Here’s the strange but sad part about Brian Williams, Rand Paul, Bill O’Reilly and Robert McDonald: Each had legitimate bona fides in the very context that recently got them in trouble for embellishment. To a person, they had an honest, acceptable answer within their grasp but chose to go one better, for which they are paying a price.
Williams, of course, claimed he was aboard an Army helicopter flying in Iraq when it was hit with RPG fire. He wasn’t. But he was covering the war from the front line instead of a comfy studio at 30 Rock. Why he felt the need to embellish already expeditionary reporting remains the great mystery.
But Williams’ troubles might not consist of mere exaggeration. The career-ender involves the claim Williams made to David Letterman in 2013 about his receipt of a special gift: “About six weeks after the bin Laden raid, I got a white envelope, and in it was a thank-you note — unsigned — and attached to it was a piece of the fuselage, the fuselage from the blown-up Black Hawk in that courtyard.”
This one doesn’t pass the smell test, either. First, why would a SEAL have retrieved a piece of wreckage? Published accounts of the raid at Abbottabad suggest the SEALs had their hands full keeping the mission on track after the unexpected helicopter crash. They still needed to find and kill Osama bin Laden and then seize whatever intelligence existed in his lair.
Second, among all the potential trophies of the raid, why a piece of the crashed helicopter? Wouldn’t something from bin Laden’s inner sanctum better satisfy that desire? And third, why send it to Brian Williams? Surely Williams would never have discarded a memento of such historical significance, and one about which he bragged to Letterman. He needs to produce that part. And any failure to do so should “seal” his fate.
Then there’s Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Appearing at a recent event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Paul had an exchange with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington reported by the Washington Post as follows:
Arrington: “Let’s talk about economics because maybe you can actually explain this to me. I have an econ degree, which means I know just enough not to understand any of what our government is (inaudible).”
Paul: “Mine’s in biology and English, so this is going to be a great conversation.”
Trouble is, he has neither. Paul attended Baylor University but did not graduate. He was nonetheless accepted at the Duke Medical School, from which he graduated. Paul’s staff tried to dismiss the exchange as “jocular bantering,” and I can picture how the self-deprecating question elicited a response in which Paul tried to establish similar street cred. That partly explains his biology reference, given that he did graduate from med school, but the claim of an English degree is indefensible, even if it were an area of concentration at Baylor.
When his interviewer referred to himself as having “an econ degree,” Paul could have struck the intended tone by saying, “What do I know, I’m an eye doctor.” Instead, like Brian Williams, Paul ignored the solid, truthful reply at the ready, and chose to embellish.
Bill O’Reilly, too. Where he has claimed that he reported from a “war zone” in the Falklands, or that he “survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands war,” it appears O’Reilly was indeed spinning. He was 1,200 miles from the battle, ensconced in a hotel in Buenos Aires, where he did cover an ugly riot, albeit not one that included the fatalities he has claimed. O’Reilly has offered a searing, full-throated defense, which though compelling, at some point, the lady doth protest too much. O’Reilly claims he is the victim of a “hit job” by a liberal outlet with low circulation. The magazine Mother Jones broke the story. Maybe. But what he should have said is that he covered the Falklands war from Argentina, amid a riotous civilian population. It’s not as catchy as “war zone,” but it is both honorable and truthful.
Finally, there is Robert McDonald. When the secretary of veterans affairs was recently doing outreach among the homeless in Los Angeles, he greeted a veteran who said he’d served in Special Forces. “Special Forces — what years? I was in Special Forces,” replied McDonald. In fact, the West Point graduate had completed Ranger training and served in the 82d Airborne Division. This one doesn’t offend me, but I’m a civilian. My college roommate was a Ranger in the 82nd Airborne, service I place on par with Special Forces. I know that military personnel are much more attuned to these distinctions. Having watched the CBS News report in which this exchange occurred, it looks as if McDonald, like Rand Paul at the tech summit, was trying too hard to get the other man to relate to him.
As the Brian Williams news was first breaking, I sought the perspective of Aaron Brown, the former CNN anchor, who told me Williams is not unique.
“My mother walked seven miles through the snow to school,” he said. “And then one day we drove it, together, my mom and I, and it was three-quarters of a mile. In her mind it was seven miles in the snow to school. We all want to be bigger, smarter, stronger, sexier, more courageous, more heroic, have better ratings. I hit a longer tee shot. We all lie. I’ll give Mother Teresa a pass, but that’s it. Everyone else lies, and often our lies are self-aggrandizing; we’re just trying to be better than we are.”
This tendency toward exaggeration seems unmitigated by success, affecting everyone from a news anchor, to a U.S. senator, a cable-TV host, and a cabinet member.
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything,” Mark Twain once said. Especially when the facts are already on your side, he could easily have added.
Contact Mr. Smerconish at www.smerconish.com.