M. Hirsh Goldberg seems honestly mystified by the idea that anyone would find something funny about the idea of a public relations man positioning himself as a champion of truth-telling.
But the former press secretary to Theodore R. McKeldin (during the end of his last mayoral term) and Gov. Harry R. Hughes simply cannot see the irony in his call for a National Honesty Day.
"It's unfortunate that people have these perceptions," he says finally, his round face a study in guilelessness, his gaze direct from behind his glasses. "In some ways, we have gotten more honest [in politics]. It's a far cry from Lyndon Johnson, for example."
The Washington story
Or from George Washington. Well, not George Washington, but Parson Mason Weems, a Maryland native who published the famous "I-cannot-tell-a-lie" in an early biography of the first president.
The story, as many now know, was made up. Furthermore, Weems was not a parson, Goldberg says, and the parish he claimed was wholly fictional. He concocted his lie about the president and the cherry tree in order to encourage honesty in children.
"Now that is highly ironical," concludes Goldberg, who researched this tale for "The Book of Lies." (Morrow, 1990).
For six years, Goldberg has celebrated National Honesty Day on April 30 and tried to encourage others to do the same. The date was chosen with much consideration. April, he points out, begins with a day dedicated to lying, then moves on to the IRS deadline of April 15, which he calls "National Fudge Day."
"I thought the month deserved to go out on a higher note," he said. So, in 1991, he persuaded Chase's Annual Events to include the day in its vast catalog of annual celebrations, listing him as the contact.
Since then, he has spent the end of April in a flurry of radio and television interviews, most of them conducted from his Pikesville home. He has been on the BBC and the Spanish-language version of CNN. (The final question: how he felt about having a president who was the biggest liar of all time.)
'Honest Abe' awards
He also gives out "Honest Abe" awards, named for President Lincoln, who was pretty much a straight-shooter as far as Goldberg can tell. This year, the winners include the FBI chemist who went public with the mistakes made by the FBI lab and the Liggett Group, first tobacco company to admit smoking is addictive.
The "Honest Abes" also gave the nod to Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, for telling the truth about his life in the Mafia; Jim Carrey, for making honesty pay in the movie "Liar, Liar"; and Ellen DeGeneres for "telling the truth about what she has in her closet."
"Dishonorable" mentions went to the 63-year-old who gave birth (she lied about her age to doctors) and O. J. Simpson. (If the shoe fit, you must admit.) Simpson is one of the few who can claim back-to-back appearances on Goldberg's list.
What do average people lie most about? Age, sex and money, according to Goldberg, who is 54, male, and making a comfortable living, judging by his corner office with its view of Towson. Is it ever right to lie? Well, it's certainly not advisable to tell the truth at the risk of others' feelings. It's one thing to blow the whistle on a corrupt employer, Goldberg says, another to insult someone's appearance.
"I am in no way holding myself up as a paragon of honesty here," says Goldberg, who nevertheless has no recollection of "spinning" the media at any time, or dissembling for any of his bosses/clients. "We all have our lapses in that regard. I just think we need to do more as a society to encourage and support honesty."
Of course, that doesn't keep his wife and grown children from having a little fun at this expense when Goldberg is caught shading the truth around the house.
Career in books
Goldberg's interest in honesty grew out of his second career, as what his editor at William Morrow calls a chronicler of human foibles. In 1986, he took on famous mistakes in "The Blunder Book." He followed up with "The Book of Lies" in 1990 and "The Complete Book of Greed," which has just been released in paperback.
Of all these books, "Blunders" has been the most popular; it's now in its 16th printing. But "Lies" also has its fans, particularly in the Pacific Rim. The book has been translated into Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
Does this mean the East is more interested in the truth than the West? Goldberg isn't sure.
But he did once swap the Korean version for some dry-cleaning. Honestly.
Although he has worked in public relations most of his adult life -- he was only 24 when he served as McKeldin's press secretary -- Goldberg has been a writer since he was 8. That was when he set out to write his first book, the story of a cowboy. He was disappointed to find it filled only eight pages when typed, not quite book-length, at least not in those pre-minimalist days.
A devoted reader of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not," he created his own version: "Goldberg's Fabulous Facts." He could have used that same title in the 1970s, when he wrote and published what he called the Jewish Ripley's -- "The Jewish Connection," and its sequel, "The Jewish Paradox." (Goldberg's law: "If anything can be misconstrued about the Jews, it will be and has been.")
"I'm a historian of the nooks of crannies," he told a Sun reporter almost 20 years ago. His books are carefully researched -- a good idea if one is going to catalog mistakes and mendacity. He tries to find at least three sources for every anecdote he uses, although some single sources -- the Guinness Book of World Records, for example, which is known for its strenuous vetting process -- are considered strong enough to stand on their own.
"To tell the truth -- " he begins at one point during this interview, then laughs and blushes when the reporter wonders if this means he's been telling something else all along.
Ideas pour forth
The president and CEO of Goldberg Hodes Strouse Communications, Goldberg seems to have no end of ideas for future books. There was the 17th-century man who convinced many that he was the new Messiah, something that plays off Goldberg's interest in history, Judaism and human foibles. He also has an idea for a marketing book, inspired by his column for Warfield's.
Meanwhile, he's marketing National Honesty Day. As truthfully as possible, of course.
Pub Date: 5/25/97