By MARSHA MERCER
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald says that when he falsely told a homeless vet on L.A.’s skid row that he too had served in the Special Forces, he was trying to connect.
“What you try to do when you connect with someone is try to find common ground. And with veterans, my common ground is my veteran experience. So what I was trying to do is find a way to connect with that veteran,” McDonald told reporters Tuesday, apologizing for his mistake.
It happened last month when McDonald was taking part in the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. Looking for veterans who needed help, McDonald asked a homeless man if he was a vet. The man said yes, and McDonald asked where he served.
“Special Forces,” the man said.
“Special Forces? What years? I was in Special Forces,” McDonald replied, animatedly.
A CBS News crew with McDonald captured the exchange and broadcast it Jan. 30 as part of a news story on homeless vets. The Huffington Post first reported the discrepancy Monday, and other news organizations naturally joined in, often mentioning the embellished accounts of war experience by NBC’s Brian Williams and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly.
Headlines trumpeted McDonald’s misstatement as a lie. That’s a heavy word, but these days we throw it around lightly. Everybody loves calling out lies and liars. Back in 2003, “Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” by Al Franken, now a U.S. senator from Minnesota, zoomed to the top of bestseller lists.
And yet, to say someone lied is more than a quick way of saying truth was not his constant companion. A lie is a deliberate attempt to deceive. When we say someone lies, we assume moral superiority. You and I misspeak, but They lie.
We need to hold onto the distinction between intentional deceit and a mistake in the moment. We should give the benefit of the doubt to someone who chooses words poorly once in conversation as opposed to someone who repeatedly makes calculated attempts to mislead.
Unfortunately for McDonald, who is trying to rebuild the credibility of the scandal-plagued VA, this was his second widely publicized falsehood this month. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Feb. 15, he claimed that 900 VA employees had been fired since he took office, 60 for manipulating wait times for appointments. In both cases, actual number turned out to be far lower, fact checkers reported.
The Washington Post Fact Checker blog gave McDonald’s firing claims four Pinocchios, its highest rating for “whoppers.”
The VA conceded that McDonald’s numbers were incorrect, but he has not explained how he went on a national TV interview show with faulty statistics, and that’s troubling. Was it bad staff work or something worse?
He was unequivocal, though, about the Special Forces blurt.
“In an attempt to connect with that veteran and to make him feel comfortable, I incorrectly stated that I too had been in Special Forces,” he said. “That was wrong, and I have no excuse.”
A 1975 graduate of West Point, McDonald, according to his official biography, “completed Jungle, Arctic and Desert Warfare training and earned the Ranger tab,” which indicates he completed Army Ranger training. He served in the 82nd Airborne but not in Army Special Forces. He was chairman, president and CEO of The Procter& Gamble Co. from 2009 to 2013.
At a time when many veterans feel isolated and alienated, McDonald should be applauded for trying to break down the government’s wall of bureaucracy. In his first national news conference, he gave out his cell phone number so vets could call him directly.
But he’s right that there’s no excuse for his over-zealous attempt to connect. He has apologized to the White House, members of Congress and veterans.
With two strikes, McDonald insists he will do better to ensure that what he says is accurate. He must deliver on that promise.
Americans can have charity for a stupid mistake or two but they won’t put up with repeated efforts to mislead. No lie.
© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.