“I remember my uncle Harold told my aunt about this affair he had. It was a sort of mildly upsetting event in my family… The affair was over, something like eight years. So I remember asking him, ‘Why did you tell her? You got away with it.’ And I’ll never forget what he said. It was the getting away with it part that he couldn’t live with.” – Dick Goodwin, from the 1994 film, Quiz Show
I wish some believed in those sentiments today – that getting away with a lie feels so personally shameful that you have to confess.
1950’s television was sensational for kids, even more so for adults: The Lone Ranger, Perry Mason, I Love Lucy, to name a few. Many carried a message of justice and doing the right thing. You knew, you just knew that no matter what shenanigans Lucy was up to, that by the end of the show, she’d confess to husband Ricky, they’d makeup and life would go on.
The message in those and other shows of that era: Life is better if you’re honest and tell the truth.
When it was announced, last week, that Charles Van Doren, literary scholar, teacher, and quiz show fraud, had died, I paused to reflect on the one illicit episode that stained the rest of his life.
With the help of the show’s producers, Van Doren cheated on the popular quiz show Twenty-One. When producers Albert Freedman and Dan Enright first met the young English teacher, they knew they had an individual with the intellectual might and telegenic looks that would make housewives swoon, ratings rise and make money for everyone.
And for a while, it all worked.
People watched, ratings rose, Van Doren made more money than he ever made as a college teacher and author and the public… well, the public swallowed the whole scheme, because, after all, he was on TV. Nobody lies on TV, right?
While other contestants were called out when the scheme collapsed, Van Doren suffered the most criticism, not so much from his lies, but because of his background.
“His father was Mark Van Doren,” The New York Times writes (Apr. 10), “a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, literary critic and professor of English at Columbia. His mother, Dorothy Van Doren, was a novelist and editor. And his uncle, Carl Van Doren, had been a professor of literature, a historian and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. Charles himself had bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a $4,400-a-year position at Columbia and an honest look about him.”
So, Charles L. Van Doren just had to be honest. His middle name was Lincoln!
When he finally confessed to the fraud, America was shaken, betrayed by a do-whatever-it-takes/multi-million-dollar television industry focused on keeping people watching, entertained by a made-up drama.
The Jusse Smollett case has many of the same elements but with racial and political overtones: a manufactured drama that engaged and outraged the public; and belief that the actor had been the victim of a hate crime by white nationalist Trump supporters.
It too was a lie.
In Smollett’s case, however, he walked away. All charges against the actor were dropped in a deal Chicago prosecutors made with Smollett’s defense team where the actor would get off by serving 16 hours of community service and forfeit his $10,000 bond. (The FBI is now investigating, and the City of Chicago has filed a lawsuit against Smollett for lying, asking him to pay overtime charges for police covering the investigation.)
However, in the right vs. wrong 50s, there wasn’t even the suggestion of such a deal for Van Doren. He lied to a grand jury; he had to pay the price, period.
After confessing before a Congressional Committee in a sincere, yet brilliant soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare, many on the panel praised Van Doren for his honesty except Republican Congressman Steven Derounian, who looked the young man in the eye and said:
“Mr. Van Doren, I am happy that you made the statement, but I cannot agree with most of my colleagues who commended you for telling the truth, because I don’t think an adult of your intelligence ought to be commended for telling the truth.”
In 2008, Van Doren detailed his story in The New Yorker. Near the end of the piece, he recalls the time Robert Redford wanted him to consult on Quiz Show.
“Redford wanted my approval—my ‘guarantee of its truthfulness,’ ” Van Doren writes. “He said that Herb Stempel had already agreed to be a consultant, and when I asked what there might be in it for me he replied that the filmmakers would be willing to pay a fee—fifty thousand dollars.” The fee was later raised to $100,000.
“Our family had a meeting sitting around our kitchen table,” Van Doren describes. “John, our son, was for my taking the money. ‘They’re going to make the movie anyway, whatever you do,’ he said. ‘Everybody else is making money out of it, why shouldn’t you?’ ”
Of all the excuses used to justify a questionable action, the Everybody Does It defense is perhaps the most seductive. It can’t be wrong if everyone else is doing it.
Sadly, the best examples are immediately apparent in today’s politics: past presidents lied to the American public, so it’s okay if the current president lies; it’s okay if he misleads and deceives more than any president, perhaps, in the last 100 years. It doesn’t matter to supporters, because… everybody does it.
Except that it should matter. Truth matters. Integrity matters. Accountability matters. And the day that it no longer matters, is the day American democracy is lost.
By the way, Van Doren turned down Redford’s offer.
Wednesday: “More Than the Heart of a City”