I've been telling them all my life. Some were small, like when the cashier at a retail clothing store asked me for my phone number (not because I'm hot, but because apparently their marketing team insists she pry), and I gave her the number for the CIA.
Wait. That was a lie. I've never given the CIA's phone number to a retail cashier. I've always thought it would be fun to do, and I plan on doing it, but I've never done it. For the record, the CIA's phone number is 703-482-0623. I am not suggesting that anyone give out the CIA's phone number under false pretenses, because that may well be a serious crime. So I don't plan on doing it. Maybe.
I told my most ridiculous lie when I was in the fourth grade, in late 1969. It was preposterous on its face, no reasonable person could ever believe it, and although I told it to nearly thirty people, no one ever questioned it. I may have had a future as a White House press secretary. Or a newscaster. On this particular morning I was to give a current-events presentation in Miss Crater's class. I had completely forgotten about it, and I was empty handed. The responsible kids were armed with newspaper clippings. I was armed with bullshit.
I don't remember what the other kids presented that day, except one: Matt Tallman, whose dad was a dentist, told us how important it is to rinse really well after brushing our teeth. He really did. Why I was so worried after that, I can't say, but time was running out, and I needed to think of a lie on the fly. But what nine-year-old kid in 1969 was so familiar with the major news events that he could give an extemporaneous presentation? Sure, there was Vietnam, but I didn't understand what was going on, and it wasn't exactly a scoop that we were sacrificing our youth and slaughtering a lot of foreigners for, well, bullshit reasons.
My name got called. This oughtta be good. Fortunately for my scheming, lying, nine-year-old self, the Apollo 12 mission, the second to land on the moon, had recently returned. Yes! Material! Good thing, too, because my mouth was starting to move, and any second words were going to come out. Here's what they were:
"They discovered a substitute for salt on the moon."
My claim that the Apollo 12 astronauts discovered a salt substitute on the moon
was unspeakably ridiculous, preposterous, and stupid. But it was only the second-
most ridiculous, preposterous, stupid claim I would make that morning.
The class seemed to accept it. Of course, I had nothing to back up my ridiculous claim, but accept it they did. The teacher just let it go. (Miss Crater, if you're out there, you probably recall that 1969 was the year you had a bad car accident and were out most of the school year; the teacher in the classroom that day was probably the evil substitute Mrs. Easton — AAAAHHHHH!!!!!)
My claim that the Apollo 12 astronauts discovered a salt substitute on the moon was unspeakably ridiculous, preposterous, and stupid. But it was only the second-most ridiculous, preposterous, stupid claim I would make that morning.
Just as "the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day," my courage instantly leaped into orbit when the class swallowed the salt line. I don't remember what garbage I spewed about this astounding discovery, but I had them. When I finished my salty story, I could have easily just sat down, shut up, and been done with it. But I couldn't stop myself. I ended the presentation with this:
"They think they might have discovered a substitute for pepper, too, but they're not sure."
I maybe fooled some of them with the salt, but pepper? Really, Tom? Pepper? Yes, I followed the salt trial balloon with pepper, and somehow no one questioned that one either. These kids would have promising futures as voters.
I eventually developed a liking for perpetrating stupid, immature hoaxes. My two favorite involved basketball, although that was just a coincidence.
The first was during the 1977-78 school year, when I was a senior at Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon. I was on the sports staff of the school paper, along with some equally immature pranksters. The combination of several high school boys with time on their hands, no supervision, and access to a phone right there in the classroom could only result in somebody doing something really stupid with that phone. Somebody did.
Five or six of us sports staffers, giddy from the Trail Blazers NBA championship the previous June and unbelievably hot start to the 1977-78 season, concocted a rumor that Lonnie Shelton would be traded by the New York Knicks to the Los Angeles Lakers for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and $500,000. We needed a volunteer to phone it in to one of the local newspapers. At the time Portland had two dailies: The Oregonian in the morning, the Oregon Journal in the afternoon. We went with the Journal.
The combination of several high school boys with time on their hands, no supervision,
and access to a phone right there in the classroom could only result in somebody
doing something really stupid with that phone. Somebody did.
