This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

June 20, 2001 — Even if he'd been some poor slob in a bar trying to impress a woman with macho tall tales, Joseph Ellis' list of whoppers was pretty amazing.

During the war in Vietnam, he said, he wasn't just a soldier assigned to some obscure Army base — he saw action "clearing out" the area around My Lai. He wasn't just a grunt, either — he was commander of a platoon of combat paratroopers from the legendary 101st Airborne. In fact, he was such a good leader that he was elevated to the staff of American commander General William Westmoreland.

Not a word of it was true, of course — Ellis never left the States during Vietnam.

But the thing is, Joseph Ellis isn't some poor slob in a bar. He's a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer and professor of history at prestigious Mt. Holyoke College.

And he told those stories to students in a class he taught on Vietnam. He repeated them in interviews and even on television. And the war stories weren't the half of it.

He told the Boston Globe last year that he was repulsed by what he saw in Vietnam and joined the peace movement when he returned home. He did civil rights work in Mississippi, too, he said, and was seen as such a threat by the white power structure that state police followed him.

And, as if claiming heroic involvement in nearly all of the era's significant historical events wasn't enough, he told the Globe he'd scored the winning touchdown in the last game of his senior year in high school.

He wasn't even on the team.

There was something terribly sad about the revelation of Ellis' many falsehoods when the story broke in the Boston Globe last Monday — the conclusion to an extensive investigation (including an examination of Ellis' Army records) launched by a tip from an unidentified source after the Globe ran its interview with Ellis last year.

Why would someone so lauded need to enhance his autobiography? Ellis won the Pulitzer in April for "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation," and the National Book Award for his previous book, "American Sphinx," a biography of Thomas Jefferson. And at Mt. Holyoke, he is, by all accounts, not only one of the most popular professors, he's actually beloved.

It was as if he had a wish to self–destruct, and the fact that most of his falsehoods also seemed meant to enhance his manliness just made it all the more odd and pitiful.

But what happened after the news broke made him a far less sympathetic character.

Refusing to talk to the press, Ellis' issued a brief, four-sentence statement, saying "Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made. I deeply regret having let stand and later confirming the assumption that I went to Vietnam. For this and any other distortions about my personal life, I want to apologize to my family, friends, colleagues and students. Beyond that circle, however, I shall have no further comment."

In other words, as the last sentence implies, it's the press' fault. And he regrets not *lying,* but "having let stand" an assumption, and some vague "distortions." Nor does he feel the need to apologize to anyone beyond his immediate circle — say, the men and women who really served in Vietnam, or marched in the peace movement, or were harassed by cops in civil rights–era Mississippi.

His disgraceful arrogance was matched by Mt. Holyoke president Joanne Creighton, who immediately announced her administration was standing by Ellis — a man, she said, of "great integrity, honesty and honor," even though he had admitted lying to the students in her charge. Like Ellis, Creighton blamed the messenger, saying, "We at the College do not know what public interest the Globe is trying to serve through a story of this nature."

Sadly, it seems it's going to take the inevitable — a public outcry, or the threat of a lawsuit from an aggrieved parent — for Creighton to do right by her students.

But by the time you read this it may even be official that Ellis' career as a writer and professor is over. After all, his classwork is part of his scholarship, and thus his scholarship — the basis of both his teaching and writing — will now forever be doubted. How can you trust a historian who makes up history?

Sadly, bizarrely, biographer Joseph Ellis has ended his own stellar career by lying in the most important biography of them all — his own.

Last Week’s Column: MAKE BIG MONEY: BECOME A CANADIAN POET A new Canadian award attempts to put poetry back in the mainstream . . . by giving big money to poets who are already successful.


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