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.

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"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.

Humble origins can be a political asset. William Henry Harrison waged the first presidential campaign with a log-cabin-to-White-House theme; Harrison's supporters ridiculed his opponent, Martin Van Buren, for wearing ruffled shirts and taking baths. In truth Harrison was himself a wealthy man, from a distinguished Virginia family. In acutely class-conscious England the pressure on Labour politicians to bio-vac any sign of privilege has long been intense. Harold Wilson, the Oxford-educated former Prime Minister, cultivated working-class eating habits. In public he smoked a pipe, rather than the more aristocratic cigars he preferred. In the late 1980s a Labour member of Parliament named Michael Meacher, now Tony Blair's Environment Minister, wished it to be inferred that he was a son of the soil. Then a newspaper pointed out that Meacher's father was actually an accountant who merely had retired to a farm, and suggested that Meacher came from a middle-class background. Middle class! Meacher sued the newspaper for libel. (He lost.)

Another person seeking identification with the rural proletariat is Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Photographs always show him wearing a ski mask. Some legends held him to be a former priest, others a veteran guerrilla fighter trained by the Cubans and the Soviets. He turned out to be the son of a prosperous Mexican furniture retailer. He studied sociology and philosophy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and went on to earn a graduate degree and teach in a Mexican university. His ski mask is probably from Orvis.

It's easy to raise an eyebrow at lifosuction, but hard to be censorious. We all permit ourselves some degree of cosmetic suppression, and we are ambivalent about the ethics. Philosophers and theologians send mixed signals. The Sermon on the Mount cautions against hiding your light under a bushel, and an ancient philosophical tradition warns that wrongdoing can take the form of not doing—there are sins of omission as well as of commission. But another long tradition, also going back to antiquity, justifies the sparing disbursement of truth—an "economy of truth," to use the artful locution—in certain circumstances. Edmund Burke once observed, "I do not impute falsehood to the government, but there has been a considerable economy of truth." He characterized economies of truth as "a sort of temperance."

Rather than discourage lifosuction, perhaps, we should encourage people to subtract even more of themselves from public view than they currently do. Book publishers may complain about a glut of memoirs, but they continue to publish truckloads of them. Every week thousands of people place personal ads in newspapers and magazines—small masterpieces of selective revelation. Millions of people have distilled themselves into personal Web pages.

A case can be made, then, for turning the bio-vac up to "high." To be sure, there may be the occasional gruesome accident. With a moment's inattention the assault on unwanted ripples of biography could cause entire personas—pfflttt—to be suddenly sucked into oblivion. Some may see that as too great a risk. I see it as a sort of temperance.