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Public Eye: Lies My Ambassador Told Me

Why do some successful people need to fabricate their defining moments?

By Margaret Carlson

(TIME, December 22) -- I lie, you lie, we all lie, according to experts. When I was eight years old, I told everyone the new mud flap with the rhinestone on my Schwinn was the prize for winning the biking competition at the Knights of Columbus. I was humiliated when the fact checkers in my neighborhood found out I'd only collected the consolation prize for slow-riding. Chastened, I stuck close to reality until I was trying to account for some dead spots between college and law school, and law school and life. Rather than admit to traveling aimlessly around Europe, I put down that I was studying French, in which I was fluent. How truthful was that? My daughter rolls her eyes when I order bouf bourguignon. These incidents, embarrassing though they be, fall within the acceptable range of victimless embellishment, those exaggerations that burnish a humdrum existence, amuse our listeners or impress a potential employer. A resume is a sales document, and some puffery is tolerated. Family weddings would be duller if Uncle Joe were limited to the small fish he caught.

What's remarkable is how many people, upon closer examination, turn out to have gone much further, fabricating stories to include wars they did not fight, degrees they did not acquire, events that did not happen, even defining moments they did not have. Last Thursday the body of former U.S. Ambassador M. Larry Lawrence was dug up from Arlington National Cemetery after no one could come up with proof that he had actually been in the Merchant Marine. Lawrence had given himself a war record so moving that his voice cracked when he told about being thrown into the icy Arctic Ocean when his ship was torpedoed. It turned out, however, that he was at Wilbur Wright Junior College in Chicago at the time. If the question of wealthy contributors' buying burial plots in Arlington had not arisen, he and his secret could very well have rested in peace.

The living usually get away with lying until they're in the limelight. Federal Judge James Ware often told the moving tale of how his younger brother Virgil was gunned down by two white teenagers right before his eyes, an event that occurred on the day in 1963 that four black girls were killed when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Ala. He called the death a defining experience that made him "hungry for justice." Last month he withdrew his nomination to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Virgil Ware was killed all right, but he was no relation to the judge.

According to Christopher Ogden's biography Life of the Party, Pamela Harriman, for her Senate confirmation to be Ambassador to France, came clean about her entry in Who's Who in America: she was not a college graduate, nor had she done postgraduate work at the Sorbonne. Ronald Reagan so conflated his movies with real life that he often spoke as if he hadn't spent the war years on the back lot in Culver City.

Many people who falsify their experience, says author Sissela Bok, rationalize that "it helps me and it hurts nobody." They do not think about the qualified person who didn't get the job, the book contract, the government appointment. You have to wonder about the state of mind of the already successful people who lie when they know how easy it is to be tripped up. Are they self-loathers who want to bring themselves down, knowing they would get found out sooner or later anyway? Or are they overtaken by grandiosity, the need to be at the center of their own melodrama? Former Cabinet member Robert Reich didn't make things up until he left office. But then he packed his memoirs with numerous vivid scenes, including a Congressman jumping up and down screaming and an attack by cigar-puffing capitalists at a lunch, which Slate magazine showed in an Internet minute did not happen. And what was Senator Robert Torricelli thinking when he recalled with great emotion the anti-Italian bias he felt when he watched the Kefauver organized-crime hearings on a flickering TV screen? He was an infant at the time.

Politicians often succumb to the constant pressure for a stirring personal anecdote. During his abortive run for the presidency in 1987, solidly suburban Senator Joseph Biden appropriated scenes from the coal-mining boyhood of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. To make a point about welfare dependency, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said his sister was once so dependent on handouts she would get "mad when the mailman [was] late with her check." In fact, she worked most of her life.

Lawrence, already rich enough from real estate to buy an ambassadorship fair and square, had a life story inadequate to the glossy life he wanted to lead, marked by too much wheeling and dealing and too many wives (four). He needed a heroic life, not just a successful one. Used to getting what he wanted, he ordered up a war record from his assistant, who found the S.S. Horace Bushnell and voila (pardon my French), instant history. As details trickle out about Lawrence, we all say how could we not know? Those selling ambassadorships, of course, don't want to know. And it's in the nature of lying that the victim remain fooled. Lawrence was a master. He took his lie to his grave.

In TIME This Week:

Cover Date Dec. 22, 1997

Public Eye: Lies My Ambassador Told Me
A Treaty Meets A Sour Congress
Turning Down The Heat
The Notebook
Why Talk Is Not Cheap
Viewpoint: Not Enough Conversation?
Drew Friedman 'Toon

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