Rubio’s recasting of his family’s history and Blumenthal’s Rambo routine served obvious political ends, underscoring that embellishment is a non-partisan affair. Yahoo’s Thompson was making a play for a top job in high-tech. Mortenson was selling books.
Elizabeth Warren benefits from a loophole in personal biography that allows one to make claims about one’s family’s past based upon what is known as “oral tradition.” This basically means that somebody in your family told you something about your background and you passed it on. There is no proof or disproof beyond what somebody told you. Most families have oral traditions of one kind or another — I exploit mine in novels — which is all well and good until you sign an official document or run for office and characterize something opaque as being crystal clear.
Fabrications paradoxically get to a core truth about a person, which is why we can’t let go of them: How the storyteller would like to be perceived; or who he or she believes themselves to be. Thompson’s decades-ago scholastic career manages to become the main issue at a moment when Yahoo is fighting for its very survival.
Warren, for example, attempted to borrow against the culture’s victimhood account by associating herself with the most fashionable minority among U.S. coastal gentry, the talismanic American Indian. This ploy has inflamed two key audiences.
Warren’s base, progressives who believed in her policy insights and media personalities who facilitated her rise, feel betrayed by her misrepresentation and/or her tactical incompetence. Conservative opinion leaders and news organizations have had their suspicions confirmed that Warren is just another grievance-peddling huckster created by a liberal news media that liked her shtick so much that they didn’t check her out.
Most ambitious people have a fabulist chromosome or two. After all, before achieving something impressive, one is likely to have fantasized about achieving it.
Ambition, reinvention and salesmanship comprise the tripod on which the American system rests. Debating credentials and track records is dicey business that doesn’t always lend itself to empirical declarations of truth or falsehood.
Still, things have gotten bad enough that the Supreme Court had to consider the constitutionality of the “Stolen Valor Act,” a law that would prohibit false claims of military heroism. The court ruled last week that while such behavior is reprehensible, it is not unlawful.
Whereas fake marine biologist George Costanza faced his crucible when he was unexpectedly called upon to save a beached whale, present-day jive artists get theirs when a skeptic uses today’s geometrically expanding information resources to start digging. Sadly, it doesn’t necessarily matter if what the sleuth digs up is right or wrong because our culture is wired to receive agenda-driven information that resonates (see fake Obama birth certificate), not information that is necessarily true.
As Costanza, self-described “Lord of the Idiots,” counsels the understudy, Seinfeld: “Jerry, just remember: It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
Eric Dezenhall is the CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm, and the author of books including the historical novel The Devil Himself. He’s also an acclaimed marine biologist and Charlize Theron’s boyfriend.