The Liars’ Hall of Fame

By Don Rollins

Okay, I can’t prove that Ron Blagojevich and Ted Haggard are one and the same guy, but raise your hand if you’ve seen ‘em in the same room at the same time. Seriously, while the country and world face global foreclosure, these two semi-coiffed cats in tailored suits are shuffling through the talk shows like Ozzie Osborne on speed balls. Man alive, screw a male prostitute or, better yet, an entire Midwestern state, and the next thing you know you’re sitting across the desk from Larry King. What a country!

But make no mistake about it; these men are not the buffoons some portray. To the contrary, they are bright, calculating and meticulous in their efforts to persuade us that their persecution is undeserved. (See Nixon for the modern day template behind this kind of pious hubris.) We understandably underestimate their weird kind of genius; they’re kooky but not insane. Not by a long shot.

If we’re to understand them, it’s important that we situate Pastor Ted and Blago squarely in the great American tradition of flimflam men. (Think Elmer Gantry or Joe McCarthy or the scoundrel du jour, Bernie Madoff. Guys like these could sell cigarettes to lung cancer patients.) Hell, maybe we ought to have a Liar’s Hall of Fame. We need a place to honor the elite ignominious masters of the well-crafted lie, whose tall tales rise above the relative mediocrity the garden variety fib. Here, in no particular order, are some of the criteria we might consider for induction to the Hall:

• The capacity for self-referencing reality despite consequences. Both the preacher and the Governor embrace the notion that it ain’t paranoia if they’re really after you. No respectable career liar can sustain his delusions without a deep and abiding commitment to his rightful role as ultimate moral arbiter.

• The innate gift of public performance despite nagging personal doubts. A split personality is the stock and trade of anyone whose public persona is built on a morally weak foundation. The conscience-riddled flimflam man has to look himself in the green room mirror, then somehow call up the consummate actor – the alter ego that can smile even when his church disowns him or his colleagues impeach him.

• The raw audacity to position family and friends as props despite their public humiliation. Ask Bill Clinton, Larry Craig or Jim McGreevey about the importance of having “the wife” standing nearby when pleading your case before the cameras. Brother Ted rarely interviews alone, and Blago is spectacularly shameless in telling us that he wants to clear his name for the sake of his children.

• The certain conviction of the martyr despite a distinct lack of followers. It’s a powerful thing to believe not only in a cause, but also that one is ordained to represent that cause. It’s a tribal thing: I suffer on behalf of “my people”. Trouble is, when the press conference denials just don’t get it anymore—when even the true believers and hangers-on pack it in—the hardcore liar is still at the podium and on the talk shows.

Yes, these men show signs of being seriously morally deficient, and the consequences thereof are considerable. Some are personal, such as the betrayal of friends and family. Some are systemic, as in the betrayal of congregants and constituents. But there’s a third level of damage, namely, the betrayal of two noble professions. For every honest politician there’s a Blago, and for every morally decent clergyperson there’s a Ted Haggard. Vocationally, it’s one step forward and two steps back every time somebody’s pants are off or somebody’s hand is in the till. And so the “throw the bums out” and “religion’s a sham” crowd is once again proven right.

Look here, religion and politics have enough gaping ethical holes without the likes of Haggard and Blagojevich. When high profile people go south with their personal and professional standards, lots of bad things happen for lots of people. Perhaps worst of all, quality young women and men scoff at certain professions just because of the sleaze factor. (They’re not exactly recruiting material for the ranks of their chosen vocations, Mr. Blagojavich and Rev. Haggard.) Both men will soon enough fly beneath our moral radar screen. Good riddance. But the damage is done, not so much by what they did, but by their unassailable denial of what they did. And who’s watching.

Rev. Don Rollins is interim minister of the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bloomington, Minn. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2009

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