Faking It

Enron and Arthur Andersen executives have come under tremendous scrutiny for appearing to be liars and frauds. When it comes time to face an actual jury, they may mount the classic soft-on-crime defense: "We're victims of our environment. America is simply awash in fraud."

That sure seems to be the case lately. Leading pop historians Stephen Ambrose (for war lovers) and Doris Kearns Goodwin (for Roosevelt and Kennedy worshippers), have been unmasked as petty plagiarists. One might be tempted to blame the lure of commercial success, but Ambrose and Goodwin could always claim that they were simply trying to live up to the standards of the academy. That, of course, wouldn't be quite right, as leading academics tend not to copy other people's work (that takes too much effort). Top historians, in Marx's phrase, make history out of whole cloth. Emory University historian Michael A. Bellesiles is in trouble for shooting blanks in his treatise on the origins of U.S. gun culture, Arming America. The facts in the bestselling histories written by Mount Holyoke College historian Joseph Ellis bestsellers check out OK; it's his own biography that was filled with fiction.

Another common grift is fudging numbers in the pursuit of taxpayer funding. Consider the case of Colfax, California, a town with a single, lone American Indian, according to the U.S. Census. An elementary school there told the feds it had 69 Native Americans. Why? To secure special funding "to meet the special educational and culturally related academic needs of American Indians." It turns out the students' parents considered their kids white, culturally and otherwise. National Guard units commonly fake troop levels in reports to Washington for the same reason. Ditto for the U.S. Forest Service, which inflates numbers by more than 300 percent.

All this lying is enough to drive a young person in search of moral guidance to drink, but then there's plenty of lying about how much underage boozing really goes on, too. All this outrageous behavior is certainly fodder for the next book by morals czar William J. Bennett. But just don't expect him to write it.

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