CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — 'I cannot tell a lie." Were the five best-known words in presidential history a foreshadowing of today's arguments over official truth and consequences?
The question arises just when allies Tony Blair and George W. Bush might have hoped the California recall circus would distract people from what to believe at the national level.
Analysts have long doubted that "I cannot tell a lie" was actually said by 6-year-old George Washington, later to be the Father of His Country.
What gives the credibility issue new legs is a two-centuries-old transcript found in the White House's unopened mail by a quickly terminated junior clerk. This is fantasy, of course, even if it doesn't seem far-fetched these days.
According to the transcript, Parson Mason Locke Weems is queried about the allegation that the five words are attributed to George in Weems's "Life of George Washington," published in 1800, marketably soon after Washington's passing in 1799.
"What do you, Parson Weems, have to say about that?"
"I did not say that little George said, 'I cannot tell a lie,'" says Parson Weems.
It all goes back to the story of George with his hatchet in his hand admitting that he killed his father's prized cherry tree. His father praised and embraced him for his honesty.
(This came shortly before Weems's lesser-known story of George's father symbolizing the existence of an invisible God by secretly planting seeds that grew to spell out "George Washington" near the gooseberries George liked.)
"What did you say George said, Parson?"
"The words in my book are 'I can't tell a lie, Pa.'"
"So you take responsibility for these five, now six, disputed words?"
"Try listening carefully, my friend. I said those words are in my book, but they did not originate with me."
"One critic says your book is nothing but mythmaking piffle."
"I hadn't heard that one." He grins. "I take full responsibility, though it wasn't my department to authenticate anything."
"So your credibility depends on the credence you put in whom?"
"As I write clearly early on, the story was told me by 'an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the [Washington] family.'"
"And what exactly did the alleged aged lady say George said, if you are denying the allegation that you invented the story?"
"Here is the exact text: 'I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.' - 'Run to my arms, you dearest boy,' cried his father in transports, 'run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.' Could I have made that up?"
"With all respect, Parson Weems, that remains the question."
"Well, even if the facts turn out to be wrong, everybody knows George was an honest tyke. Why do some people always want every word to be right?"
And now, back to California, where what's happening is not a fantasy.
• Roderick Nordell is a former editor at the Monitor.