I don't remember how we chose who would make the call, but no doubt the caller would be a nervy, obnoxious punk, because we were all nervy, obnoxious punks. I was bad. Really bad. Probably the second-most obnoxious among us. The worst was David Kahn, who is now president of basketball operations with the Minnesota Timberwolves and who continues to say things that get him in trouble. Kahn ended up making the call. Whether he did it because he was the most obnoxious or because he happened to be closest to the phone, I don't remember.
Kahn called the Journal sports department and asked for George Pasero, the legendary sports editor, who never did anybody any harm and certainly didn't deserve to be, well, Kahnned. Mr. Pasero wasn't in, so Kahn left a message. He told the poor young lady that he was Eddie Donovan's nephew (Donovan was general manager of the Knicks at the time) and that the Shelton-for-Jabbar trade would soon be announced. The story was of particular interest in the Portland area (or would have been, had it been legitimate) because Shelton was only a couple years removed from his playing days at Oregon State. The young lady took down the message and said she would have Mr. Pasero call back.
We waited by the phone for quite a while, but Mr. Pasero never called. And that was the end of that.
Or so we thought.
The next afternoon, on the front page of the sports section, the headline for Mr. Pasero's column said: "Jabbar to Knicks?" Mr. Pasero reported that "a man in the know" had tipped him off about a soon-to-be-announced blockbuster deal that would send Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Knicks for Lonnie Shelton and $500,000. All right then.
Make no mistake: George Pasero was one of the best sports journalists Oregon has ever had. Everyone can slip up every now and then. On the other hand, about eight years later he spent a lot of time helping me pull off an elaborate practical joke on someone else, so maybe he would have thought what we did was funny.
I doubt it.
My other basketball-related hoax involved the University of Portland men's basketball team in 1988-89. I would never say this out loud, but many thought the men's basketball team itself was a hoax that season, with a record of 2-26. Incidentally, the head coach that year was Larry Steele, who was on the Trail Blazers' 1976-77 championship team. The point guard was Erik Spoelstra, who would become head coach of the Miami Heat. It is not true that the men's soccer team, which won its first 21 games that season before losing in the national semifinals, had a higher shooting percentage than the men's basketball team, but sometimes it felt like it.
I was the school's sports information director, in charge of producing the media guides for the athletic teams. I did all the writing and editing, with no one coming behind me to check my work. That's not necessarily a bad policy if your sports information director is responsible, upstanding, and mature. But if your sports information director is a twenty-eight-year-old me, you're in for it at some point.
In the back of the media guide, I printed all the box scores from the 1987-88 season. I just had to screw with one of them. I had been producing the media guides for three years and had always acted responsibly. I couldn't hold out any longer.
I was too chicken to mess with a box score of a conference game, or of a game against an opponent from a major conference, so Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Oklahoma State, and Texas Christian were out. I looked over the other opponents and after careful consideration I selected my victim: Northern Arizona.
My scheming, obnoxious twenty-eight-year-old self inserted a fictitious player into the Northern Arizona lineup, fourth from the bottom out of twelve guys. I gave him two minutes played and zeroes for everything else. Someone with more nerve would have at least given him a good line, or maybe a lousy line but at least listed him as a starter. A couple technical fouls and an ejection would have been a nice touch. Kahn would have probably put the guy into the Oregon State lineup in place of Gary Payton and have him score thirty and get two technicals. What can I say? I was chicken.
So while I wimped out on the fictitious player's team and statistics, I made up for it a little bit with his name. The good people at Northern Arizona University would probably be surprised to learn that Mitch Cumstein played for their 1987-88 men's basketball team, or at least he played two minutes in a 78-68 loss to the University of Portland in the Far West Classic in Portland on December 28, 1987. Mitch Cumstein, as any self-respecting sports fan knows, is Ty Webb's unseen and once-referred-to college roommate in Caddyshack, who was kicked out of school in his last semester for just putting, at night, with the fifteen-year-old daughter of the dean.
