LOS ANGELES -- When I first worked here years ago, I thought the movie business had an ethic all its own, separate from other lines of work, separate from politics and everyday life. People lied to each other and it didn't seem to matter much.
"You're lying!" one man I knew shouted at another during a meeting. The second man nodded and said, "That may be true, but . . . "
The Hollywood Ethic, as I thought of it then, was: "OK, you caught me; good for you. So let's go back a bit and start over." There seemed to be no real price for lying.
I was reminded of that a couple of weeks ago when the Los Angeles Times, which has some kind of geographic moral
obligation to monitor sex, lies and videotape, ran a business-section story on Michael Eisner. In local legend, the chairman of Disney would have a redwood for a nose if he were Pinocchio.
The headline was: "Awful Truth -- Is Lying a Practiced Art in Hollywood?" Yes, reported Claudia Eller, recounting what Mickey Mouse's boss said over the past 14 months on the expensive hiring and firing of his "best friend," Michael Ovitz, as the company's president. I won't bore you with the details, except to say that Mr. Eisner regularly used the word "ludicrous" to the Times over those months to dismiss gossip and newspaper reports that things were going badly between the top two dwarfs in the Magic Kingdom.
When the truth finally came out, Mr. Eisner said it was all "a mistake."
Mistakes, as we are being told in many venues, including the capital of this great country, are no longer made by people. They are, rather, acts of God or nature. Thus men and women should no longer be held accountable for what they do or did, if they say they won't do it anymore. As Mr. Eisner told Disney shareholders the other day: "It's behind us. . . . A mistake. Won't happen again."
I take that to be a pledge that Mr. Ovitz, who was paid a $90 million settlement to leave quietly, will not be hired again as president. I certainly hope so for my 12-year-old's sake. We give her a little money each year to invest (or play the market), and she picks the stocks to buy -- and Disney is her favorite.
Well, hooray for Hollywood! Either the ethic of showbiz has spread to the country -- Disney directors and stock analysts argued that Mr. Eisner was right to deceive them to keep the stock price up -- or I was a very naive young fellow to think there were more severe penalties for lying (and deception) in most other towns. Not only did I think liars should never be trusted again, but some should never be spoken to again.
We can live with it
But then who cared (or cares) about a lot of movie people cheating each other all the time? Washington, that is a place to care about. The capital corruption of the day, involving the financing of campaigns, is despicable and disgusting. It's not pretty, but it is tolerable. We can live with it -- and have for a long time.
Telling lies, though, is different, like drops of acid on metal. Our pretty little democracy is based on faith that one among the many can represent us because he or she is ultimately accountable to us for word and deed.
Right now, the White House and Congress are blindly determined to escape accountability. Washington has become a capital of mistake-sayers, if not mistake-makers, beginning with the president and vice president of the United States.
The difference between saying and making is refined every day, but generally it can be defined as the difference between active and passive voices. "I made a mistake," is not something you hear much. "Mistakes were made," is the preferred version now -- as if lying, deception, evasion and such were like little tornadoes that come from the sky, touching down at random.
Washington has more lawyers even than Hollywood, which has "agents," men and women practicing without license or canon of ethics. Or any ethics, some would say. And lawyers, including the distinguished Yale Law School graduate entrusted with protecting the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, know the shades of and differences between the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
President Clinton, judging by his words, has never made a mistake himself; it's always chance and circumstance or someone else. I do not think or want to think of him as a liar -- we have only one president at a time -- but he is a gifted purveyor of truth as salami, giving the customers, us, as thin a slice as he can cut day after day.
You cringe at the cleverness of his denial. When he used the word "solely" in his press conference last Friday, saying that he never made a decision solely because of a campaign contribution, you immediately jumped to the conclusion that something was about to come out involving a smelly quid pro quo. The man is quick enough to cover up before we even know what he's hiding. It's politics as three-card monte.
Why is he doing this to himself and to us? He's finished as a candidate and almost done as a politician. But constitutional lame ducks can still strut good stuff. The man who knows so much about both the glories and the dark corners of our politics should be the man to clean it up. He never has to beg for a campaign dime again. To hell with the money, to hell with the party and the Congress and Al Gore. They can take care of themselves in a cleaner environment.
All Bill Clinton is now is president. The time has come for him to truly and truthfully act like it. The political system that he )R mastered is corrupt and corrupting. He knows that better than anyone. This is his main chance; he has to choose between accountability or contempt.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 3/14/97