For Historian's Students, a Hard Lesson on Lying

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

"For me," Joseph J. Ellis told a reporter in November, "the teaching side of my life and the writing side of my life are part of the same collective whole." If true, that could be a problem now for Ellis, a popular professor at Mount Holyoke College who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in history for his book "Founding Brothers" but was found this week to have made false claims to his students about serving in Vietnam.

Ellis' deception has prompted a lively public and private debate among academics. Although some defend Ellis' scholarly work as impeccable, critics say the incident raises troubling issues about the integrity of the classroom and the effect on vulnerable students.

David J. Garrow, a professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, is even more disturbed at those who initially rushed to Ellis' defense, a group that includes Mount Holyoke President Joanne V. Creighton. "I can't imagine people taking the position that knowingly lying to your students in class is somehow less immoral than lying to your readers in print," said Garrow, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for "Bearing the Cross," a biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The incident has reopened old wounds about Vietnam and raised new questions about the infiltration of pop culture into academia. A scholar as attuned to popular sensibilities as Ellis could not help but know that lectures on the Vietnam War were bound to be better received if they were delivered by somebody who was there. At the college lectern, as on the talk show, personal experience often seems to trump every other contemporary American quality. "Academia generally and the writing of history in particular have become much more vulnerable to these pop cultural trends and to the whole culture of celebrity," Garrow said.

More than mere conveyors of facts, college professors are mentors teaching students how to behave in the real world, said author Jim Sleeper, who teaches democracy and journalism at Yale University. Today's students have come of age in an era of relativism, he said, watching former President Clinton grow more popular after his own public deceptions and learning history through fictional films such as "Pearl Harbor" and "JFK." Precisely at times such as these, he said, students need good teachers to help them sort fact from fiction.

Vietnam has come back to haunt us, he said, not only in false claims such as Ellis' but also "in terms of our intellectual confusion, what we stand for."

College President Hopes 'to Repair the Damage'

A usually gregarious presence on campus, Ellis, 55, confessed Monday that he had made up stories about serving in Vietnam, the same day an article in the Boston Globe revealed he had actually spent his three years in the Army teaching history at the U.S. Military Academy. He is no longer scheduled to teach the course on Vietnam in which the article said Ellis had embroidered his lectures with detailed recollections of his Army past. Creighton has since said she and Ellis will "talk further and begin to repair the damage."

Ellis set his own trap through an interview published in the Globe last fall, said investigative reporter Walter Robinson. In a story about "Founding Brothers," Ellis' exploration of the Founding Fathers in the first year of the Republic, the professor said he had been a civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1964, a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and a platoon leader in Vietnam in 1965, and later had joined the antiwar movement at Yale, where he was a graduate student.

The published story was disseminated to a wider audience than Ellis had ever had, Robinson said, and among the readers were those who recognized the falsehoods. He remains perplexed about why someone of his stature would have knowingly exposed himself that way.

Students who had held Ellis in high esteem were deeply shaken, Robinson said, and "his deception to the Globe seemed insignificant in comparison."

In a written statement, Ellis apologized to family, friends, colleagues and students for his Vietnam statements and "any other distortions about my personal life." He said: "Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made."

Outraged war veterans and other critics, however, refuse to let him off the hook.

To Emory's Garrow, the case against Ellis is "absolutely open and shut" and damning in every respect. Ellis, he believes, should be barred from ever teaching history again if he doesn't remove himself voluntarily.

Author Says Historian's Works Deserve Scrutiny

Garrow, for one, does not accept the notion that Ellis' reliance on well-known and readily available sources necessarily exempts his published histories from at least the suspicion of distortion. Ellis' proclivity toward deceit could attract him to what Garrow considers a dangerous and prevalent technique among historians. Rather than sifting and judging various versions of a single event, some historians go with the single best story, he said. "They are motivated almost entirely by a fixation on the dramatic. The problem is that some stories are just too good to believe."

Garrow said the increasing public visibility of academia and of its so-called stars "is leading people who ought to know better to go with the most dramatic or memorable version of an historical story, rather than the most careful or conservatively considered version."

Ellis' books have been both critical and commercial successes, noted John Rhodehamel, the Norris Foundation Curator of American History at the Huntington Library in San Marino. Ellis' writing is vivid, he said, but he hasn't broken new ground. "What he has done is to get across quite brilliantly important ideas about the founding era, particularly its contingency, how uncertain and unpredictable the whole enterprise and its outcome were.

"I have written about this theme myself, but nobody has expressed it better than Ellis has," he said.

Rhodehamel and others are willing to cut Ellis some slack--at least in his scholarship.

"Nobody has said yet, and I don't expect to hear it, that his published work is negatively colored by this self-embellishment," said Stanford professor David M. Kennedy, the 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner in history and a former Yale classmate of Ellis'. "We often need some perspective on this. I think what he did [lying to students] was professionally irresponsible and he has got to take the consequences. But it's not as if he misrepresented the nature of the Divine."

One of the main themes of "American Sphinx," for which Ellis won the National Book Award in 1997, was the self-delusional and ambiguous personality of Thomas Jefferson, Kennedy observed. "It's at least possible to imagine that Joe was peculiarly suited to appreciate Jefferson's character."

Ashbel Green, Ellis' editor at Knopf, said: "We intend to keep publishing him." A new book, already under discussion, "is safely in the 18th century," he said.

"I don't know anybody who hasn't exaggerated his past in some fashion, not perhaps as much as he did. It seems to be part of human nature," Green said, recalling an old adage: "The older a man gets, the faster he ran as a boy."

However, Arnita Jones, executive director of the American Historical Assn., said she would not be surprised if Ellis' scholarship came under a new kind of scrutiny, particularly from reporters.

Ellis certainly isn't the first community pillar to have been caught embellishing his role in the Vietnam War. Preachers, congressmen, school superintendents and principals are among the thousands of men whose tall tales and falsifications have been exposed, largely through the efforts of war veterans.

Vietnam War No Stranger to Deceit

To writer Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for The Nation magazine and a professor at the New School for Social Research, the Ellis affair is but the latest eddy in a river of deceit and self-deception that flowed from Vietnam.

"Somehow, there is a deep connection between Vietnam and Walter Mitty in our national psyche," he said. "The war begins with a lie about the Gulf of Tonkin--one of the biggest whoppers ever told the American public--and it carries on with a series of whoppers by Robert McNamara and others about the progress of the war. The entire undertaking was predicated on a web of falsehoods and delusions, which continue to this very day.

"Al Gore wants to pretend he did rather more than he actually did; Bob Kerrey wants to pretend he did much less; Bill Clinton wants us all to forget that he ever received a draft notice. There is something about Vietnam that continues to elicit mendacity in our national psyche.

"You have to credit Ellis, however, with introducing a pretty good move into this dance: He wanted to fake a good war record, the better to have made himself out an heroic opponent of the war."

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Elizabeth Mehren contributed to this story.

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