Not The Best Policy

This Is (Not Quite) Your Life

Why do public figures pad their autobiographies?

“Why would he do something like that?” asked James Ware–the real James Ware, whose 12-year-old brother was shot while riding on the handlebars of his sibling’s bicycle during the Birmingham civil-rights strife of 1963. A federal judge, also named James Ware, had to give up a promotion to the appellate bench the other day, when it turned out that the dramatic story he’d been telling for years about his martyred brother actually happened to someone else. Why on earth would he tell such an obvious whopper?

You may be thinking that asking why public figures lie is like asking why fish swim. But this is not conventional résumé padding. Nor is it a standard cover-your-ass prevarication (we are not involved in: the Bay of Pigs invasion/bombing Cambodia/trading arms for Iranian hostages). Nor is it the foolish bravado of a philandering Gary Hart (“put a tail on me … you’ll be very bored.”). Or the of a Chuck Robb (my wife “is the only woman I’ve loved, slept with, or had coital relations with”) or a Bill Clinton (Gennifer Flowers is “a woman I never slept with”).

N o, we’re talking about the “self-defining” kind of lie, as Judge Ware himself described it: the biographical embellishment for public consumption. This kind of lie is remarkably common, even though it is also often remarkably easy to expose. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, for example, fabricated an entire heroic World War II history for himself as “Tail Gunner Joe.” But McCarthy lied without compunction about nearly everything. The more interesting cases are those involving people who generally tell the truth.

Ware’s explanation is that he was confused. His actual sister, he says, was shot around the same time as the bicycle incident. His “feeling of loss” and possible kinship to the murdered youth led him to merge the two happenings in his mind, he says. Doesn’t seem likely. More plausible is that Ware was entrapped by his own rhetorical success. He’d been enthralling audiences with this tale for years. You tell a good story. The crowd loves it. Word of your marvelously moving speech gets around. You are invited to give more speeches. How could you explain the sudden disappearance of your signature anecdote? “I decided it wasn’t so self-defining after all”?

Many a politician has been enticed into self-enrichment by an appreciative audience, or the anticipation of one. In his standard stump speech of the 1988 presidential campaign, Sen. Joe Biden started off by quoting British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock on the hard life of his uneducated, coal-digging forebears. Pretty soon, though, Kinnock had dropped out of the speech and it was Biden himself whose ancestors “worked in the coal mines … and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours.” Biden grew up in a white-collar suburb, his father was a car salesman, one grandfather was a state senator, and the only Biden on record as having worked near a mine was a mining engineer.

Al Gore galvanized the 1996 Democratic convention with his moving account of holding his sister in his arms while she died of lung cancer–an experience that, he said, caused him to “pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.” But Gore continued to seek the support of the tobacco industry. “Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco,” he told an audience of tobacco farmers in his 1988 bid for the Democratic nomination some years after his sister’s death. “I’ve hoed it. I’ve chopped it … put it in the barn and sold it.”

A s Jonathan Rauch reported in Slate a few months ago, the published memoirs of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich are full of self-aggrandizing fictions. Reich is constantly the lone honest tribune of the people in rooms full of unattractive fat cats and grandees making improbable and unflattering remarks.

Over the years, Jesse Jackson has got a lot of mileage out of remembering the blood of Martin Luther King Jr. that smeared his shirt when he cradled the dying leader in his arms. Testimony from other witnesses indicates that Jackson was initially reluctant to go to the balcony where King was shot, though he might later have been close enough to King’s body to acquire some stains from the pool of blood on the floor.

Some politicians’ discovered memories are less melodramatic. At the recent campaign-finance hearings, Sen. Robert Torricelli waxed eloquent about his memories of the “first hearing of the Senate I ever witnessed”–the 1951 Kefauver hearings on organized crime, which he recalled as a festival of anti-Italian prejudice. But Torricelli was five days old when those hearings ended.

President Clinton, who never did get his draft story straight, said in a radio address last year that a wave of black church burnings brought back “vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own state when I was a child.” When Arkansas historians pointed out there were no black church burnings in the state then or perhaps ever, a Clinton spokesperson said he meant “black community buildings” (though there is no record of that either). But, wherever the fires were, she insisted, Clinton’s recollections were “very vivid and painful.”

N o doubt. As the literature on lying often observes, those who become skilled in the art of deception can easily fool themselves. When Ronald Reagan regaled world leaders with his story of having witnessed the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, he probably saw the event as vividly as he had once seen the film about it that he helped to make. Of course, Reagan was a special case. He made himself up as he went along, borrowing bits and pieces from this movie or that. (“I paid for that microphone” probably came from a Spencer Tracy political comedy; his faith in an invulnerable “Star Wars” nuclear shield perhaps came from the “inertia projector” portrayed in a 1940 movie in which he starred.) While some of his political lies were far from harmless, most of his autobiographical lies were relatively small stuff: “I never wore makeup in films” (check the films); “I believe in tithing to charity” (check the tax records); I got my nickname Dutch because … (choose one of at least three versions).

Like McCarthy, other Republicans like to pilfer their glory from the field of battle. Former Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., who went down in grudging defeat last fall, described his military career thusly in a 1994 House speech: “I went into the Air Force and volunteered for whatever dangerous assignment there was.” In fact, he avoided action in Korea by going to drama school, and his subsequent military career was mostly spent directing and performing in armed-forces theatrical productions (though he did crash one helicopter and three jets while in pilot training).

C hristian Coalition head Pat Robertson described himself in résumés and a published autobiography as a Marine officer assigned to combat duty during the Korean War. In fact–with the help of his father’s connections–he was conveniently detached from a unit headed for the battlefield and spent his tour doing administrative tasks. Wes Cooley, R-Ore., lost his seat last fall after falsely claiming a Korean War combat tour–as a member of the Special Forces, no less.

Curiously, Richard Nixon, that archetype of political deceit, provides no ready example of résumé rewriting–unless you want to count “I am not a crook.” By contrast, pious Jimmy Carter once described himself as a “nuclear physicist.” He later acknowledged that “nuclear engineer” was a more just description of his academic qualifications. A modest fabrication, but not bad for a president whose subsequent campaign slogan was “I’ll never lie to you.”

Why do they do it? The easiest answer is that, by and large, or at least for long periods of time, public figures get away with it. And even when they are discovered, the public is often forgiving (or at least forgetting). One theory has it that public figures see their audience as a distant, easily manipulated mass to which they can lie with impunity. But maybe that’s not the whole story. Perhaps we, the public, don’t mind being lied to if the lies evoke a vision not only of better leaders–persons of uncompromising principle, noble deeds, and generous spirit–but of a nation that responds to such leadership.