Are politicians inherently evil? Or is it just that, for some, power and greed combine to create a rare amalgam that perhaps shields them from the temptations of truth and justice? Or maybe like Kryptonite, it actually prevents them from drawing on natural abilities – like in this case even being able to recognize the difference between a lie and the truth?

Take for example the people behind the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity. While I have friends in the “they’re just pure evil let’s string ’em up” camp, I personally can’t help believing that underneath – way way underneath – these were just people trying to do what they thought was right. Even when they were covering up what they had done, they felt it was for the right reasons. That’s different than pure evil, isn’t it?

OK…granted, it was done to promote their own interests. And granted, they had to block out all interference – in other words, other opinions and logic. But at least in their hearts they felt justified. To lie. To us. Who elected them.

But to them…it’s just politics.

I once had the corollary “it’s just business” explained to me. I was working for the City of New York on a project that I sincerely hoped would help improve conditions for homeless people coming into the shelter system. A task force of over 30 people with very different points of view worked for months to address issues like the fear and vulnerability felt by homeless people. As a result we came up with what we believed would be a more humane and client-centered intake process. I was really proud to have led the task force and helped get us to consensus. And when we were all done, a senior member of the administration did an end-run around us and got his own plan enacted – one that was basically a variation of the status quo.

I was understandably upset. But the senior administrator took me aside and said “Look Ronnie. You take this way too seriously. It’s just a game. You played well but you lost.” Funny…for me, it was the homeless people who had lost. But clearly that wasn’t the game he was playing.

Politics is like that. For many it’s just a game. And while relaxing in their cushy homes or ranches, they seem to be able to forget the very real men, women, and children in this country and around the world who all too often pay the price of their gamesmanship – and lies.

Scooter Libby’s testimony is giving us a front-row look at just how people make it ok to lie. It was about a bigger goal. It was about patriotism and protecting our nation from foreign terror. It was about others not being smart enough to know what they knew and envisioned for us all. And it was about being plenty pissed off at someone who dared to speak a few truths that might get in the way of their plans to go to war. Hey…truth isn’t part of the game!

So the game evolved and lies – and worse yet leaked truths (ok national secrets) – were spread ever so carefully. And the media helped. And the war happened.

And later, when things started going bad and possible behind-the-scene manipulations started coming to the surface, our President expressed muted outrage and swore that if anyone in his administration was found to be behind the leaks they’d be punished. Of course, he felt safe saying that since he believed the game was clever enough to protect everyone around him from being found. And anyway, covering up was part of the rules.

But now that the real sordid story is coming out, is anyone really expecting the President to follow through and offer up Karl Rove who is so clearly part of the behind-the-scenes action? Or maybe even Cheney? Not a chance. Why would he? It was all just part of the game of politics and necessary to get the nation to where he and his advisors knew it needed to go – no matter what others thought. He was in charge, after all, and that is a big big advantage in the game. So is co-opting and manipulating the media. Heck…that’s as good as a Get Out of Jail card, isn’t it? And anyway…Rove has to be “found” guilty and it sure doesn’t look like the game will actually let things get that far.

But as I was saying, the President felt totally justified in doing all this since he truly believed that he was doing the right thing and could see and understand things that average people – and members of Congress and ex-Presidents and even fathers – couldn’t. He certainly couldn’t let logic and reason get in the way. The game of politics ranks logic and reasoning quite low. Experience also seems to rank pretty low.

And I’m sure the President still feels justified – even if almost everything he did has come to be seen as a huge mistake on the world stage. The game has rules about that too – stay your course (just don’t keep using those words if people start to make fun of them) and simply try to clean up the image of what you did. Going back and actually admitting it wasn’t ok to lie us into war would only leave the President in a state of cognitive dissonance (knowing he did wrong and feeling uncomfortable about it.) And no game would allow for that.

It would be almost too simple to merely sum it up as “the end justifies the means.” While that is certainly the underlying theme here, I would go just a shade of a nuance further and say “the game justifies the means.” And lucky for the President’s state of mental comfort, the game also seems to justify the game. Hmmm…come to think of it, sounds kind of evil after all, doesn’t it?


A Few More Thoughts about the Game: I am basically a liberal with some conservative leanings (like when it comes to fiscal policy), but I vote by person and not by party. The game is not played by one side alone – it is truly a two-party system.

But there are decent politicians on both sides of the aisle. Not that they too don’t dabble in the art of the embellished truth on occasion. Unfortunately in too many cases, the game has become so pervasive that even basically good politicians get caught in its sticky web. I guess the real art for them would be learning to arm themselves with the truth and wield it as a weapon rather than something to shroud in camouflage.