It’s Not Really the Cover-up

Our current scandals are predicated on lies. No one believed the official White House version that the IRS miscreants were rogue agents from a Cincinnati field office.

No one believes much of the official version of the Benghazi killings — least of all that the violence was prompted by a single video maker in the fashion that Susan Rice assured the nation.

The attorney general of the United States lied about the AP/James Rosen monitoring while under oath before Congress.

James Clapper lied about the NSA scandal. All four travesties are still being sorted out. For now the one commonality is that our officials lied about all of them.

Harry Reid knew nothing about Mitt Romney’s tax returns. But lied about them all the same. It is hard to know whether Joe Biden lies, or simply believes his fantasies. He assured us that President Roosevelt addressed the nation on television after the panic of 1929. Remember in 1987 when he lifted much of his campaign stump speech from British Laborite Neil Kinnock?

Our most treasured icons in the media and literature lie. They tell untruth sometimes in the most serious fashion of claiming the work of others as if it were their own — or simply inventing things out of thin air. Fareed Zakaria plagiarized. So did Maureen Dowd.

Nearly all of Stephen Ambrose’s work, book by book, was characterized by both plagiarism and false statements about archives and interviews. Michael Bellesiles was given the Bancroft Award for a mytho-history. If historians could not initially spot the lie, who else could? Or did they try all that much, given the enticing but mythic thesis that today’s gun nuts, not our hallowed forefathers, dreamed up a nation in arms?

Is There Anyone Left Who Doesn’t Lie?

Why do they lie? Because they can. Or to paraphrase Dirty Harry, they like it. We are a celebrity-and wealth-obsessed society, in which ends, not means, count. Barack Obama got to be president — who now cares how?

That Joe Biden habitually makes things up is the stuff of “that’s just old’ Joe,” not a career-ending felony. Hillary Clinton lied a lot when she was first lady about documents under subpoena. She lied as a candidate about being under fire in the Balkans. And she lied as secretary of State about the train of events in Benghazi.

And? Those lies were either forgiven or forgotten, or contributed to the “complex” persona that now is among the most widely admired in the U.S.

Lying, of course, is a symptom of hubris. The once leftist and long-haired radical Stephen Ambrose finally assumed that he was Lord or Master Stephen Ambrose, voice of an entire generation, accustomed to instant TV access, huge advances, and minute-by-minute adulation on the street.

Lying won him all that, and he knew it. I remember him over three decades ago flat out lying about most of the details he offered on World War II while on The World At War. So to be sure, I watched the young Ambrose lie again last night on that documentary. But no matter: he seemed cool with long hair, a sweater, and an attitude, far more hip than the old plodding Brit historians who were meticulous in their honest recollections.

When caught, a dying Ambrose was unapologetic. He must have reckoned, why say “I’m sorry” to a society that did not care how he had become famous, only that he was? Had Martin Luther King, Jr. told the truth that he stole sizable work from other scholars to write his doctoral thesis, he would never have become Dr. King. Omitting that detail paid dividends.

We claim that no one fools history, especially in the age of the Internet. I grant few do, at least in the long run. Yet in the 21st century, the rub is not getting caught for plagiarism, but doing a cost-benefit-analysis of the downside of now and again agilely lying and plagiarizing, versus the upside of short-cutting to fame and riches.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a plagiarist. But after a brief sojourn in the Washington doghouse, she is back again on television. Bringing up her untruth would be bad manners.

In Ambrose’s case, it seemed a simple decision. It was “take another multimillion-dollar advance and spend 3,000 hours out of the limelight” — or “take the money and simply cut and paste the work of others over a few hundred hours.” Did he fear that his widely read publishers and editors worried about sales, or the integrity of their branded text?

Bernie Madoff was a liar par excellence, but for most of his life his investors did not question his miraculous luck, given their miraculous returns that came in the mail each month.

It was not entirely money that drove columnists or reporters like Mike Barnicle, Patricia Smith, or Jayson Blair to lie, but the desire for attention, prestige, and being something more than an honest reporter in our empty metrosexual elite urban culture.