Most Americans have never heard of Charles Van Doren. In the 1950s he became famous – and then infamous – as an attractive and brilliantly successful contestant on a network TV quiz show, “Twenty-One.”
Van Doren came from a distinguished American family. His father was a Pulitzer-Prize winning scholar and a prominent college professor at Columbia University. His mother was a highly successful novelist. An uncle had also been a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer and professor. Charles himself was a promising young English instructor at Columbia. He volunteered to become a contestant on the TV show on an impulse when he got an invitation from one of the producers through a friend. The producers then contrived to have Van Doren win, telling the then current winner to “take a dive” with a promise of future TV appearances.
As it turned out, the producers were routinely engineering who were the winners and losers in order to boost audience ratings. They would secretly provide the questions and answers to favored contestants in advance, despite an elaborate pretense of locking them into a bank vault and using an armored car and a police escort to take them to the studio. It wasn’t a fraud, the producers later claimed. No laws were broken. It was only “entertainment”. Of course, it was also highly deceptive for the many millions of viewers who watched the show and deeply unfair to the losers.
Van Doren wavered about being given the answers but then went along with the scheme. Over the next several weeks he won $129,000 (more than $1.1 million in current dollars), was featured on the covers of several magazines and became a national celebrity. When the producers decided to replace him as the winner with another contestant, he was offered a lucrative contract with the network for appearances on the “Today Show.” Two years later, a Congressional oversight committee exposed the producers’ scheme with evidence obtained from two disgruntled prior contestants. In a subsequent public hearing, Van Doren finally confessed:
“I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception…When I finally came to a full understanding of what I had done and of what I must do, I have taken a number of steps toward trying to make up for it. I have a long way to go. I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them. Whatever their feeling for me now, my affection for them is stronger today than ever before. I am making this statement because of them. I hope my being here will serve them well and lastingly.”
In fact, Van Doren paid a lasting price. He was widely vilified. He had to resign his prestigious teaching position, along with losing his contract with the TV network, and he became a national symbol of personal dishonesty and betrayal. Eventually he became an editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, did some teaching in a small college, and over time published several moderately successful books. Fifty years later he acknowledged that “the man who cheated on ‘Twenty-One’ is still part of me.”
How times have changed! Now we have a President who is a chronic, knowing, shameless liar and cheat, and he is surrounded by a White House staff, cabinet secretaries, Congressional party leaders, elected representatives and a hugely influential cable news network (among other media outlets) that routinely lie to the American people to achieve their personal and political ends. We now live in a culture of deception where – to use that ancient expression – many people think it’s quite alright because the end justifies the means. Where once a lie would have been a career-ending act, it’s now expected and widely tolerated. It seems we have become cynical and fatalistic about it; there are no longer any adverse consequences for deceiving the public. In other words, our political discourse has been deeply corrupted.
We need to restore the idea that this is not acceptable behavior. Lying may serve the interests of the perpetrators, but it’s very likely to be harmful to the recipients. That’s us! This is the reason why “perjury” is a crime in our legal system. We must hold everyone in public life to a higher standard of transparency and honesty and begin to penalize once again those who betray this standard, beginning with Donald Trump. His many lies, and the manifest harm they have caused, should be called out as one of his many grave offenses in any articles of impeachment. The border wall farce is just the latest example.
But that’s only a start. We will also need to create a new “antibiotic” for public mendacity and see that it gets widely distributed. For example, what if any knowing lie by a public official who has taken a formal oath of office (or is a candidate for office) were to become subject to criminal prosecution for perjury. It would very likely have a transformative effect on our public discourse. Freedom of speech for a public official should not include the freedom to lie. Short of such a drastic change, a return to our traditional (1950s) ways of punishing liars could go far toward curing this disease. We should give it a try.