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Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 1999/11 Shevat, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg The decay of
the art of lying

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) IT WAS A HARD -- IT WAS AN IMPOSSIBLE -- ACT TO FOLLOW.

Not long ago, I was called on to speak after the vivacious host of a talk show here in Little Rock. We were both to talk to the local Inn of Court, a convivial group of lawyers, and this guy is a pro. After his rollicking performance, I felt like the cleanup crew called in after the tornado had swept through.

Clearly strong measures were called for. Ordinarily opposed to plagiarism, I am willing to forgive it in those who have the good taste to steal from the very best. And it occurred to me that another inky wretch had once been called on to address another distinguished group, the Historical and Antiquarian Club of Hartford. On that occasion in 1882, Mark Twain titled his address "On the Decay of the Art of Lying.''

Perfect, I thought. What better subject to explore before a group so well positioned as the bar to judge the rise and fall, the stylistic vagaries and infinite varieties, of the art? Truth tends to be so uniform, so dull, so unchanging, even though it always surprises some people, while lies come in every shape and style, changing as regularly as fashions.

Samuel Clemens, master of the tall tale himself, began his talk that long ago night with a lament that would be familiar in the Age of Clinton: "Observe,'' he said, "I do not mean to suggest that the custom of lying has suffered any decay or interruption -- no, for the Lie, as Virtue, as Principle, is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man's best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth while this club remains.''

Looking about me at my betters, all distinguished members of the bar, I could share Mark Twain's faith in his fellow man. Speaking in a time so distant and yet so contemporary, Mr. Clemens came right to his point: "My complaint,'' he said, "simply concerns the decay of the art of lying. No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted. ... If this finest of the fine art arts had everywhere received the attention, encouragement, and conscientious practice and development which this club has devoted to it, I should not need to utter this lament, or cry a single tear. I do not say this to flatter. I say it in a spirit of just and appreciative recognition.`

Yes, never is an inky wretch so humbled, whatever the level of his own artifice, than when addressing true professionals.

To read Mark Twain's words a century later is to be struck by how little, really, he had to complain about. Mr. Clemens spoke about the decline of the gilded art in the time of James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine, and of Roscoe Conkling, whose embellishments were so florid that to compare them to those of today's politicians would be to hang a Rubens next to a stick figure. It was Senator Conkling who, pressed on the subject of whether he would support his rival Mr. Blaine for president, replied, "No, thank you, I don't engage in criminal practice.''

Mark Twain had Blaine and Conkling; today we are reduced to clumsy amateurs when it comes to the art of lying. Mark Twain really had little to complain of. There were giants in the earth in his days. What are the legalistic, laughable transparencies we are offered today, compared to the works of those old masters?

To think back on the ornate embellishments of Mark Twain's gilded age is like standing in a Versailles of Verisimilitude, compared to the bald and unconvincing narratives concocted by even the highest official in the land. And even he abandons them after only six or seven months' use, surrendering in the face of mere evidence.

Who has not watched those dreadful videotapes of presidential testimony and felt ... not the kind of stunned admiration that the sheer sweep and verve of a Blaine or Conkling inspired, or even the delight that the Brothers Long (Huey and Earl) invoked, but just a sinking embarrassment, even pity, for the smallness of the contemporary state of the art?

What a comedown from the intricately designed and lovingly carved fabrications of old! Look at what the American consumer is now offered: pathetic attempts at charm, a brittle imitation of rage ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman!''), the lip-biting faux sincerity, the gimcrack deconstructions and, worst of all, the utter, limpid, transparency of it. How could anybody have ever been fooled?

We are now supposed to be in the midst of high drama. A president has been impeached by the House of Representatives. A trial proceeds in the Senate of the United States, the first of a president since Andrew Johnson's in 1868. But there is no sense of the momentous here, no feeling of history in the making, only the tedium of a sordid little game that must be played out.

Why is that? I think it has something to do with the decay of the art of lying. The shoddy little mass-produced lies in this case wouldn't raise an eyebrow in a police court, they are so unimaginative, so amateurish, so clumsy, so ad-lib even when we're assured that they were cleverly designed to be legal truths. It's as if the suspect-in-chief had carefully planned his testimony only after he had given it. The result is a hodgepodge of messy dissembling, instead of some grand, decades-long 19th-century wedding cake of falsification -- like the Dreyfus Affair. Why, these small-bore deceptions would have given even Richard Nixon's alibis an air of grandeur.

If old Sam Clemens thought lying had decayed in his time, he had no idea of the shoddy level it would come to in ours.


1/26/99:Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99:Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99:Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate