NOW THAT HIS REPUTATION has been destroyed, his remains dug up from Arlington National Cemetery and returned to San Diego, it's easy to forget the impressive audacity with which M. Larry Lawrence told lies. Below is an unexpurgated example of Lawrence in action. It comes from a 1993 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in which Lawrence regaled Sen. Harlan Matthews about his wartime exploits in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Keep in mind that the future ambassador to Switzerland spoke these words -- every one of them untrue -- with a straight face into a microphone:
I was 18 years old and I was on board the SS Horace Bushnell in a convoy to Murmansk, which was an all-volunteer run known as the "Suicide Mission." We were torpedoed 15 miles off Murmansk. I was just coming out of the hole, and everybody down below was killed. I was thrown clear. I am told - - I have no memory of what happened -- that thereafter I suffered a serious concussion and was taken in a coma, subsequently, after going in the water, to Murmansk, then Scotland, and back to New York and home. It is something I do not particularly relish remembering for the record, Senator. You know. You were there. I told them to mail me the medal, but my wife insisted that we have the ceremony.
Silence fell on the hearing room as Lawrence revealed the purpose of the suicide mission. "We were delivering food and ammunition," he explained. " That, of course, is what caused the main explosion, as the torpedo struck the ammunition."
Several senators were clearly impressed. Yet even this wasn't the whole story. Ever the bashful man of valor, Lawrence had left out his own glorious role, the part about how, while floating gravely wounded in ice-encrusted Arctic waters, he had ignored his injuries to save the lives of fellow sailors. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, reading from a crib sheet Lawrence himself had helped prepare, filled in the blanks. "He was able to rescue others," she said. "He was deemed a hero."
Four years later, with Lawrence's hoax exposed, President Clinton has asked the State Department to determine how such a whopper could have slipped through the ambassador's background check. There has been no official answer yet, though several anonymous State Department employees have offered explanations. As one official told the Washington Post, "Because we were able to go to friends, business associates, an array of people who gave us a glowing recommendation, it mitigated against having to go back and chase ghost records of Merchant Marine service." There was no reason to check the war story, the official explained, because an extensive investigation into Lawrence's past had yielded no "derogatory information."
It's not clear which "array of people" State Department investigators spoke to about Lawrence (who, just for starters, had more than two dozen cases pending against him in federal tax court at the time he was nominated). It's clear they didn't talk to many people in San Diego, where Lawrence lived and did business. Soon after the Merchant Marine story broke, the San Diego Union- Tribune sent two reporters to get reaction from people who knew Lawrence well. The reporters returned a few hours later with more derogatory information about Larry Lawrence than State Department sleuths had managed to gather in months.
"I wouldn't take his word for anything," a long-time senior vice president of Lawrence's Hotel Del Coronado told the newspaper. "He had a terrible, terrible case of vanity," said one of his pallbearers. According to Lucy Goldman, described as a close friend and former neighbor, Lawrence had a habit of dropping "little bombshells" during conversation. "I remember once we went to a rodeo together," Goldman recalled, "and Larry was sitting next to me and said, "Do you know I used to do this in Arizona?'" According to Goldman, Lawrence also claimed that he once played professional football. But State Department investigators probably already knew about the nominee's career in the NFL; Lawrence had told the same thing to Forbes magazine the year before his confirmation hearing.
You don't have to dig deep to find evidence of Larry Lawrence's compulsive story-telling. None of the investigators assigned to Lawrence's background check, for instance, ever called Barry Soper, a San Diego businessman who knew Lawrence for more than two decades. A number of years ago, Soper managed the campaign of a Democratic state-assembly candidate whom Lawrence supported. "One day," Soper says, "we went over to the Hotel Del Coronado because Larry had raised some money for us. We get there and he has a briefcase of money. He made me count it. I think it was $ 5,000. He said, 'Have you ever seen so much money?'" At one point, Soper recalls, the conversation turned to the legal profession. "Larry said, "Yeah, I went to the University of Chicago for law." As we were leaving, I thought, "I don't think that's true. Something tells me this guy's not a lawyer. He doesn't talk like a lawyer, he doesn't act like a lawyer. He acts like a hotel person.'"
