I read an article the other day about a famous liar, Jonah Lehrer. Less than a year ago, Lehrer was a writer for the New Yorker, one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism. He was caught fabricating quotations and plagiarizing from other writers, and resigned in disgrace. Then in February, he got $20,000 from the Knight Foundation to give a talk about his lies and how he planned to redeem himself. The Knight Foundation claims it promotes quality journalism under the slogan “informed and engaged communities”. Now he has just scored a deal with Simon and Schuster for a book tentatively titled “A Book About Love”. Looks like lying can be a good career move.
In fact, liars are doing quite well these days. While he was Governor of South Carolina in 2009, Mark Sanford cheated on his wife and lied about it to his constituents. He lied about misusing state travel funds to finance his long distance affair. He admitted that he had “crossed the lines” with other women during his marriage. This May he was elected to Congress, with the endorsements of Speaker John Boehner and other conservative Republicans. His website headlines “Leadership”.
Another big public liar is Democrat Anthony Weiner, a married man who sent sexually explicit messages and photos to many women while he was in Congress, and then fervently denied it. He resigned from Congress just two years ago, but now he’s back in the political limelight. Weiner is running for mayor of New York. His website promotes his “ideas”. If you want to make a contribution to his campaign, you must check a box: “I confirm that the following statements are true and accurate.” Weiner does not have to confirm that his statements are true or accurate. A poll in late May showed Weiner running second in a crowded field, with 19% support.
Maybe it is wrong to put journalistic liars and political liars into the same box. Journalists are supposed to seek the truth, and when they are caught lying, they lose their jobs, at least temporarily. Politicians lie all the time. Michele Bachmann is a good example of how a political career can be created by making stuff up.
She has announced that she won’t run for reelection, but that’s because of a different set of lies: she is being investigated for making illegal payments to an Iowa Republican for his support in her presidential campaign and for money laundering.
Celebrity liars appear to have great difficulty accepting that they might have to suffer some consequences. Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest cheaters in sports history, who forced his teammates to lie and cheat with him for years, but now he wants absolution so he can keep competing. Why does he think he can get away with that?
Maybe because others have already successfully turned celebrity disgrace back into profit. Jim Bakker once ruled an empire of TV evangelism with his wife, Tammy Faye. Then it was discovered that he had been pocketing profits, keeping two sets of books, cheating those who sent him money. And he cheated on Tammy Faye with Jessica Hahn. He was found guilty in federal court on 24 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy. He admitted that he hadn’t even read the Bible. After 5 years in prison, Bakker is now back preaching on TV.
In all of these cases, the lies are hardly the greatest offense. Abuse of public office, cheating on one’s wife, stealing people’s words and ideas and money are indicative of more serious moral failings. But these big liars have been successful in repackaging their immorality as simple errors. Anthony Weiner said recently about his infidelity, betrayal of public trust, and lying, that “it was a personal mistake that I made.” After he won election last month, Sanford said on TV, “People do make mistakes.” Christian belief in forgiveness appears to have played a big role in his comeback, as both he and his supporters have attributed his victory to the forgiving nature of South Carolina voters.
I doubt those explanations. I don’t think the South Carolina voters are more forgiving than anyone else. Conservatives there who voted for Sanford are not at all forgiving of sins they attribute to President Obama or any liberal. Partisan politics trumps morality every time, even for so-called “values voters” who preach family values and vote for philandering Republicans over Democrats every time.
But why did Sanford win his Republican primary? There is something else at work in the public’s fascination with creeps. Here reality television gives us the clue: many Americans want to see what the people they love to hate will do. Simon and Schuster are betting big bucks that the public will buy Jonah Lehrer’s book, just like Anthony Weiner’s contributors are betting that voters will buy his “ideas”. I think people are seeking sleaze. They don’t believe these men have suddenly become paragons of virtue; they are buying into the next scandal.
Too bad for the rest of us. We’re stuck with recycled liars.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 11, 2013