The State of Ethics in Washington

Published: May 9, 2023

By Jim Lichtman
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“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 many had that sense of guilt, today.

If George Washington—America’s first president and role model—looked at the lack of ethical behavior taking place in the seat of the government that bears his name, he would likely want his name removed from our nation’s capital.

1950s television was sensational for kids, and adults alike: The Lone Ranger, Perry Mason, and I Love Lucy, to name a few. Many carried a message of justice and doing the right thing. You knew that no matter what shenanigans Lucy was up to, by the end of the show, she’d confess to husband Ricky, they’d make up and life would go on. The Lone Ranger and Perry Mason always demonstrated that justice triumphs in the end.

While I’m talking about the so-called good old days of the 50s and 60s, the news of the day was bulging with stories of deceit and conspiracies. While special dramas portrayed much of reality, it was series shows that would frequently provide examples where doing the right thing not only mattered, it was the only thing that mattered. The message in those shows and others of that era: life is better if you’re honest.

Charles Van Doren was a literary scholar, teacher and quiz show fraud. Whatever success he had later in his career, that one illicit episode 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 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 professor and author and the public… well, the public swallowed the whole scheme, because, after all, he was on TV. Nobody lied on TV then, 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 sterling background.

His father Mark Van Doren was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor of English at Columbia. His mother, Dorothy was a novelist and editor. And his uncle, Carl Van Doren, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. 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 fake drama. Things haven’t changed much.

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 the film that told his story.

“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. It doesn’t matter that a cable network with the largest ratings had news hosts who lied regularly about the 2020 election. In text messages filed in court, they all but admit they lied. If one lies, what should it matter if others on the network lie?

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.


  1. Well written: Truth matter. Integrity matters. Accountability matters.

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