Richard Reeves

A Republic of Lies

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Like most every other newspaper in America, The Desert Sun had an Oprah headline on Page One last Friday: "Influential Talk Show Host Chides Author She Had Touted After Media Frenzy Over His Lies."

That was the second-biggest line. The lead headline of the paper was: "Mayor Admits He Lied On Resume."

It seems that the popular mayor of Rancho Mirage, a member of the town council for the past 17 years, Alan Seman, had been claiming he had degrees from both Northwestern in Illinois and New York University. Good schools. Good liar, too. Seman is 81 years old, so he had been fooling the folks for a long time. He was, it turns out, at Northwestern for a week in an Army training program during World War II, and later had taken some retailing courses at NYU in 1946 and 1947.

Only in America!

I read somewhere years ago that 40 percent of the resumes submitted to American companies had some untruths or exaggerations in them. That didn't bother me much; one of the great things about this country is not the opportunity to succeed, but the opportunity to fail and try again. And if that took some exaggeration, so be it. In other countries -- England, France and Germany, to name three -- second chances are rare because the minute countrymen hear your accent, they know most everything about you and your class, particularly about where you went to school. You could be tracked and trapped for life.

Alas, I think we have gone too far with our can-do attitude. Seman was actually caught because he always claimed to be an electrical engineer, and some other engineers around here realized he didn't know what he was talking about when the subject came up.

"A bad judgment call," said the mayor. I guess so.

That same day, an embarrassed Oprah Winfrey said the writer she had been championing (and making wealthy), James Frey, had "duped" her in writing what he claimed to be a non-fiction memoir called "A Million Little Pieces." Frey said he was just learning from his mistakes. Do I care about that? Not really. Maybe I'm a little jealous about all the money the guy has made, but I couldn't do what he did if I tried. A lack of imagination may be what confined me to non-fiction writing.

I once tried to write a novel about an American president and a Soviet premier holding a quickie summit equidistant from their capitals, Washington and Moscow. The only place that met the criteria was Reykjavik, Iceland. Two weeks later came the announcement that President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev would hold a quickie summit -- in Reykjavik. I realized that if my imagination was no better than the guys in the basement of the White House and the Kremlin, I'd better stick to just the facts, ma'am.

A little older now and I hope a little wiser, I am no longer amused. Part of my evolution was spending five years writing a book about Ronald Reagan, a master of turning facts and issues into emotions, the godfather of confecting the reality of governance into his old business, entertainment. On New Year's Eve in Paris this year, a French friend told me a marvelous story Reagan told her about coming to France as a young man and seeing customs guards inspecting lingerie as they unpacked ladies' suitcases. (BEGIN ITAL) "C'est bon, n'est-ce pas?" (END ITAL) one said, showing young Reagan a lacy black brassiere.

"Great story," said I. "But not true."

"How do you know?" said my friend.

"Because he was never in France in those days," I answered.

And now with Reagan's mini-me, George W. Bush, in the White House we are working on turning casual lying into a (BEGIN ITAL) casus belli. (END ITAL) Why are we in Iraq? Because we were lied to about Iraq. It's just not funny anymore. We are on a slippery slope to a brave new world.

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