Real men just make it all up

I was in my local branch of Barnes and Noble at the weekend looking for a birthday gift. My hands hovered over the bestselling Founding Brothers: the revolutionary generation by the renowned historian Joseph Ellis, the winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction and an American historian with a curriculum vitae every bit as impressive as that of, say, Baron Dacre of Glanton (aka Hugh Trevor-Roper). But then something stopped me. Did I really want to buy a book by a liar, a man who has broken the Ciceronian principle that a historian is someone who must never, ever, utter an untruth?

This time last month, Ellis, 57, was at the very top of his profession as history professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts: a small and exclusive private women's college of the kind that Waspy Americans like to think of as "toney". He had written seven major books that attracted both critical and commercial acclaim; he was an expert who had written for publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the New Republic. His PhD was from Yale, and four years ago he won the National Book Award for his definitive biography of Thomas Jefferson. That year, he also told the Boston Globe that he was thinking of writing a book about his experiences in Vietnam.

Er, I beg your pardon, Professor? Yes, Ellis, the man who had been a civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1964 and then a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and a platoon leader in Vietnam in 1965 - whence he returned to join the anti-war movement at Yale. Oh, and he had also been a football hero in his high-school days. Good meaty stuff for the definitive, climactic work that would blend his own experiences with a historical perspective: he had told his students in lectures of the horrible things he had seen in Vietnam, and how it had all coalesced to affect his view of the contemporary world.

The problem for Ellis - and a personal tragedy that is blowing his life apart - is that he was inventing many of the details of his private life, lie snowballing upon lie until he was living a life of studious deceit. Ellis never served west of the Mississippi during a period when 59,000 other Americans lost their lives in Vietnam; he could not write the book he had envisaged because he had never been to Vietnam, despite lecturing regularly at West Point. "For me," Ellis said last November, "the teaching side of my life and the writing side of my life are part of the same collective whole." That is precisely what is now worrying even his supporters - that his historical works, to put it bluntly, can no longer be trusted. Last week, once his lies were exposed, Ellis was hardly contrite: "Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made," he said.

This phenomenon is hardly unique to America. Trevor-Roper may have grievously misjudged the genuineness of the so-called "Hitler" diaries, but he was not a liar. Yet I could name several British journalists - contemporary historians, as some pompously see themselves - who are always inventing material (no, don't worry, I am not thinking of you, X, nor you, Y - but more of you, Z). Poor Jonathan Aitken, his life governed by extravagant braggadocio, disastrously relied on the mighty sword of British justice to adjudicate on whether he was telling the truth over meetings he insisted never took place. And there are more examples of biographies made up by British people, some of which court rules prevent us from publishing.

Yet the Ellis affair is peculiarly American in its outrageousness. In a relentlessly commercial, celebrity-crazed culture, it is not enough merely to be a highly successful academic whose books make a fortune; you have to be a larger-than-life character, a hero not only to your students, but also to the public who buy your books. Thus, unsatisfied with his actual personality, Ellis felt forced to inflate and glamorise his real life. In a society that places such a high premium on heavy salesmanship and shameless bullshit to achieve results, Ellis strayed over the border of self-promotion into a compulsive need to reinvent his own personality and to make the package he offered even more sellable and admired.

The greatest exponent of this was Ronald Reagan, who told numerous people (including the Israeli prime minister) that he had been "there" at the liberation of Nazi concentration camps in 1945: all complete nonsense, yet told with unnerving sincerity by The Great Communicator. Even FDR was caught telling porkies. A gruesome memory of the Clinton years was when the body of a former US ambassador to Switzerland was dug up and removed from the Arlington National Cemetery because he not been in the Merchant Marines during the Second World War (as he claimed), but had been a student. The tragedy of such people is that they are so driven that they continue to weave lies about themselves even when they have become highly successful; as many as one in ten such Americans, according to a survey, keeps inventing facts in this way.

Why? First, this is a "get away with what you can" culture. Second, whether it is in politics or academe or anywhere else, selling yourself becomes the overriding key to success. Finally, there is the macho factor: men reared on the simplicities and falsehoods of John Wayne movies feel compelled to up the ante to prove themselves men. It was not enough for Ellis or Reagan to be a superb historian or a good actor, so they had to invent fraudulent masculine credentials to live up to the myths of their upbringings - just like that other tough guy who never heard a shot fired in anger, John Wayne. Let's ride off into the sunset, fellas.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Best of young British