Do we live in a growing culture of lies?
“This is why I still love newspapers,” Kathy told me across our morning coffee.
‘This” referred to the serendipity of finding two curious stories of aggressive mendacity simply by scanning the front pages of our two morning newspapers.
The first, in The Boston Globe, told of the fanciful life of one Adam B. Wheeler, a former Harvard undergraduate and applicant for Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships who allegedly had made up or plagiarized much of his life as a student and scholar, fooling the admissions folks and others at America’s most prestigious university along the way. His acts appear so brazen that they compete in the annals of strange and compulsive liars with the likes of serial fabricator Stephen Glass, who in the 1990s made up entire articles in the New Republic and later became the subject of a movie.
The second, in today’s The New York Times, documents the transgressions of a more commonplace, but higher-profile, liar — Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. He is not only his state’s top law enforcement official but also the Democratic candidate seeking to succeed U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd. Blumenthal, it seems, has regularly either said outright or suggested that he served in Vietnam, though in fact, according to The Times, he sought multiple deferments to avoid going there before enlisting stateside in the Marine Reserves. Notes The Times.
Many politicians have faced questions over their decisions during the Vietnam War, and Mr. Blumenthal … is not alone in staying out of the war.
But what is striking about Mr. Blumenthal’s record is the contrast between the many steps he took that allowed him to avoid Vietnam, and the misleading way he often speaks about that period of his life now, especially when he is speaking at veterans’ ceremonies or other patriotic events.
Sometimes his remarks have been plainly untrue … At other times, he has used more ambiguous language, but the impression left on audiences can be similar.
In certain respects, the stories of Adam B. Wheeler and Richard Blumenthal couldn’t be more different. Living outside the public spotlight, Wheeler aggressively fabricated large swaths of his record whole cloth, The Globe reports. He’s been indicted on charges of larceny and identity fraud. Court documents, the paper notes, draw a picture of a young man who gained admission to Harvard by doctoring transcripts, falsifying SAT scores and submitting false letters of recommendation from professors at a college, MIT, that he had never attended.
Having duped the Harvard admissions process, Wheeler did not rest, The Globe reports. Instead he began the process of applying for the prestigious Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. His story began to unravel, The Globe reports, when an English professor discovered he had plagiarized the work of a colleague.
In an interview with The Globe, one Harvard professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “I was just knocked silly by this. … There’s something that’s pathological there. And it’s something that seems to me that needs care and clinical treatment, rather than incarceration.’’
Blumenthal’s actions, in contrast, seem nuanced, calculated and politically motivated, despite his statement to The Times that he had “misspoken,” that oft-heard, all-purpose political disclaimer for lying or saying something stupid.
“My intention has always been to be completely clear and accurate and straight-forward, out of respect to the veterans who served in Vietnam,” he told the paper.
But The Times paints a picture of carefully crafted deception taken to the absolute limits of potential deniability. The paper notes:
Mr. Blumenthal, 64, is known as a brilliant lawyer who likes to argue cases in court and uses language with power and precision. He is also savvy about the news media and attentive to how he is portrayed in the press.
But the way he speaks about his military service has led to confusion and frequent mischaracterizations of his biography in his home state newspapers. In at least eight newspaper articles published in Connecticut from 2003 to 2009, he is described as having served in Vietnam.
If Wheeler’s motivation remains something of a mystery — he played recklessly and defiantly — Blumenthal appears to have tinkered with his past selectively and not even consistently (at times he made clear he did not serve in Vietnam) in what appears an effort to polish his image.
To me, however, his lies are still blatant. Even if Blumenthal’s motivations differed markedly from Wheeler’s, his actions are a clear measure of character. And what’s deeply troubling in his case is how such a prominent public figure would have the audacity to fudge his biography for years and believe he could get away with it.
Perhaps it says something about the moral fiber of America in the 21st century. Blumenthal’s actions seem something of an extension of an era in which facts are considered fungible, where the “narrative arc” — in politics, memoir and some documentaries — matters more to many than what actually happened.
Drawing on the words of former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, President Obama has said more than once that his opponents are entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.
Yet increasingly, people make up their own facts as well. When politicians “misspeak,” the story about their transgression often blows over in a day or two as some other scoop beckons the ever distractible public. Nor do the media themselves help. In today’s fractured media world, on the rough-and-ready blogosphere and even in the increasingly ideological framework of much cable news, propaganda too often passes for appropriately vetted, factual information.
Because of the pervasiveness and doggedness of his lies, Adam B. Wheeler still does seem an extreme case, even by modern standards. I have to wonder, however, to what extent Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is an outlier. One gauge of that will be whether Blumenthal still manages to get elected. He well might. Certainly the pronouncement of Sen. John McCain to Newsweek that “I never considered myself a maverick,” faded from sight and sound almost as quickly as it surfaced, even though it was made by a man who as a presidential candidate touted himself in one ad as “the original maverick.”
Perhaps he simply misspoke.