This has been a really long lead-in just for me to say that I know lies and hoaxes when I see them. I think. And the report of the killing of Osama bin Laden appears to have been a series of lies wrapped in bullshit inside a hoax. That's not to say that bin Laden isn't dead. But the narrative morphed and morphed and morphed, until the final version didn't resemble the original version in the least. The most dramatic detail that did an about-face was the firefight. There was one, then — poof! — there wasn't one. Osama was firing back, then -- poof! — he was unarmed and chillin' in his pajamas. (Vinny Ravioli, a regular caller to the Baldy and The Blonde show, which I co-host, phoned in with the last words of Osama bin Laden: "Last night I was shot by a Navy SEAL in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know.")
Their story changed constantly, seemingly on every detail. I was reminded of boxing promoter Bob Arum’s famous line to reporters when he realized he had revealed too much the day before: “Yesterday I was lying. Today I’m telling the truth.”
Then there was the fiasco of Senator Scott Brown being duped by a fake photo of a "dead" bin Laden that had been on the Internet way before the killing was reported. I don't know how long the photo had been circulating, but I remember seeing it maybe a week or two before Brown fell for it. What an idiot. Here's some advice, Senator: Don't trust anything that comes out of Washington.
Every scheming, lying kid knows: Get your story straight before anyone talks.
Would the White House and Pentagon lie? Uh, yeah, they would. The lied about WMD's. They lied about yellow cake. They lied about the rescue of Jessica Lynch. They lied about the killing of Pat Tillman. They lied about Iran-contra. They lied about the Gulf of Tonkin. They sure as hell lied about JFK. And they lied about bin Laden. Or at least they told a whole lot of untruths.
We were told that the "fog of war" was the reason the first reports about the bin Laden killing were wrong, but that's just not plausible. They must think we're all as gullible as Scott Brown. I don't know anything about war or the fog that ensues, but I do know that it's not that difficult to get the facts, or at least agree on a consistent story, before going public, especially when a chain of command is in place and accuracy is important. As every scheming, lying kid knows: Get your story straight before anyone talks. Kids can do this but the Pentagon can't? Excuse me, but kids pull this off all the time even when things don't go as planned. And with kids, there probably isn't a well-defined chain of command with only certain people authorized to speak.
Now, not all kids are good at this. But many are really good schemers and liars when they have to be, and even though the adults might suspect something is wrong — and often they don't suspect a thing — the accomplished schemers and liars keep their story straight and get away with. It happens all the time. That's who we should want in the Pentagon when they grow up, but we have our priorities all screwed up. We want honest, principled people with integrity in the Pentagon, when we should be putting the good liars in there, who know how to concoct a story and stick to it. Instead, we put bad liars in there, and look at the result.
Alive, bin Laden would have been worth a lot. Imagine the money that would
have been made from a video in which bin Laden was forced to have gay sex.
Wait a second.
Maybe I'm wrong about this. Constantly changing your story might be the way to go. How will the adults ever figure out who broke the window, or took the car out, or brought the beer, or whatever, if the kids are united not in telling the same story, but in telling constantly changing stories. Not only does that hide the truth, it also keeps the attention on the changing stories, instead of meaningful questions. In this case, the questions include:
1. Why issue an order to kill, rather than capture, bin Laden? Alive, he would have been worth a lot. Imagine the money that would have been made from a video in which bin Laden was forced to have gay sex. I'm just sayin'.
2. Why announce that we killed him, if it's true that revenge attacks are likely? Why risk having innocents killed? As I wrote in a previous article, "Why did we announce that U.S. forces killed bin Laden, if indeed it's true that the announcement could lead to more terrorist attacks? Why not wait a few years, then say the crazed lone nut Lee Harvey Sirhan Sirhan shot bin Laden in the back from the front fifteen times with a six-shooter?"
3. Is it now the government's position that al Qaeda might attack us to get revenge? That's funny, because for years we have been told they attack us because they hate us for our freedom, and those who suggested that they attack us to get revenge have been ridiculed.
These are important questions, but the focus has been on the killing itself and the subsequent ever-changing tale.
Looks like the scheming liars in the Pentagon know what they're doing after all.
And that's no lie.