Lies become verbal assassins if discovered

Lies are like land mines.

When fitted onto resumes, falsehoods can sit undetected indefinitely.

Or they can detonate at any moment, proving fatal to careers and credibility.

Public life in America is strewn with wreckage from the reputations of figures sabotaged by their own lies.

From politicians to educators, the deceptions eventually and unexpectedly exploded beneath them, as they did last month for a man who had risen to one of the most prestigious jobs in college athletics.

George O’Leary’s convocation as Notre Dame’s football coach quickly dissolved into disgrace and resignation with the admissions that he lied on his resume for more than two decades about earning a master’s degree and playing football in college.

“It’s hard to say how often it goes on because we only hear about the ones who get caught,” said Steve Sverdlik, a philosophy and ethics professor at Southern Methodist University. “They’re thinking it’s going to help them somehow, and they’re not going to get caught.”

There’s plenty of discouraging evidence that a younger generation is learning the lessons of deceit.

A recent nationwide study of about 2,200 college students found that 13 percent of those with resumes had put inaccurate information on them.

“So there’s a little resume fraud going on even among college students,” said researcher Don McCabe, a management professor at Rutgers University.

A 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning author and history professor, Joseph Ellis, is among the many offenders who have admitted fabricating Vietnam War roles. Another was Toronto Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson, fired in 1999 over combat lies.

In the mid-`90s, former U.S. Rep. Wes Cooley was convicted of lying in Oregon voters’ pamphlets after claiming he fought in the Korean War; federal Judge James Ware’s nomination to a higher court was tripped up by the discovery that he lied repeatedly about being the brother of a black teen-ager killed by whites in 1963.

The latest debacle echoed that of Lena Guerrero, whose rising political career as a Texas railroad commissioner crumbled in 1992 when she admitted lying on her resume about having a college degree.

The lies seem uniquely American to scholar William May. To explain all the “inflationary rhetoric,” he said, look at the sort of society we have, large and urban, in contrast to smaller, traditional societies “where everybody knows everybody else, and formal credentials are not so important.”

“The name of the game is to advertise yourself,” said May, an ethics professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University who taught at Yale University this fall.

That leads from airbrushing past blemishes to overstatement and outright falsification, even if the consequences can be severe.

“Certainly, academically, there’s more lying today because more people get an education. You didn’t have to lie about a college degree 100 years ago.”

Even if this isn’t the Golden Age of Lying, the pace and variety of daily routines have set up an ethical obstacle course that great-grandpa never faced.

Americans seem to have more opportunities than ever to be dishonest, and the technology of cellphones, satellite TV, computers, and the Internet have added new avenues for fraudulent behavior.

Michael Josephson, a Southern California ethics consultant, sees in society a disturbing readiness to lie, in its many forms _ plagiarizing, cheating on taxes, faking an illness, bragging about sex that didn’t happen, or denying sex that did.

“People are very apt to rationalize if they can think of any justification for a lie,” said Josephson, head of the Josephson Institute of Ethics. “They’ll lie about their kid’s age to save a few dollars at Disney World or to get past the deductible on an insurance claim.

“Most of these cheaters act as if it’s a victimless crime, and it never is. If you lied on your resume and got the job, then a qualified candidate didn’t get it.”

People typically try to trivialize their lies, he said, whether to themselves or others.

“If it was trivial, why bother to lie?” Josephson said. “You must have thought you would gain some advantage. You can’t have it both ways.”