A Culture of Lying?

Posted: Jun 28, 2001 12:00 AM
Lying seems to be all around us. Patricia Smith, the Boston Globe columnist whose evocative prose nearly won a Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago, confessed to inventing many of the people and situations she was supposedly chronicling. About a year later, Mike Barnicle, of the same paper, was fired for inventing touching situations. Stephen Glass, writer for The New Republic, Rolling Stone and Harper's among others, was fired when his editor at The New Republic discovered that he had invented facts, statistics and quotations (research is so much quicker that way). Bill Clinton, well, enough said. Just within the past week, two new liars have come upon the stage -- Joseph Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, and David Brock, the self-dramatizing former "right wing hit man," to take their bows. Bows? How can I say that when their careers have been terribly damaged and their lives will never be the same? Well, bow may not the right word for Ellis, who did not willingly confess his lies but was instead obliged to acknowledge reality after a Boston Globe (there's that paper again!) expose revealed all. Ellis is an interesting case -- a man who rose to the top of his field, was loved by his students and respected by his peers, and yet decided to improve on great. It seems that Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College, invented a star turn as a high-school football player among other petty lies. But his big deception concerned his service in Vietnam. On various occasions, Ellis told students and colleagues that he had been a platoon leader in Vietnam, had served in Gen. William Westmoreland's headquarters and had been with a unit near the village of My Lai at the time of the massacre. As the Globe reported and Ellis now admits, all of that was a lie. It's interesting that Ellis chose to invent not just service in Vietnam, but disillusionment with the war as well, claiming that he returned home and joined the anti-war movement. James Bowman, in the Times Literary Supplement, observes that this trajectory -- service, disillusionment, protest -- is now the preferred narrative of the American left. In this way, veterans can have it both ways -- honor and victimhood. But by inventing disillusionment, based presumably on the terrible things he saw other American soldiers do, Ellis has committed a grave sin. As Bowman writes, "In joining with the many impostors that the war has bred, Ellis was objectively helping to falsify his country's, as well as his personal, history." But Americans are in a very forgiving mood these days. Any hardship, even the embarrassment born of having to admit one's lies, is met with sympathy. When Ellis gave a lecture last week at the National Archives, the audience laughed merrily at all of his jokes and offered sustained applause. "I think we all make mistakes," offered a fellow historian in attendance. David Brock will also benefit from the forgiving spirit of fellow Americans, as he once again bares his soul (having already bared his chest on the cover of Esquire a couple of years ago). Brock is skilled at making a spectacle of his various accusations and recantations, though it's not clear that any particular wizardry is required -- there is always a willing audience among the liberal media for conservative turncoats. Brock may be taking bows now, but he will be dismayed at how fast he's dropped once his usefulness in skewering his former friends is exhausted. Brock, whose book on Anita Hill and revelations about Bill Clinton's sexual escapades as governor of Arkansas made him famous, has now decided that he regrets both. The liberal press is reacting as if this proves that Hill's accusations against Clarence Thomas were true. But that is not the case, any more than Brock's regrets over the "Troopergate" piece invalidate the case against Clinton. The Los Angeles Times and other papers also had the Arkansas story, and there were solid reasons to doubt Hill's testimony that had nothing to do with her personal life. Still, the lying, if that is what Brock did (and he must have lied either then or now), is very, very disturbing. Truth telling is the first building block of character -- a quality that seems to be getting rarer and rarer in all-forgiving America.