This Is (Not Quite) Your Life

Nov. 20 1997 3:30 AM

This Is (Not Quite) Your Life

Why do public figures pad their autobiographies?

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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).

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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).

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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.

Jodie T. Allen is the senior editor at the Pew Research Center.

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