This column is about lying, so let me just confess, full-disclosurewise, that I have on occasion failed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Like everyone else, I learned early on that honesty is sometimes the best policy — for getting in trouble. My father often warned my siblings and me that if we got caught doing something wrong, we would be punished, but if we got caught lying, the punishment would be doubled. Naturally, we lied, hoping not to get caught at all. Sometimes it even worked.
Judge James Ware's nomination to the 9th Circuit unraveled when it turned out he had falsely claimed that white racists shot and killed his brother.
So, yes, I've told my share of fibs and fabrications. But it is one thing to bend the truth in hopes of not being punished. It is something rather different to shamelessly falsify one's personal history in order to score cheap political points.
Which brings us to James Ware, a federal judge nominated by President Clinton to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
For years, Judge Ware has been telling a heartbreaking story about his youth in Birmingham. It occurs during the racial turmoil of 1963, shortly after the deadly bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. James is bicycling to a football game; his kid brother Virgil, a 13-year-old, is riding on the handlebars. Suddenly two white racists open fire.
The gunshots knocked Virgil off the bike, Judge Ware recalled in a 1994 interview with the San Jose Mercury News, one of many occasions on which he has told the story. "He died there by the side of the road." Understandably, the murder of his brother left a deep mark. "What happened to me," Ware said, "was a defining experience, a turning point in my life."
As well it might have been — if it were true. A young man named Virgil Ware was murdered in Birmingham in 1963, but he was no relation to the judge. To further his own career, James Ware simply helped himself to another family's grief and martyrdom. Not until last week, when an Alabama paper tracked down Virgil Ware's true relatives and confronted Judge Ware with the facts, did he admit being a liar.
Obviously his nomination to the Ninth Circuit is blown. But the president shouldn't give up on Ware quite yet. This faker would be perfect for the administration. After all, someone prepared to lie so brazenly about his own past ought to feel right at home with the Clinton-Gore crowd.
Consider former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who just published a memoir filled with stormy scenes that never happened. In one episode, he describes a 1995 appearance before the Joint Economic Committee. As Reich tells it, US Representative Jim Saxton, the Republican chairman, flayed him mercilessly. "Where did you learn economics, Mr. Secretary?" Saxton demands. Then, pointing to a chart, Saxton jumps up and down in his chair, crying "Evidence! Evidence!"
Pure fiction, discovered Jonathan Rauch, a respected Washington editor, when he checked the transcript. "I was flabbergasted," Rauch wrote in Slate, "so I checked the C-SPAN tapes, and they leave no doubt. Reich appears to have fabricated much of this episode for dramatic effect. Saxton was, in fact, decorous and polite. He did not jump up and down . . . he did not shout 'Evidence! Evidence!'" Most of the quotations Reich attributes to Saxton "appear never to have been said at all."
Reich doesn't deny making up events and quotations. "These are my perceptions," he shrugs. "I might have goofed." Mmm-hmm. The same way Judge Ware "goofed."
At least Reich never exploited the death of a close relative. Vice President Al Gore, by contrast, mesmerized the 1996 Democratic convention with the story of his sister's death from lung cancer 12 years earlier. Gore detailed his "final hours" with Nancy and said the "nearly unbearable pain" of her death made him take a vow: "Until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."
Very moving. But Gore almost certainly made no such vow. For years following Nancy's death, he pocketed annual earnings from his family's tobacco crop. In 1988 he boasted to North Carolina voters, "I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I've hoed it. I've chopped it. I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it."
When challenged on the inconsistency, the VP explained that "you never fully learn the lessons that life has to teach you." How profound. Sounds like just the guy James Ware would enjoy working for.
Then there is Clinton himself, who is not above exploiting any tragedy if there is political benefit in it. During the rash of church burnings in 1996, Clinton solemnly told a national radio audience that he has "vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own state when I was a child."
It must indeed have been a traumatic experience. Except — there weren't any black churches burned in Arkansas when Clinton was a child. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette checked: Not one civil rights leader or historian could confirm Clinton's "memories." Once again the president had "told a lie designed to make him look good," the paper concluded.
Spinning lies to look good seems to be a specialty of the administration. Tell me Ware wouldn't fit right in.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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