Crying Wolf

Republican representatives girding themselves for the labor of impeaching a popular president would have had reason to feel proud if they happened to read the Wall StreetJournal’s opinion page last Friday. There, in an elevated style more common to Roman public address than to newspaperese, was the argument for voting one’s conscience rather than one’s poll numbers: “Greatness and transcendence are why people join political parties, and why they go to war. It is why they risk and sacrifice, and engage in political argument. Ultimately they are moved by principle, and will for its sake throw aside or forgo the material things that scoundrel politicians think they hold above all else.”

The editorial was written by Mark Helprin, the conservatives’ answer to Toni Morrison. Helprin is a leading American novelist (Memoir from Antproof Case, A Soldier of the Great War) whose great theme is the nobility of the warrior and his worldview. He is also a member of the Journal’s editorial board and a cowriter of Bob Dole’s famous Senate resignation speech. Helprin has called for Clinton’s impeachment since the first days of the Lewinsky affair. His arguments have a real resonance (to this reader, anyway), since they go to the heart of the matter, at least as high-school English classes teach us to define it: that a man’s character shapes his actions. Citing the long record of the president’s “boldness and mendacity”–not just the Lewinsky case but the Travel Office and FBI file coverups, etc.–Helprin compares the fibbing Clinton to the model of the self-sacrificing statesman: “As others move in the light, he will move in the darkness, so that as others move in darkness, he may move in the light. … A statesman must have a temperament that is suited for the Medal of Honor, in a soul that is unafraid to die.”

Helprin, in short, is a militant idealist, the Steven Spielberg of political argument. So what are we to make of the discrepancy between Helprin’s ideals and his actions? Helprin has an even worse track record than the president when it comes to stretching the truth so fine it can’t be distinguished from a lie. A 1991 profile in the New York Times Magazine (whose accuracy, it should be noted, Helprin has challenged) depicted him as a man who cheerfully admitted that he couldn’t help but spin tall tales, but had learned from hard experience the downside of doing so: “In my first radio interview, the announcer said, ‘Tell me about your life.’ So I began telling him about how I was a mercenary in Africa in a country where I became close to the President. Then there was a coup and I left with sacks of diamonds. I told the story in such a way that it sounded plausible, and the announcer kept on saying: ‘You’re kidding. I can’t believe this. Is this really true?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, it’s true. Of course, it’s true… .’ “

Among stories the Times writer said Helprin fabricated in his presence, even after making that admission: that his mother was sold into slavery; how when he was a teenager he was attacked by a Pakistani immigrant to Jamaica and received 60 stitches without anesthesia. (The fact of the attack is probably true, but, as the Times writer said, the details surrounding it have changed frequently.) Accounts of Helprin’s penchant for amusing or self-aggrandizing exaggeration are legendary in the literary world. Even his recent political articles are filled with yarns that make one long for a little good old-fashioned fact-checking. Take a story he published this year in Forbes ASAP –the tale of how he, a young and lowly private in the Israeli army just before the Yom Kippur War, understood how unready the army was for a surprise attack and managed to convey his concerns to Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. His advice, of course, was tragically ignored.

It would be naïve to criticize a fiction writer for fabricating fictions; that’s what a novelist does for a living. But what about when the prevaricator becomes a political columnist and tries convince politicians to impeach other politicians for prevaricating? As Helprin would surely ask, should a man like that sit on the editorial board of a major American newspaper?

–Judith Shulevitz