Why did Joe Ellis make up the stories about himself that he has apparently been telling to his students at Mount Holyoke about his service in Vietnam on General William Westmoreland's staff, about his work in the civil rights movement in the sixties, even about scoring the winning touchdown in a crucial game for our alma mater, Gonzaga College High School in Washington D.C.?
It's mysterious behavior mysterious for a distinguished and successful writer, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, to brag and tell casually self-glorifying lies to his students, like a drunk maundering on his tenth beer at the Blarney Stone. When I heard about Ellis' concoctions, I wanted, out of loyalty, to find a way to dismiss them or excuse them.
I experimented jesuitically forgive the expression, Father Clements with rationales. Show me someone who criticizes Joe for juicing up his lectures, I said to myself, and I will show you someone who has never stood before a roomful of yawning, eye-rolling college students in turned-around baseball caps, slouching toward the horizontal in their chairs, some of them actually snoring, heads thrown back and mouths wide open, so that you see all the way to the tonsils a classroom that looks like the waiting room at Dulles International when it's socked in by a three-day blizzard.
(I speak as a university professor myself. My own students are invariably alert and thoughtful, my lectures reliably fascinating, and my seminars as lively as the Algonquin Round Table. I have, however, heard of this situation arising.)
If it happens to be a three-hour class, a professor may find himself approaching the two-hour mark with his brain hitting the wall, the needle on the gas gauge standing well below Empty, and questions like this tickertaping across the back of his mind: "Jesus, did I finish that sentence? Was I talking about Montaigne, or Lyndon Johnson? Did I tell them that story before? Or did I tell it last term? I CAN'T REMEMBER! Who won World War II anyway?"
In the practice of Shinto, the Japanese begin their prayers by clapping their hands loudly to awaken the spirits reposing in the rocks and trees. A similar approach might work on students.
Or else, the professor could try a different approach. He could tell some good lies not hard for college professors, who often harbor an inner Indiana Jones.
There was the time in the sixties, the professor could say, when Brigid Bardot and I were at our summer place in Antibes, and an urgent call came through from the White House, from Lyndon Johnson's special assistant, Mike Montaigne. Victor Charlie was on the warpath. The Tet offensive had just erupted. Numbah Ten! The President needed the me in Saigon, yesterday!, to cut orders from MAC-V to I-Corps and retake the Imperial City of Hue. The President himself came on the line: "Son, you tell Westy he can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs." I took the next Huey to the Delta.
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. A sophomore tosses in his sleep.
Kids, the professor could say, it was touch and go. The devils in black pajamas had damn near overrun the LZ at Cholon when we landed. I popped some Willie Peter from the AK, and my mortarman, Joe Biden, let 'em have it with a few bursts of an old Neil Kinnoch speech about his granddad the coal miner going to college. That knocked 'em dead. Victor Charles melted back into the triple-canopy forest, and he took Jane Fonda with him.
I returned to a hero's welcome, the Prof. would remember. Mac Bundy threw me into Bobby Kennedy's pool. I did a cameo on "Laugh-In." I wrote a song called "Bobbie Magee and I," but Kristofferson stole it, the drunk just changed the words a little.
No, I'm afraid not. No excuse, no rationale will work and especially not the foxy formulations some have attempted in Joe Ellis' defense, positively Gallic sleight-of-hand about the elusive interplay between truth and fantasy in the recounting of history.
No: Ellis' lies were simply a disgraceful and disgracefully stupid business that betrayed his duty as a teacher and wrecked his intellectual credibility.