The Politics of Perjury

As Roger Clemens’ legal battles continue to generate front-page headlines, his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs has come to overshadow his lengthy and record-setting playing career. He has become the symbol of baseball’s steroid age, another scandal in a scandal-laden era.

What’s head-scratching about the Clemens case is not that he may have taken steroids.  Over the past three decades lots of athletes padded their pocket books and the record books by taking steroids.  What’s so confounding about the Clemens case is that he seemed to have invited perjury charges by voluntarily going before Congress and denying the steroid charges under oath—despite substantial evidence that he, in fact, did use performance-enhancing drugs.

While such circumstances invite comparison to the sports’ other fallen stars—Shoeless Joe Jackson comes to mind—the closest historical parallels of the Clemens saga come not from the world of baseball, but from the world of politics and entertainment.

In the world of politics, few scandals have intrigued the public more than the Hiss-Chambers case.  In the early 1930s, Alger Hiss held a series of key posts in New Deal agencies and, as a member of the Communist Party, he was well positioned to deal confidential documents to the Russian government. With the help of Whitaker Chambers, a fellow Communist, Hiss did just that.

By the late 1940s, Hiss’ stature grew through promotions and connections.  He attended the Yalta Conference with President Roosevelt; he helped found the United Nations; later, he was named Executive Director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hiss’ growing reputation was endangered, however, when Chambers testified before Congress in 1948.  Chambers confessed to being a former member of the Communist Party and proceeded to name others who served the party—Hiss among them.

At this point in the proceedings, Hiss was in no legal danger.  Chambers hadn’t divulged the espionage in which the two had engaged and, besides, the statute of limitations had expired.  Nevertheless, Hiss inexplicably sued Chambers for libel.

This action forced Chambers’ hand.  Facing a potential judgment for civil damages which, in turn, could spur charges of perjury before Congress, Chambers turned over extensive documentary evidence of the espionage in which he and Hiss had engaged.

Alger Hiss 1948

Hiss lost his libel case, lost his job, and spent two years in prison for perjury.

Much the same drama unfolded in the entertainment industry less than a decade later, as quiz shows dominated television programming.  By 1956, the top five rated shows were quiz shows and the genre consumed almost half of the networks’ programmable prime-time hours.

The networks, however, soon found that the shows could not sustain high levels of viewer interest on their own.  Some contestants weren’t as knowledgeable as they appeared to be; others were dullards or obnoxious; few understood the dramatic needs of television.

Accordingly, a few of the quiz shows opted to manufacture drama, relying on orchestration rather than the wheel of fortune.  This practice was particularly egregious on Twenty-One, where contestants were taught to dab their brow during tense moments, to stutter uncertainly, and to pause before providing winning responses.

But even these precautions didn’t satisfy the public, leading producers to hand select the winners of the show, favoring contestants that could provide drama and draw an audience.

One such contestant was Charles Van Doren, a young instructor at Columbia University.  He came from a family of academic royalty, was handsome, and had a winning way on television.  For Van Doren to win, however, someone had to lose.  That someone, Herbert Stempel, didn’t want to lose.

Charles Van Doren on the Cover of Time

Stempel resented his choreographed loss as much as he had enjoyed his choreographed wins.  His loss festered, especially as Van Doren’s success grew.  Time magazine featured Van Doren on its cover, calling him “America’s Wonder Boy.  He was soon moonlighting as a television host—for $50,000 a year.  But as Van Doren turned celebrity, Stempel turned informer.

An investigation was launched.  As others confessed to the rigged nature of the show, attention focused on Van Doren, who denied being part of a fix.  He denied it in private meetings to investigators; he denied it publicly; and, inexplicably, he subjected himself to perjury charges when he denied it to the grand jury selected to investigate the matter.

Only when the matter came before a congressional committee did Van Doren tell the truth.  His last-minute prudence spared him perjury charges, but came too late to save his job at Columbia or with the network.

Despite occurring in different eras and divergent professional fields, these sagas unfolded in much the same manner.  In all three cases, poor decisions led celebrity icons to trouble, which they exacerbated by lying to official investigative bodies.  In all three cases the icons did less to establish their own innocence than they did to attack their accusers.  In all three cases, the celebrities became symbols of scandal.  And while the Clemens’ drama is not yet complete, the former pitcher should note that things did not end well for either Hiss or Van Doren.

While the Clemens case may be similar to the cases of Hiss and Van Doren, the country seems to have changed.  The Hiss case rocked the country, sending it reeling into the McCarthyism of the 1950s.  The Quiz Show scandals marked the end of the nation’s post-war ebullience and the beginning of a long decline in public trust.  Perhaps because of these scandals, and countless others since then, there is little left for the public to lose confidence in.

In 1919, when charges of the Black Sox scandal were made public, a young boy is purported to have approached Shoeless Joe Jackson, plaintively asking the player to “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”  In the Clemens’ case, the public knows it’s so, and no one much seems to care.

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