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October 15, 2016

Sir Walter Scott, famous Scottish author, wrote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

The people of the United States are currently enduring what may well be the most appalling national election in our country’s history. Approval ratings of the candidates for the two major parties are at record lows. Presidential debates do little to clarify the issues because there is an overload of blaming and name calling.

Many historians agree that the first casualty of war is the truth. Truth has certainly been a casualty of this election cycle.

My mother’s punishment of choice when I said a bad word, spoke ugly to or about another person, or told a lie was to wash out my mouth with yellow Octagon soap. She often repeated my granny’s refrain, “The truth is a beautiful thing.”  Granny was quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I recall a scene in the motion picture A Few Good Men. One exchange between actors Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson becomes especially heated. Nicholson, a marine colonel, is testifying in a military court martial. Cruise is an attorney in the Navy. The two men yell at each other.

“I want the truth!”

“You can’t handle the truth.”

Then, as so often happens, the truth comes out.

I was taught that the ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” was more than a courtroom rule. It was for everyday life. Before I ever saw an episode of Perry Mason or Matlock on television, I was taught to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God. My grandfather used to say, “Always tell the truth even when it hurts, and a lot of times it will.”

More than the continuous friction that produces more heat than light, the thing that bothers me most about this election is the example being set for young Americans. Has disregarded for the truth become our national norm? Or does the first point of the Boy Scout law hold any sway? A scout is, first of all, trustworthy.

The motto of Harvard University is Veritas – Truth.

One of the most intriguing guests to appear on the television program To Tell the Truth was Frank Abagnale. The show featured Gary Moore as host and regular panelists Bill Cullen, Kitty Carlisle, and Peggy Cass. Three contestants, all claiming to be the same person, were brought onstage.  Only one was telling the truth; the other two were not. The panel was to discern, by asking questions, who was truthful and who was lying. When Frank Abagnale appeared as a guest on the program in 1977, he was the truth teller. He was, however, the greatest imposter of them all.

Frank Abagnale wrote Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of A Real Fake, his autobiography. In the Steven Spielberg movie based on the book, Leonardo De Caprio plays the part of Frank. When this true crime story first appeared in print in 1980, it made the list of best sellers in The New York Times Book Review.

In a period of five years, Frank Abagnale passed $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in every state and 26 foreign countries. He did it by perpetrating one scam after another. He impersonated an airline pilot traveling around the world in the cockpit of jets, even taking over the controls. He also played the role of a pediatrician and faked his way into the position of temporary resident supervisor at a hospital in Georgia. Posing as a lawyer, he passed the Louisiana bar exam, and conned his way into a position in the State Attorney General’s office.  He taught a semester of college-level sociology with a fake degree from Columbia University.

In reality, Frank was a teenage high school dropout following his parent’s divorce. At first his con game was a matter of survival. Then he became enamored with the challenge and the ego trip that came with playing important men. Both the book and the movie treat with humor his years of impersonations, swindles, and felonies. Abagnale was arrested and convicted of his crimes.  He was released from prison after five years on the condition that he would cooperate with the government apprehending counterfeiters.

Most of us have taken our share of true-false quizzes during our school years. The simple truth is, we take them every day. Mark Twain said, “Lying is mankind’s most universal weakness.”

While those who are paid to do fact checking during this election are busy trying to keep up with an avalanche of falsehoods, half-truths, or misleading statements, the rest of us have an obligation to model truthfulness and honesty for our children and grandchildren. That is not always easy. Consider the predicament of one pastor trying to teach his children the Biblical admonition to speak the truth in love.

Consider the quandary of a pastor who had been trying diligently to teach his two children, an eight-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter, to tell the truth.  One Sunday, after the morning worship service, his children were by his side when an elderly woman from the congregation presented him with a homemade cake. He took the cake home where his wife engaged him in conversation.

“Who made the cake?” she asked.

“Mrs. Hawthorne. It’s her famous red velvet cake,” the pastor replied.

“We won’t be able to eat it,” his wife said. “Just throw it away.”

“Why can’t we eat it?” the surprised reverend asked.

“It will be full of cat hair.  You’ve been in her home.  She has five or six cats.  They walk all over the kitchen counters. She calls it red velvet cake, but it’s cat hair cake.”

The skeptical pastor cut the cake. His children eagerly watched. Sure enough, the cake was full of cat hair.  The disappointed children sighed. The cake was tossed into the trash.

The following Sunday, the children were again standing by their father’s side as he greeted people at the church door.  Mrs. Hawthorne asked, “Preacher, did you like that red velvet cake?”

Fully aware that his children were listening for his answer, the quick-thinking dad responded, “I’ll tell you the truth, Mrs. Hawthorne. A cake like that just doesn’t last very long around our house!”

The truth really is a beautiful thing.

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