By: Pete Zubof
If you missed it this week, Robert McDonald, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, apologized for misstating his military service by telling a homeless veteran that he served in a special forces unit during his time in the Army. As misstatements go, McDonald’s was relatively minor. He did serve in the Army and did graduate from the elite Ranger school but never served in a special forces unit. Yet the Secretary’s statement still highlights a growing perception that integrity is no longer a core value of those who hold the public trust.
McDonald is just the latest public figure to be called out on a little white lie. NBC News front man Brian Williams has been suspended from the network for at least six months for exaggerating his involvement in the downing of an American helicopter in Iraq. Williams claimed he was onboard the helicopter. As it turns out, however, he was simply a witness to the incident from another aircraft. Damn liberals you cry? Not so fast. Bill O’Reilly is also in the hot seat after the public learned that stories about the danger he faced as a war correspondent during the Falklands War may have been embellished more than a little.
Politicians have been adding color to their resumes for a long time. During a campaign event in 2008, Hillary Clinton famously claimed that she came under fire during a trip to Bosnia in 1996 while she was First Lady, a documented outright lie that she called a “mistake.” More recently, Dick Blumenthal, Senator for the state of Connecticut, has claimed on several occasions to have served in Vietnam. As truth would have it, he served during the Vietnam war but never left the United States (except to pursue an academic fellowship in England). For right or for wrong, politicians usually get a bye for their “exaggerations.” After all, it is part of their jobs to view the truth creatively. What is disturbing about the latest round of accusations, therefore, is that they come from individuals who are not running for office – from people whom we should be able to trust.
Don’t listen to the news? Check. Never trusted politicians? Understood. If pop culture is where your loyalty lies, perhaps this will convince you that integrity in America is dead: “Pimp my ride,” an early reality show in which lucky fans had their vehicles customized, was outed by the Huffington Post recently as fraudulent. Completed vehicles from the show often didn’t work as advertised, if they ran at all, often leaving the “lucky” owners without a ride at all.
Integrity used to be a cornerstone of our country. Remember GW (the original, not the Bush). He’s said to have never told a lie. What about honest Abe? In his heyday, Walter Cronkite was often cited as “the most trusted man in America.” In those days, the press absolutely represented truth. In 2013, Readers Digest commissioned a poll to determine who the most trusted people in America were. Topping the list? Tom Hanks, followed by Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep. Am I the only one who sees the irony in the fact that the most trusted people in America are, by definition, paid to pretend to be something they’re not?
There is a Jewish proverb that says “a half-truth is a whole lie.” Unfortunately, it seems increasingly acceptable to tell these half-truths in America. It’s a trend that we can reverse, but the correction comes with recognition. We have to resolve to reject half-truths, exaggerations, and embellishments just as if they were bold-faced lies. It’s something we should expect of our leaders and teach to our children. Integrity is what our country was founded on and will be key to its success in the future.