06/14/2012 05:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lies, Myths, and Hippos: The Father of Our Country


Even as a child, George Washington had a reputation of always telling the truth, a first for any future politician. It has been said that when six-year-old George cut down his father's favorite cherry tree with his new hatchet, he copped to the chop when his father asked, "George, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?" This is probably true because nobody would use an old-timey word like "yonder" unless they were a couple of hundred years old.

When little George's moment of truth arrived, did he really say, "I cannot tell a lie, Papa. I did cut it with my hatchet." What? The kid had a hatchet?

What father in his right mind would give a six-year-old a hatchet? I doubt if Lizzie Borden herself had a hatchet at that age, whether or not it was embedded in her father's skull. If you could find such an idiot parent today, the hatchet would be child proof like everything else, except maybe dirt and a banana.

Look at the evidence: Tree chopped down. George standing there. In his hand, a hatchet. His dad wouldn't even have to dial 911. What choice did historians have but to conclude that George told the truth? Suppose he actually came up with a better scenario like kids do today. He could've said, "The tree was about to attack me so I thrusted and parried with my trusty hatchet in self defense!" or "It was not a tree, father, it was really a Skylander minion out for my blood." What could his dad have countered with? "Liar, liar, breeches on fire" or "You're getting like your mom's side of the family," or "You want to end up in the joint like your Uncle Benedict?"

Digging a little deeper, we learn that, when it comes to Washington's honesty, myths, not truths, have always been repeated by parents and teachers. How about that story of when he pitched a half-dollar across the Potomac River. Did he really? You want the truth? It wasn't a half-dollar he threw, it was a British guinea, and it wasn't the Potomac River, it was the Rappahannock. Take that Professor Moriarty.

And by the way, I have no idea why historians lie about his teeth. Washington did not have wooden teeth; one pair was actually made from the teeth of a hippopotamus. No wonder Washington never laughed. You know how he looks on the dollar bill? His teeth hurt so much the day that portrait was made that he had to remove them. The artist stuck cotton in his mouth to plump it out. Otherwise, we'd have a dollar bill with a painting of Washington gumming up the works and the dollar would be worth even less than it is now.

Certain civilians can tell a lie as well as any politician. Probably the most creative lie fell from the lips of the great comedian, Richard Pryor. He was allegedly in bed with another woman and got caught by his wife. In the shocked voice of one unjustly accused, he screamed "Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes!" Pryor was far more creative than, say, John Edwards.

It's the nature of politicians to lie, even if they refuse to use that word; these days, they say they "misspoke" instead. It's what they do, from Nixon's evasions to Bush's persuasions, from Washington's axe to Clinton's ex, and from Romney's bling to Weiner's thing.

One exception to lying politicians might be Harry S. ("Give 'em hell") Truman who said, "I never gave them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell."