John Leo
Edmund Morris has just proved that the defense of a lie can be worse than the lie itself. Morris, a biographer (Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan), was trying to defend Joseph Ellis, the Mount Holyoke historian who was caught telling whoppers in class about serving in Vietnam and playing a role in the civil rights movement. Ellis, a prize-winning author who was teaching a class on Vietnam, even conjured up some false but heartwarming stories, including a poignant one about a soldier in Vietnam who read Emily Dickinson.

Not to worry, though. In effect, Morris argued that the truth doesn't really matter, as long as you believe strongly in the emotional reality of the story you tell.

Morris' defense of Ellis makes three points: (1) Everybody does it ("Can any of us gaze into the bathroom mirror and whisper, "I never made anything up?"); (2) MTV made him do it -- Ellis felt an "urgent desire ... to convey the divisiveness of the '60s to a generation rendered comatose by MTV"; and (3) Ronald Reagan did it, telling us, falsely, that he had been on the scene at the Nazi concentration camps when they were liberated by the allies in 1945. Morris defended Reagan's fabrication, which is no big surprise because his own biography-memoir of Reagan ("Dutch") was full of fabrications. Among other things, Morris inserted himself into Reagan's life as a boyhood friend, though he never grew up with Reagan or anywhere near him.

Morris talks admiringly of "the genuineness of (Reagan's) emotion," whether telling the "false" story about opening the camps, or the much duller "true" version (that he had spent World War II in Hollywood and merely saw early film of the Allies entering the camps). Morris said: "To him, it was plainly the same parable, conveying the same moral essence told in two different ways."

This is an astonishing argument. If truth depends merely on "moral essence" and not factuality, then there is no difference between fact and fiction, or between people who report what happened in the real world and people who just make it up to express a feeling.

There's a lot of that going around. Last week a man who claimed to have witnessed lynchings in the South in the 1960s admitted he had made up the story. A series of reported racial incidents and rapes, particularly on campuses, have turned out to be hoaxes. Apparently they had been intended to convey a feeling of danger, or merely to gain more attention for a cause. The reality of a strongly felt "story line" now justifies hoaxes.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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