The guilty pleasure of watching the TV series "The Good Wife" -- besides the scenes with Kalinda (the private investigator played by Archie Panjabi) -- rests in the ethical ambiguities at the intersection of law and politics, a place where truth and morality are relative, sometimes useful but at other times sacrificed for profit, power or legal tactics.
Yet, the show recently introduced a new character, a lawyer-politician played by Matthew Perry who tells blatant lies. He coolly makes up conversations and circumstances that are total fabrications but also can't be easily disproved. Even from the moral fog of her personal and professional life, The Good Wife character played by Julianna Margulies is shocked.
In Campaign 2012, Mitt Romney is the Matthew Perry character, a politician who cuts through the hazy world of political half-truths with the clarity of strategic lying. Indeed, he lies with a confidence that may be a special right of the well-connected rich who are beyond accountability.
Take for example, Romney's response to President Barack Obama's comment last week at a community college in Elyria, Ohio. Obama noted that he wasn't from a rich family and needed help from others to get the education that allowed him to make his way in the world.
At Lorain County Community College, Obama said: "Somebody gave me an education. I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Michelle [Obama] wasn't. But somebody gave us a chance. Just like these folks up here are looking for a chance."
Obama made no mention of Mitt Romney or his father, George Romney, who was a successful auto executive before going into politics. But some TV commentators suggested that the "silver spoon" remark created a contrast between Obama and the well-to-do Mitt Romney, who then responded to Obama's comment on Fox News show, "Fox & Friends."
"I'm not going to apologize for my dad's success," Romney said, looking coolly into the camera. "But I know the president likes to attack fellow Americans. He's always looking for a scapegoat, particularly those that have been successful like my dad."
Romney added, "This is not a time for us to be attacking people, we should be attacking problems. And if I am president, I will stop the attack on fellow Americans. I'll stop the attack on people and start attacking the problems that have been looming over this country."
In those few sentences, Romney displayed a depth of dishonesty that I have rarely seen in nearly four decades covering politicians at the local, state and national levels. Not only did Romney invent Obama's attack on George Romney, but extrapolated that non-existent assault into a pattern of behavior and suggested that Obama was some monstrous alien who "likes to attack fellow Americans."
Then, Romney asserted that the very idea of attacking people was wrong and destructive -- though he and his backers have just spent millions and millions of dollars in TV ads to attack and destroy his Republican rivals. Plus, Romney's false claim that Obama was disparaging George Romney and attacking successful people was itself an attack on Obama and Obama's character.
Speaking with a smile and detached demeanor, Mitt Romney had just revealed why Americans should be alarmed at the prospect of electing such a cold-blooded liar to the Presidency. That skill could be put to any purpose, from demonizing individuals to taking the nation to war.
"Everybody Does It"
Yes, I know the pushback, the cynical view that all politicians lie. Some people even suggest that it's a good idea to have someone who's at least good at it. But it's not true that all politicians lie, at least not in this thorough and calculating a manner.
There also are qualitative differences in political lying. There are garden-variety lies -- such as half-empty promises to woo a crowd or half-baked attempts to hide some personal indiscretion -- and then there are deliberate and premeditated lies that can destroy a rival's reputation or get lots of people killed. Voters would be wise to differentiate between gradations of lying.
I first came to appreciate that distinction more than three decades ago while working in the Washington bureau of the Associated Press. President Jimmy Carter, for all his faults as a political leader, had done a reasonably good job of living up to his promise never to lie to the American people, a pledge that he made in the wake of Richard Nixon's historic lying regarding the Vietnam War and Watergate.