A hotel person, it turns out, who went to Wilbur Wright Junior College in Chicago, and not for law. Soper didn't know this until Lawrence's corrected biography was published in the newspaper, though he was aware that Lawrence claimed to be a World War II veteran. Soper says he remembers telling Lawrence how an eye injury had kept him out of the military during Vietnam. " I told him how I was rejected during my physical," says Soper. "And Larry said, "Well, I was proud to serve.'"
The Clinton administration has denied from the beginning that Lawrence's duplicity was overlooked because of his friendship with the president, or because of his enormous contributions to the Democratic party. Yet it's hard to believe that anyone, much less a trained investigator, could have read Larry Lawrence's resume without questioning the credibility of the man who wrote it. Nor is it clear that anyone in the federal government ever bothered to check Lawrence's self-described credentials. A call to the American Merchant Marine Veterans Association, for example, one of the dozens of groups listed on his resume, would have established that the association had no record of an M. Larry Lawrence.
And didn't anyone at the State Department wonder about Lawrence's claim that he, a San Diego hotel owner, had been the "Vice Chair" of the "Nobel Peace Prize Nominating Commission"? It wouldn't have taken long to discover that Lawrence's "nominating commission" was in fact a self-appointed group of 15 San Diegans with no connection whatever to the Oslo-based organization of a similar name.
But if Lawrence's bogus resume slipped by unnoticed, the nominee himself did not. In an unusual move, half the members of the Democrat-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee (including Democrats Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Paul Sarbanes) voted against Lawrence's confirmation, and his nomination floated in limbo before being sent to the full Senate. As Lawrence waited to become a real ambassador, Clinton allowed him to pretend he had already been confirmed, giving his friend temporary space at the State Department, complete with a secretary who answered the phone, "Ambassador Lawrence's office."
In early 1994, Lawrence finally was confirmed and sworn in as ambassador to Switzerland by Al Gore. Participating in the ceremony was Lawrence's fourth wife, Shelia Davis Lawrence, a 32-year-old former casino security guard he married in 1990. Gore swore in Shelia Lawrence, too, as the administration's special representative to the World Conservation Union, a United Nations environmental body conveniently located in Bern. At the time she was sworn in as the American envoy to the WCU, an organization dedicated to reducing global "levels of consumption and waste," Mrs. Lawrence was living in a house with 21 bathrooms.
Not surprisingly, Sheila Lawrence dropped from the international environmental scene soon after her husband's death. She did, however, remain personally close to President Clinton, who has since been her golfing partner and overnight guest at the Hotel Del Coronado. Apparently Mrs. Lawrence also continued to learn the ways of Washington. Within days of the first critical stories about her husband's burial at Arlington, Lawrence hired former White House press secretary Jody Powell to manage her media exposure. It turned out to be an inspired choice.
Powell immediately took aggressive steps to spin coverage of the story. When Arianna Huffington wrote a column that called into question portions of Mrs. Lawrence's resume, Powell phoned the head of Huffington's newspaper syndicate to complain. (Powell later acknowledged that he had never seen Sheila Lawrence's resume and was not sure that what Huffington had written was wrong.) Meanwhile, all press calls to Mrs. Lawrence were forwarded to Powell's public-relations firm, Powell Tate.
Flacks at Powell Tate assured reporters that, contrary to several published reports, the White House had "absolutely" no involvement in Shelia Lawrence's decision to have her husband disinterred -- and moreover, that it would be unseemly, even ghoulish, to imply otherwise. When Lawrence finally was dug up (an event whose timing had been kept secret so it could not be filmed), Powell Tate vice president John Gibbons declared it "unfortunate" that the Associated Press even wrote a story about it. "We were hoping that the media would respect their privacy," Gibbons said, adding that the disinterment had been personally wrenching for him as well. "Just watching what she has had to go through," he said, "it's been emotional for everyone."
Gibbons later admitted that he never met Larry Lawrence, or Lawrence's bereaved widow, for that matter. But lack of actual contact with the couple, he explained, hasn't diminished the devastating impact of the experience. Gibbons even sounded genuinely sad. It was a performance M. Larry Lawrence himself would have admired.
Tucker Carlson is a staffwriter for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.