re-engage us in his "rearview mirror" narrative: on July 23, he held a press conference. It was Weiner's moment to confess, to apologize and to plead for forgiveness from the supporters who felt betrayed by him.
But apparently, Weiner chose a different path. Although he read from a prepared statement, he managed to sound guarded, defensive, and at times, borderline indignant. Instead of coming off as transparent, Weiner came off sounding like a transparent liar. Somehow Weiner turned his opportunity to re-engage our suspension of disbelief into an introductory-level course on How To Sound Pretty Much Exactly Like A Total Liar. I give you now the highlights:
1. Avoid Contractions.
To sound like a liar, one must assiduously avoid contractions.
Weiner did a bang-up job. Here is an example:
"[S]ome things that have been posted today are true and some are not..."
Sure, Weiner could have simply said that while some things are true, "some aren't." But that would have been a huge waste of a "not," which is the king of all denials. And a liar wouldn't sound like a liar if his language wasn't peppered with denials. In addition, there's just something about an absence of contractions that feels somehow "off." This is especially true when an absence of contractions is part of a bigger picture of unnatural, formal and stilted language, which brings us to...
2. Speak In An Unnatural, Formal and Stilted Manner.
To sound like a liar, one must speak in an unnatural manner, one which sounds excessively formalistic and stilted and unnatural and wordy.
Weiner mastered this quite handily. To wit:
"As I have said in the past, these things that I did were wrong and hurtful to my wife and caused us to go through challenges in our marriage that extended past my resignation from Congress."
There is nothing sophisticated about the vocabulary used in this sentence, nor is this sentence even close to eloquent. Yet somehow, as if by magic, it drips of awkward formality. Literally tumescent with words, this sentence is stilted and unnatural in a way that makes me, personally, feel ashamed, yet also excited. It is as if Weiner has somehow arranged ordinary, third-grade-level words in a manner that elevates him well above his audience. And I can't help but feel like he is trying to shame me into believing him. I'm just not at all sure what it is he wants me to believe.
3. Distance Yourself from the Subject Matter.
If one is to sound as a liar would sound, efforts are needed to create distance between one and the subject matter at hand.
Weiner seemed to know what he was doing here as well. For example:
"Some of these things happened before my resignation, some happened after."
Here Weiner was supposedly owning up to his bad acts. Yet Weiner's choice of words suggests that we should not focus on what Weiner actually did -- that he, Weiner, betrayed his wife by sexting with women half his age using a cheesy pseudonym and misled his political supporters. Rather, some "things" just "happened." Some of them happened before Weiner's 2011 resignation, and some after. That it isn't at all clear which things happened before, and which after, only enhances the apparent disconnect between the man who is supposedly coming clean and the acts for which he is coming clean.
4. Deflect and Distract.
A liar must learn how to deflect and distract his audience from their mission of seeking information. One way is to go on the offensive by expressing indignation ("Who are you to question me?" "How dare you call me a liar?"); however, this is not recommended for politicians. A slightly more sophisticated variation is to play victim ("Why do I always end up getting stuck in these dramas?"), but this is also not recommended for politicians. For politicians, the recommended technique for deflecting and distracting is called "changing the subject."
Weiner gave us multiple distractions when he said:
"I've got an amazing wife, and a child upstairs. I have a comfortable life. This is not about me, this is about the fact that the middle class has people struggling to make it in this city."
Clearly, Weiner was going for a shift in focus. And he helped us to get there by quickly showering us with at least five topics to think about other than the fact that he was sexting with a woman whose last name is Leathers. When he interjected, "it's not about me," it was almost more than we could bear, but it was, of course, very much in keeping with the spirit of deflection.
5. Absolutely Make Total Use of Superlatives.
Lying is like any creative field: ordinary doesn't cut it. You can't just say, "I didn't do it." You have to say, "I so absolutely did not do it, and if I did, you know I would kill myself, one hundred percent."
Weiner handled himself like a total lying liar here. He could have told us that what he did was wrong, that he's sorry, that he'd like to put this all behind him and would ask that we continue to support him. But then he wouldn't have sounded like a liar.
Instead he went with, "There was no question that what I did was wrong."
And, "This is entirely behind me."
It's as if Weiner somehow instinctively knew that if he had kept it simple, he might have sounded sincere. So, like a total pro, he tacked on those embellishments and sounded just like a liar.
6. Words Are Your Friend. So Is Crossing Your Fingers Behind Your Back.
To truly fly to the great heights of lying, you must commit to choosing your words carefully, deliberately and with the goal of creating either impenetrable vagueness or extreme specificity, as appropriate. Weiner showed us his impressive skills with this opening sentence:
"I said that other texts and photos were likely to come out, and today they have."
Two clauses, one perfect message: With the first clause, Weiner tells us he's making good on an earlier promise to trot out new texts and photos while also making us feel stupid if we didn't remember that he said that during the 2011 scandal, which we forgave him for, by the way, in case we forgot. With the second clause, Weiner slathers on a layer of vagueness so that we're left scratching our heads, saying, "So wait, all these new texts and photos have actually been floating around since 2011? But what was that about sexts from 2012? I am so confused, I must be dumb."
Of course, if you're not good with words, you can always say "whatever" and cross your fingers behind your back.
7. When in Doubt, Just Keeps Talking, and Talking.
If you want to lie with the big boys, you're going to have to be prepared to talk. Liars talk and talk and talk, whether it's embellishing a story they don't think is quite believable enough... yet, or whether it's simply nervous chatter.
Good luck, and good lying.