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May. 18 2010 - 2:34 pm | 995 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

Do we live in a growing culture of lies?

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announces ...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

“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.


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  1. collapse expand

    If an individual was the victim of this sort of fraud and not Harvard, I doubt the State would be pursuing charges against Adam Wheeler at all…

    A few years ago, I was falsely accused of domestic abuse by a Guatemalan national for the purpose of fraudulently expediting her immigration process via VAWA. I learned she was working as a school teacher at a charter school with fake academic credentials. She falsely claimed to hold two college degrees and got caught lying under oath. In the end she was still awarded my home, car and assets under fraudulent pretenses without due process or equal protection.

    Later, the State acknowledged immigration fraud was probable, but they took no action. Justice is a rarity for individuals in the courts… I would hope that the criminal justice system would protect individuals from fraud as well, but it doesn’t. Individuals can be robbed blind by criminals via fraud and they can get away with it with the help of a corrupt judicial system. That’s why so many people think they can get away with being so dishonest and committing acts of fraud… The system can’t be trusted…

  2. collapse expand

    Misspoke…such a nice word something Mr. Rodgers might suggest one use in polite company.

    It usually means to mispronounce a word or to confuse one word for another. Though it is hard to believe Blumenthal confused serving in Connecticut with Vietnam.

    Is there another word to use besides misspoke? Thesaurus.com offers two synonyms:

    Lie as in to tell an untruth or to BS, be untruthful, bear false witness, beguile, break promise, bull*, con, concoct, deceive, delude, dissemble, dissimulate, distort, dupe*, equivocate, exaggerate, fabricate, fake, falsify, fib, forswear, frame, fudge, go back on, invent, make believe, malign, misguide, misinform, misinstruct, mislead, misrepresent, misspeak, misstate, overdraw, palter, perjure, pervert, phony, plant*, prevaricate, promote, put on*, put up a front, snow*, soft-soap, string along, victimize.

    Then there is to prevaricate, nice fancy pants sounding word meaning to deceive or stretch the truth or to beat around the bush, beg the question, belie, cavil, con, distort, dodge, equivocate, evade, exaggerate, fabricate, falsify, fib, garble, hedge, invent, jive, lie*, misrepresent, misspeak, palter, phony up, put on*, quibble, shift, shuffle, tergiversate.

    Seems he lied and is now doing lots of prevaricatin’.

  3. collapse expand

    A “growing” culture of lies? Wow. Where have you been. Lies has been the bread and butter of our culture for a long, long time. Not sure how to break that to you, but if you’re only now noticing that lying is SOP in government, business, and schools – you’ve either been asleep or unbelievable naive.

  4. collapse expand

    A topic I was just talking about today and feel that yes indeed we have evolved into a social environment where that lying is more and more part of our world everyday. Interesting, in my view, is that as lying has increased, so has the tools to expose liars. With the increased use of video and audio tapes that seem to pop up at the worst of times; liars walk a fine line.
    I think there are many reasons for this increase in lying, but none more telling than the total distortion of facts by our politicians and business leaders that continue to drive home the point that they feel they are above the truth. I could, as I’m sure you could, list an array of promises or statements by those in power that even from the outset were know to be untrue. A big part of this deception is the fact that so much of our decision measures have become politicized. This political structure allows for people to lie willfully, knowing that those that support their power structure will new call them on their lies.
    Sadly, this mentality is becoming more and more apart of all our lives as people have come to the realization that the truth has far less to do with the facts, than the outcome that might be gained if their lies are able to pass as truth. Just take reality shows as exhibit A. These shows have absolutely nothing to do with reality, yet they are pushed in our faces as just that.

  5. collapse expand

    The Wheeler case at Harvard is a replay of a similar imposture at Yale in the late 1970s (except the Yale one, predictably, was far more inventive in backstory). These fake scholars are like rats: we’ve encountered a couple of them, so Yale and Harvard should expect there are dozens—hundreds!—more.

    In the literary sphere we know that Nathaniel West got into Brown by appropriating the high school transcript of someone with the exact same name (Nathan Weinstein; not too uncommon in New York City circa 1920). And Tobias Wolff got into the tony Hill School by completely faking a transcript and personal history.

    All these people were out-and-out fakers, but then aren’t most self-promoters, resume-padders, and high-flying school applicants? So let’s go easy on old Blumenthal. What he did was no worse than President Reagan telling us how he’d liberated Buchenwald and saw the gas chambers there.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for the history of West and Wolff. I’ve read and enjoyed both as authors, but think I’ll stick to their fiction. You are right, of course, that Blumenthal is hardly the first politician to exaggerate for story. But Blumenthal didn’t merely make himself out to be a Vietnam veteran. He did so after working overtime to avoid going there. I’m less forgiving of that level of political hypocrisy.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    We do live in a culture of lies. It’s funny, but just before I logged on and saw your article, I was having a discussion about that very thing. It seems like lying, cheating, and deceiving are part of getting ahead in most people’s minds. They get the same satisfaction from winning a game of chess or golf or whatever if they cheat as if they play fair.

  7. collapse expand

    It seems the louder and with greater confidence you lie — and having fancy/reassuringly top drawer credentials (military, political, educational) — the further you can travel before anyone even stops to consider you are deceiving them.

    There was a revealing quote in the NYT story about Harvard not checking credentials — “We’re not Harvard CSI.” Well, that’s because you’re “one of us” and one of “us” is de facto accepted and welcomed. It isn’t seemly to challenge someone directly once they’re inside those hallowed halls, whatever they may be, so people don’t — and liars flourish.

    It’s disgusting and depressing.

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    About Me

    I teach journalism at Emerson College in Boston. I've coached writers at a dozen newspapers, blogged, written a couple of textbooks and a few columns. I'm also a former editor at the San Jose Mercury News before Knight-Ridder's demise. My passions are politics, travel, music, most things French, and the outdoors.

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    Contributor Since: October 2009