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Do People Make Themselves Believe the Lie is True?

by John Aquino on 01/24/19

Can liars really believe but the lies they tell are true?

I ask this because we are living in a time in which people in high places openly lie, seemingly without regret. I've also written on the topic a fictionalization in fact-based films. In those situations, someone is usually inventing things to make the story more dramatic or to put himself, as a character in the story, in a better light. The assumption is that there is a truth from which the writer deliberately veers. And yet there are recent situations where something different seems to be happening.  I never understood the line “the self-deception that believes the lie” in the Rodgers and Hart song “I Wish I Were in Love Again” because self-deception is deceiving ones’ self and so the addition that the person believes the lie is redundant. But in today’s world, the phrase begins to make more sense. Maybe it isn't redundant. One can, arguably, deceive oneself into doing things or saying things without really, deep down inside, believing that the deception is true. But can a person who tells a lie really believe it?

Look at two separate but related situations. In 2008, Hillary Clinton recalled in a speech at George Washington University that in 1996 when her husband was president her plane landed in Bosnia under sniper file. A reception to greet her was cancelled, and she and her party “just ran with our heads down to get into our vehicles to get to our base.” It was quickly pointed out that news footage shows that there was an arrival reception in which she was greeted by smiling officials and a little girl who recited a poem without any sign of shooting or panic. Many were quoted as saying the area Clinton was in was relatively peaceful, and there were no reports of the snipers attacking the plane. Her supporters countered that her party was given flax jackets and warned of snipers. But the news footage shows the incident she described just didn’t happen and that she appears to have taken the rumors of snipers and made them true in her telling. Her 2008 presidential campaign acknowledged that she may have “misspoken,” and the hit to her credibility is thought to have negatively affected her campaign.

In 2015, NBC anchor Brian Williams recounted in a New York Rangers hockey game broadcast during a tribute to a veteran how in Iraq in 2003 a helicopter on which he was traveling was forced down after it was hit by a rocket grenade. He and his NBC News team were rescued and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry, Williams said, praising the military. Quickly, soldiers who were on the helicopter and in the area questioned his account, saying the news team was never under fire. Some pointed out that Williams' on-air reporting in 2003 made no mention of the attack. A week later, Williams retracted his story, saying he may have conflated it with another incident in 2003 in which the helicopter ahead of his had been hit with a rocket grenade but landed safely. Again, a sliver of fact appears to have been embellished. But the apology wasn’t good enough, Williams, as a broadcast journalist, was supposed to double-check his facts, and he was suspended and removed from his anchor position. He now reports for the network’s cable channels.

Both Clinton and Williams should have realized there were other people on the aircrafts who knew what really happened. Did they consciously lie, assuming they would get away with it, and risk their careers or did they come to really believe that what they said was true? Williams suggested that the fog of battle and the 12-years since the incident may have clouded his memory, which is possible. But Williams had been telling the story for several years, on the David Letterman show and other venues, elaborating each time. This happens in Hollywood, where people create stories for movies, and, if the stories are based on fact, they have no problem in inventing incidents to make the stories better. They tell stories at parties, they pitch stories to producers, they embellish the stories to draw more laughter and often expand their role in the story. The actor David Niven, a well-known raconteur, wrote two autobiographical books about his early life, his experience as a soldier in World War Two, and, most especially, his time in Hollywood: The Moon Is a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses. Both were very popular, but after his death his authorized biographer Graham Lord, in a book titled Niv, painstakingly analyzed Niven’s stories and demonstrated, among other things, how Niven was in London during a battle where he claimed he led his troops and how he wasn’t present during a number of events he described. He must have heard about them from someone else and inserted himself as a participant if not the hero. Niven promoted the books on television programs around the world, happily telling these stories. The self-deception that believes the lie?

I came upon another example recently. The 1983 movie My Favorite Year is about a faded movie star named Alan Swann who agrees to appear on the King Kaiser tv show in 1954 and, because of his legendary drinking, a young writer on the show is assigned to look after him. They go through a number of madcap adventures together. The film was reported to be based on the experiences of film director Mel Brooks, who, as a young television writer, was assigned to look after the film actor Errol Flynn during his time guest starring on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” for which Brooks wrote. Brooks has described several times how he was holed up with Flynn for several days in a hotel room with two Cuban prostitutes while he prepared for "Your Show of Shows." The movie was produced by Brooks’ production company and was directed by Richard Benjamin. Brooks later noted that the film was highly fictionalized and that Flynn’s behavior in the show on which he appeared was uneventful. On the DVD commentary, Benjamin said that the character of Alice Miller in the film was based on a real-life “Your Show of Shows” writer. All well and good. Peter O’Toole, playing Swann, was nominated for a best actor Academy Award, the film was a big hit and was later made into a musical that won awards for Andrea Martin as best supporting actress in a musical. The only problem was that Flynn never appeared on “Your Show of Shows.” He was a guest on a few other television shows, including “The Colgate Comedy Hour” with Abbott and Costello. But he was never on “Your Show of Shows,” bringing into question the statements Brooks and Benjamin made. Another great television pioneer Milton Berle claimed when My Favorite Year debuted that the film was based on his experiences with Flynn, which were well know throughout Manhattan. Some have posited that Brooks did spend time with Flynn but that Flynn was too drunk to go on--although no promotion of a "Your Show of Shows" or Caesar's subsequent show "Caesar's Hour" has been produced and Brooks indicates in a 1997 interview fhat Flynn did do the show (see https://www.filmscoremonthly.com/articles/2001/15_Aug---Lost_Issue_Mel_Brooks_Interview.asp . Evidently, contrary to Brooks' comments, Flynn didn't appear on "Your Show of Shows."

The self-deception that believes the lie? And if people in a position of authority--presidents, government officials, filmmakers in describing the basis for their films--consciously or subconsciously lie, whom are we to believe?

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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