Even on a résumé, less can be more

--> homas M. Menino, the mayor of Boston, is not a flashy fellow. He gets tongue-tied easily, as many of us do, and he lacks the aura of a Willie Brown or a Rudolph Giuliani. But he is a tribune of the city's neighborhoods and working people, and he was elected to a third term last fall with more than 70 percent of the vote.

One of the few clouds to darken his campaign, and it was a small one, came a couple of weeks before the election, when The Boston Globe alleged that Menino had committed a familiar political transgression—tweaking his résumé in a manner inconsistent with the facts. Menino, the Globe observed, "has long cultivated an image of himself as a neighborhood kid who spurned college and made good instead by dint of hard work and shrewd politicking." The newspaper now disclosed that Menino had indeed earned a college degree—an associate's degree from Chamberlayne Junior College. The degree isn't mentioned in any of the mayor's official biographies. When a reporter asked Menino about this achievement, Menino replied, "You're just trying to dig up dirt on me."

We are all familiar with the more usual résumé-padding story, whereby a public figure incorporates credentials or accomplishments to which he or she has no honest claim. A recent case in point is that of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis, whose anecdotes about military service in Vietnam, offered repeatedly in his Mount Holyoke classroom, turned out to be untrue. There have been many others. The Mayan peasant woman who is presented in the widely acclaimed and supposedly autobiographical book I, Rigoberta Menchú (1984) appears to have invented many of the central details of her personal history. Two years ago the civil-rights leader Paul Parks, an African-American veteran of World War II, was presented with an award by the Berlin chapter of B'nai B'rith for his role in the liberation of Dachau—a role, as it happens, that no one can document and that all evidence contradicts. The actress Sandra Bullock once claimed to have been voted "Girl Most Likely to Brighten Your Day" in high school, though in fact she wasn't.

Everyone agrees that this kind of cosmetic makeover is wrong. But what about lifosuction—the removal from one's biography of innocuous yet somehow unsightly elements that happen to be true? It is a common procedure. Musicians, for instance, have a powerful incentive to make sure that public pose and personal background are appropriately in sync. Jim Morrison, of The Doors, who fashioned himself into an icon of anarchy and self-destruction, never took pains to point out that he was the son of an admiral. During the past decade a cadre of rap musicians, black and white, have presented personal histories presumptively rooted in the violent bleakness of the streets but in truth often rooted in the bedroom communities of New York and Los Angeles. The street cred of the white rapper Vanilla Ice diminished rapidly in the face of allegations involving an affluent suburban high school in Dallas and the birth name Robert Van Winkle.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"The Life of O'Reilly" (The Washington Post, December 13, 2000)
"O'Reilly suggests his appeal is his plain-spoken, hardheaded, Irish-Catholic toughness.... Time out. Let's try that 'no spin' thing here." By Paul Farhi

Lifosuction is often attempted when issues of class are on the line. Bill O'Reilly, the television talk-show pugilist and the host of The O'Reilly Factor, has stated, "I understand working-class Americans. I'm as lower-middle-class as they come." The Washington Post has noted that O'Reilly grew up in not-exactly-working-class Westbury, Long Island; went to a private college without benefit of financial aid; and holds master's degrees from Boston University and Harvard. (Also, the "used car" he drives is a Lexus.) The television commentator and newspaper columnist Mike Barnicle imbues his opinions with the rough-and-tumble attitude of blue-collar Boston. He does not dateline his work "Lincoln," where he actually lives, a wealthy suburb that once made a local road into a one-way street to deter entry by people from an adjacent, working-class town.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In