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Jewish World Review April 27, 2001 / 5 Iyar, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

On the decline of lying -- IT was the clintonesque spelled out in law. Buried in a 50-page "reform'' bill at the last session of the Arkansas Legislature was a little ol' clause that explained why a state agency -- the Division of Youth Services -- should be allowed to maintain certain records and, if asked about them, deny they existed.

To quote Dave Barry, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Here's the actual text of the bill: "When records are retained for data collection and research-related purposes, the division ... shall not acknowledge the existence of records as to a particular juvenile and shall lawfully answer any inquiry or subpoena by stating no records exist.''

I kept reading that section and rubbing my eyes, but the wording was always the same, the message unwavering: Thou shalt bear false witness.

The verbal sludge kept getting thicker and deeper. Joe (Smoke 'n' Mirrors) Quinn, the spokesperson for the state's Department of Human Services, explained that the proposed law wasn't any different from a court's expunging a criminal record.

Yes, even though this bill would have let his department retain records rather than expunge them, and then have it deny they existed. Even under subpoena. It sounded like something out of "1984.'' Or maybe the Clinton Years.

At the same time, one has to recognize that lying has had some eloquent defenders. H. L. Mencken called it The Art Eternal. Mark Twain did not object to lying, which he considered one of the great virtues and lubricants of social discourse. No, he objected to the sad state into which the art eternal had fallen in his time.

Called on to address the Historical and Antiquarian Club of Hartford in the gilded year 1882, Mr. Clemens entitled his paper, "On the Decay of the Art of Lying.''

Lest he be misunderstood, the great author made it clear that he didn't mean lying had lessened in his time, not at all, but only the art of it. He was all for the lie. What he abhorred was a clumsy one. "Observe,'' he told his listeners, "I do not mean to suggest that the custom of lying has suffered any decay or interruption -- no, for the lie as a virtue, a 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.''

Has ever a speaker paid a greater compliment to his audience?

And yet the great man confessed himself perturbed. "My complaint,'' Mark Twain told the members of the club, "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. ... Indeed if this finest of the fine 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 shed a single tear. I do not say this to flatter. I say it in a spirit of just and appreciative recognition.''

Mr. Clemens' defense of lying remains unmatched, yet he does not convince. Because, of course, it is his very truthfulness that makes his case so strong, his cynicism so charming. Mark Twain, it is clear, never told a bigger lie than when he claimed to be in favor of lying. His every word winks.

If our modern PR types would defend lying with the same verve and candor, they might win me over. Instead, here was a bureaucrat engaging not in an honest, forthright lie but the worst sort of truth. It makes the direct and unblinking lie seem honest by comparison.

The more Joe Quinn explained, the less convincing, or even convinced, he sounded. Yes, the bill could have been better worded, he admitted. As if the difference between a truth and a lie were only a matter of wording, of getting the clinton clause worked out just so -- and not a matter of meaning, of the essence.

Poor Joe's was the kind of performance that made one yearn for the days of Earl Long in Louisiana. After his election as governor, an angry delegation descended on his office. It seems they'd been promised that he would restore gambling in Jefferson Parish just outside New Orleans, and they wanted to know why he hadn't. When an aide asked the governor what he should tell these people, Uncle Earl was completely truthful: "Tell 'em I lied,'' he said.

Now there was an honest man.

To go back and read Mark Twain's words about the decline of lying in his time is to be struck by how little, really, he had to complain about. How dare Mark Twain grouse about the state of the art when his contemporaries included statesmen like James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine? Not to mention New York's incomparable Roscoe Conkling, whose lies were so bounteous and florid that to compare them to today's would be like hanging a Rubens next to a stick figure.

It was Conkling who, when asked if he intended to support his bitter rival Blaine for president, replied: "No, thank you. I no longer engage in criminal practice.''

How compare the artful embellishments of a Blaine or Conkling to the bald and unconvincing narratives even our most skillful practitioners offer today? What are our contemporary transparencies compared to the works of those old masters?

The art of lying has declined considerably since. Who didn't watch those dreadful videotapes of William J. Clinton, Esq., testifying under oath, and come away feeling ... what? Embarrassment? Pity? Or, worst of all, nothing at all. The problem with transparent liars is that, after a while, it's hard to work up any real interest in whatever they have to say -- true, false, or in between.

Compared to the sheer verve and sweep of an Earl K. Long, what a comedown Bill Clinton was: the pathetic attempt at charm, the brittle imitation of genuine rage at anyone who would dare doubt his word, the lip-biting faux sincerity, the thick coating of self-pity ...

And in the end, a couple of years later, there came the anticlimactic confession. Why, yes, he'd been testifying falsely all along. Like we didn't know. It's hard to decide what was more depressing, his lies or his admissions -- the transparent offense or the meaningless plea bargain.

But there is some solace: Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken, honest advocates of the lie deluxe, aren't around to see how low the art eternal has sunk. In their time the lie was a work of beauty and imagination. In ours we propose a law to make people lie. It's like trying to legislate art.

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