It starts, I think, with a fish. It is so pervasive in America that there are at least two names for it: "A Fish Story" or "The One the Got Away."
It has to do with the fish that was caught, was being reeled in, but wriggled off the hook at the last moment.
It was T?H?I?S big!
And, in the telling after telling, year after year, the fish that got away gets bigger and bigger until Moby Dick would have been but a minor travelling companion. [I know Moby Dick was a whale and not a fish, so don't hit the SEND key in a frenzy of "Aha! Gotcha!"]
For most of us, a fish story is a minor - and generally acceptable - lapse in the course of conversation. Sometimes the "fish" is a near-death experience on the highway swerving out of the way of some guy in a Corvette who was driving like a maniac; or, the time you stopped a four-year-old on a tricycle from leaving the safety of the sidewalk to cross a busy street.
Maybe they happened. Maybe they happened to you. But, sometimes it happened to someone else, and you adopted the story as your own.
We've all done it. At least all males have done it.
I don't think this is a new development: "Uncle Ogg! Tell the story about that time you chased the Sabre-Toothed Tiger away from the mouth of the cave and saved all the little children!" Always a big hit during the Meeting-of-the-Clans.
There are some forms of self-promotion that are not acceptable. Lying on a résumé is one of them. Especially if you are running for (or serving in) public office.
Overstating (or inventing) military experience is rarely forgiven - Richard Blumenthal, the Senator from Connecticut, notwithstanding - by the voters. Degrees earned or institutions attended are trip wires. Gross plagiarism is a no-no.
I suspect, sometimes, something slips in and, over the years, it just stays and maybe grows, and after a while the owner of the résumé comes to believe that it is close enough to being true to leave alone.
I am often introduced as having been at the center of the development of the Contract with America in the mid-1990s. I was not. I was running the Middle East for EDS (the company founded by Ross Perot) at the time.
Rather than correcting the person introducing me, I just ignore it and move directly into my often illuminating and always amusing remarks.
Nothing in my personal CV speaks to the Contract with America. I've never even claimed to have read it. But, that's the kind of thing that can find its way into newspaper clipping or ?
See what I mean?
Now we come to the Brian Williams matter.
Reporting from a war zone is in a special category. Real reporters (and producers and videographers and still photographers) get injured or killed with alarming regularity. They are not permitted (under generally accepted rules of engagement) to carry weapons, and so they are often armed with nothing more than a pencil, a pad, and a tape recorder.
It is easy to get caught up in the macho-ism of war. When I was in Iraq in 2003-2004, I travelled out of the Green Zone a good bit.
Even though I had the authority to order up my own transport, I never did. I tucked in with convoys that were already scheduled to go where ever I needed to be.
I was always armed with a 9 mm Beretta for which I had to qualify, and was often handed an M-16 for the trip based upon previous National Guard experience.
But, I was never in doubt - never in doubt - that I was a 57-year-old civilian, and not a 23-year-old combat soldier.
I found an episode of the "Good Morning Mesopotamia" travelogues about a trip to Fallujah. There is a pretty good photo of a group of soldiers standing in the road en route. Here is the caption:
"This is what real soldiers look like when they are being real soldiers, not just playing at it as I do"
I don't know what was in Brian Williams' mind when he told the stories he did. Iraq, Israel, New Orleans, and who knows what others might come out of NBC's internal investigation, but what we already know has probably cost him his career.
I don't feel sorry for him, as this was no different than lying on a résumé. It was totally in his control and he chose to embellish his experiences to the point of breaking the bounds of trust between him and his massive audience.
Fair? Probably. A regular occurrence? Maybe. Do all men exaggerate now and again? Absolutely.
It all starts with a harmless fish story.