For the last several months I have been entertaining myself between work emails by delving into the Longform.org archives. One recurring theme in my Internet journalism travels is the exploits of white men who reach for the stars and fall far short. Here are some of my favorites.
The Story: The Professor, The Bikini Model, and a Suitcase Full of Trouble – New York Times Magazine
The Subject: Paul Frampton, theoretical particle physicist, modelizer, and duped drug mule
The prosecution continued to press its case, producing a piece of paper on which Frampton had written:
“1 gram 200 dollars
2,000 grams 400,000 dollars.”
The amount of cocaine found in the bag Frampton was carrying was 1,980 grams. When asked why he’d been making this calculation, Frampton said: “My mind works in a strange way.” That evening, Frampton told me on the telephone, “I made those calculations in the airport office after having been arrested,” a fact that his defense team stressed the following day, noting Frampton’s tendency to make random calculations. They asked him to explain another notation on the same piece of paper that read “5 standard deviations 99.99994%.” “The criterion for the discovery of the Higgs boson had to be 5 standard deviations, which means it’s extremely unlikely to be a statistical fluctuation,” Frampton explained. He was “calculating the probability that Denise Milani would become my second wife, which was almost a certainty.” Pursuing this line of questioning, his lawyer asked whether Frampton was also calculating the weight of one of the judges.
“I’m embarrassed to admit it, but yes,” Frampton answered. “I calculated that he must weigh 100 kilos.”
“You calculated badly, as badly as you did about your second marriage,” the judge responded. “I’m 124 kilos.”
For those two and a half years, the Stephen Glass show played to a captivated audience; then the curtain abruptly fell. He got away with his mind games because of the remarkable industry he applied to the production of the false backup materials which he methodically used to deceive legions of editors and fact checkers. Glass created fake letterheads, memos, faxes, and phone numbers; he presented fake handwritten notes, fake typed notes from imaginary events written with intentional misspellings, fake diagrams of who sat where at meetings that never transpired, fake voice mails from fake sources. He even inserted fake mistakes into his fake stories so fact checkers would catch them and feel as if they were doing their jobs. He wasn’t, obviously, too lazy to report. He apparently wanted to present something better, more colorful and provocative, than mere truth offered.
The Story: Fact-Checking Jamie Smith’s CIA and Blackwater Past – Outside Magazine
The Subject: Jamie Smith, military contractor, paintball enthusiast, and fraud extraordinaire
During the training sessions down south, Smith often talked about SCG’s driving philosophy, lecturing students inside an old house trailer that had been turned into a classroom. He was cocky and sure-footed, citing the Moscow Rules, a vintage collection of Cold War maxims for doing battle with the KGB. One favorite: Use misdirection, illusion, and deception. Another: Never give up your cover story. Even when the bastards are onto you, stick with it.
As it turned out, these sayings were an apt description of how Smith often did business, because many things about him—including his CIA past, his military background, and parts of his education résumé—appear to be elaborate fabrications. In the wartime years after 9/11, Smith used these stories to build a small empire that he lost just as quickly when people, including his own staff, began to realize that he’d made much of it up, and that neither he nor anybody at SCG was doing much harrowing work overseas.
The Story: The Worst Marriage in Georgetown – New York Times Magazine
The Subject: Albrecht Muth, wannabe politico, alleged murderer, and pretender to obscure royal lineage and Iraqi army service
To attract eminences to his group, Muth began by ordering thick stationery that he adorned with a crest of his own design. He signed the letters with an impressive title — Count Albi — which Muth claimed a distant relative who had suffered a debilitating fall from an Indian elephant passed down to him. And he operated according to some key principles that Drath described in her memoir. To score a big-name dinner guest or a favor from a V.I.P. in Washington, there was no point messing around with official channels or wasting time with midlevel functionaries. Underlings fear for their careers and are more likely to examine new acquaintances for potential peril. But there’s an unexpected naïveté among the truly powerful; they assume that anyone who has arrived at their desk has survived the scrutiny of handlers.
The #BestinDelusionalWhiteMen genre has a long and storied history. Arguably, Gatsby numbers among them. It’s worth examining who in our society has far-reaching ambitions, unquestioned believability, and unfettered access to both monetary resources and powerful connections if only they ask, and how long people are willing to tolerate deception from someone they’ve accepted as one of their own. Also, from a less philosophical standpoint, some of this shit is hilarious.