George Washington, Richard Pryor, and Harry S. Truman
by Maggie Van Ostrand
George Washington started it.
When I was a kid, we honored the birthday of George (“I cannot tell a lie.”) Washington by listening to the grown-ups spin stories of both his honesty and his pitching ability when he threw a half-dollar across the Potomac River. Did he really? We must scratch this myth and sniff out the truth. Fact: it wasn’t a half-dollar Washington threw, it was a British guinea. Fact: it wasn’t the Potomac, it was the Rapahannock.
Even as a child, George Washington had the reputation of always telling the truth. It was said that, when 6-year old-George cut down his father’s favorite cherry tree with his new hatchet, he copped to the cut when his father asked, “George, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?” We believed the story because back in those days, we could. This was little George’s moment of truth, and he bravely replied, allegedly, "I cannot tell a lie, Papa. I cut it with my hatchet." Today, we'd wonder what parent in his right mind would give a 6-year-old a hatchet. Probably not even Lizzie Bordon had a hatchet at that young age. If you could find such a parent, today’s hatchets are probably child-proofed like everything else and can’t be accessed without a blowtorch, so it's probably fake news.
Nobody can prove if this tale, handed down through the ages, is true or not but, if his father caught him standing by the cut tree, hatchet in hand, what choice did he have but to tell the truth? I don’t see how George, caught red-handed, could have even saved himself with the kind of lie all kids tell and you don’t know why they bother. The kind of lie which brings forth in every generation the parents warning, “If you lie to me, you’ll be punished, not for what you did but for lying.” Remember that one? Heard it from your parents? Said it yourself? Or more recently in today's politics, "It's not the lies, it's the cover-up."
What if little George had had Steven King's imagination and said, “The tree was about to attack me so I made a pre-emptive strike.” Or, "It was arboricide, Dad, the tree killed itself. I saw the whole thing." Or, "I will tell you this: That tree is not dead. It's fake. Sad."
Probably the most desperately creative lie I ever heard is attributed to the comedian, Richard Pryor, who, when caught by his wife in a compromising position with another woman, leapt out of bed and said, in the voice of a man unjustly accused, “Who’re ya gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?” Maybe Pryor wasn’t president of a country, but that was a very political answer.
Nothing but the truth? I have learned that people are capable of telling everything but the truth, with or without swearing oaths. Take congress. (Please.)
George Washington may have started the Lying Politician Syndrome from which so many of them gain riches and power, but there was one American president who was the exception: Harry (“Give ‘em hell”) Truman who said, “I never gave them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”