Politicians Caught in a Lie

Can they recover? Not if they sound like David Oh

I’m fascinated by lying. Though I like to think I don’t do it. You’ll note that I didn’t just say I don’t lie. Much better to take the safer route of what I like to think about myself. Headed toward honesty—but not nailed to the cross with every word.

But what happens if you’re a public figure, a politician, and you get caught in a lie? How do you get around that? Can you? Does it depend on the magnitude of the lie, or just the fact of it?

David Oh is a Republican at-large candidate for City Council. He made a pretty big mistake, claiming he was once a Green Beret. He never was—Oh washed out of the training. Now, I know very little, really, about David Oh. The Republican thing is a problem for me, but maybe I could still vote for him.

David Oh wiped out that possibility in a big apology ad he ran in the Daily News last week. I read it, and I reread it. I kept getting stuck, on words like “confusion” and “misimpression” and my favorite: “lack of attention to detail.”

Here’s how Oh first screwed up: Back in 1988, he was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. Oh resigned to enlist in the Army and landed in a reserve unit of the National Guard in Maryland, as a second lieutenant. Right about there, the story he’s been telling the past few years parts from the real one: Oh’s unit was activated in ’91 for Operation Desert Storm and assigned to Fort Bragg; he went through a three-week assessment course for Special Forces training, but didn’t get picked for the actual training; that takes several months. Oh got trapped by what he wanted us to think he was—a full-fledged Green Beret. It never happened.

That didn’t stop him from claiming for some time on his website and in campaign literature that he was a Special Forces guy. There he was in a Facebook campaign posting, wearing the beret: “smart, tough, honest.” He’s made the claim for quite some time.

Finally Oh got called out this summer by the Daily News. He hemmed and hawed, and then finally took out the DN ad last week. In it, he lets us know just how complicated these distinctions are: “I was a Special Forces candidate throughout my service, including my active duty service at Fort Bragg during Operation Desert Storm. My temporary coding as an 18A Special Forces Officer was for manpower purposes within the unit’s NQP (Non-Qualified Personnel) company for Special Forces candidates and not for qualified A Team members. While this may not seem important to people unfamiliar with the military, it is an extremely important distinction that I failed to make clear.”

That gobbledygook boils down to: Not an actual Green Beret. And this is where Oh’s lament gets really interesting. He goes on to write:

“I am aware of the distinctions within the terms ‘Special Forces’ and ‘Green Beret,’ but I did not properly maintain them over the years. My carelessness and lack of attention to detail was to my benefit and misleading to the public.”

So there it is, the death knell, his covering-up-Watergate-is-actually-worse-than-Watergate moment: In his own apology, David Oh can’t call a spade a spade. To “maintain” the glowing “distinctions within the terms ‘Special Forces’ and ‘Green Beret’”—pretty high-minded, but what the hell does that mean? Then he really goes off the rails with “to my benefit and misleading to the public.”

Yeah. You lied to us.

It’s an interesting question. How far down the path of deceit is too far to come back from? My vote would be, when you’re still trying to weasel around a lie at the moment you claim you’re ’fessing up. That’s when I’m done with you.

Please. Stop with the “I will try to be more attentive, respectful and clear in all my actions in the future.” How about when you lie, and it gets pointed out to you, and you’re trying to save your political ass, you say: “I lied. It was wrong, and I’m ashamed of it. I’m sorry.”

Maybe that wouldn’t work either. But maybe, maybe, we would at least believe you.