Chapter One

The casket was wrapped in an American flag, bright in the sun reflected off the marble Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery on a May morning in 1998. A military band played the old hymn "Going Home" as an honor guard lifted the casket and carried it to the waiting hearse. During the night, the coffin had been taken out from under the heavy stones of the tomb. It had rested there since Memorial Day 1984 when President Ronald Reagan led a ceremony to finally honor the soldiers of the Vietnam War by putting one of their own into the Tomb of the Unknowns. Who was he? What was his story? Where was his family? "We will never know the answers to those questions about his life," Reagan said that day. For fourteen years that casket protected an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War, guarded around the clock by the Army's Old Guard at the country's most solemn war memorial. On May 14, 1998, the disinterred casket was loaded into a black hearse and taken away.

Everyone at the ceremony that day knew that the human remains under the flag were not unknown. They were the remains of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down over An Loc on May 11, 1972. Jean Blassie, Michael's mother, knew it, as did his brother and his sisters, who watched from the steps above the tomb. I knew it, as I watched from a press stand.

Astonishingly, Pentagon officials knew it back in 1984.

I remember the moment during the ceremony when I realized the Tomb of the Unknowns was literally a fake on a monumental scale. A deliberate fake. A false monument.

The hearse drove away to take the remains to a laboratory for DNA testing. On June 30, the Pentagon announced that the Vietnam War remains in the Tomb of the Unknowns were officially not unknown anymore. They were the remains of Jean Blassie's son, Michael. Two weeks later, Michael Blassie was buried for good near the family's home outside St. Louis. "My brother deserves to be known," Blassie's younger brother, George, said that day.

I had been working on this story for months with two colleagues from CBS News, correspondent Eric Engberg and Vince Gonzales, a tenacious reporter who had unlocked the key secrets of the tomb. A series of stories we produced for The CBS Evening News had shown beyond any doubt that it was Michael Blassie, not an unknown soldier, in the tomb. The Reagan administration had been under tremendous pressure in 1984 to honor the most poorly treated soldiers in American history, the veterans of the Vietnam War. But technology had gotten so sophisticated that there simply weren't many remains from that war that hadn't been identified. Still, the pressure went down the bureaucratic food chain to the military identification laboratory in Hawaii. The Pentagon brass wanted unidentified remains to be buried at a presidential ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Memorial Day, and they intended to get them. One of the few sets of possible remains at the Hawaii lab had been labeled X-26. Those bits of human bone, however, had been clearly identified back in Vietnam as Michael Blassie's. Blassie was shot down during a daytime bombing run on North Vietnamese artillery positions that were pulverizing South Vietnamese troops and a handful of U.S. advisers at a place called An Loc. That night, Col. William Parnell sent out a patrol. They found bodily remains, Blassie's ID card, and other personal gear. Through some later screwup, the remains were separated from the identification card and eventually given the X-26 reference. But there was a clear paper trail. Witnesses were available to clear up any confusion. Military officials knew all of that when they sent the X-26 remains off to Arlington National Cemetery in 1984.

Our reports forced the Pentagon to reopen the case and exhume the remains. There is no soldier from the Vietnam War within the tomb today. But for years that monument was defaced by a fraud. It was another casualty of Vietnam. The memorial was insulted by the kind of stagecraft that the Reagan administration brought to Washington and that has flourished ever since. For me, it was an initiation into the land of the fake.

After the disinterment ceremony, I became even more of a phoniness vigilante than I had been. I have no special claim on authenticity or sincerity. But I'm fairly well trained to spot fakery and fraud in the public realm. My job back in 1998 was to produce a segment called "Reality Check" for The CBS Evening News. I was a professional bullshit hunter, and in those days Washington was loaded with big game. That was the year of the president and the intern--that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. President Bill Clinton was put through an impeachment trial essentially for philandering and some of his most zealous and righteous prosecutors were exposed as cheaters as well--Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; his designated replacement, Bob Livingstone of Louisiana; and two powerful Republican committee heads, Henry Hyde of Illinois and Daniel Burton of Indiana. The hypocrisy rose to trophy levels. The hunting was easy.

Trust and confidence in government sank to Watergate-era lows. Wise people worried that "civility" had vanished from public life and that government was in perpetual "gridlock." Two commissions of academics and statesmen convened to ponder the civility crisis, the Council on Civil Society and the National Commission on Civic Renewal, and both issued dire reports.

Unfortunately, civility can't be commissioned, morality can't be legislated, and money can't buy you love. Despite levels of peace and material abundance on a scale this nation had never before seen, the mood grew even more sour. The election of 2000 between Vice President Al Gore and Texas governor George W. Bush was bitter and venal. But it was nothing compared to the battle that erupted after the disputed results in Florida. The conventional uber-narrative of American politics then (and now) was the story of polarization, red versus blue, right against left. But it seemed clear to me that this wasn't anything like the extreme, violent polarization of the Civil War, Prohibition, or the 1960s. This was very different and didn't run nearly so deep. Soon after the 2000 election, columnist Lars-Erik Nelson died. A tribute quoted him as once saying, "The enemy isn't liberalism. The enemy isn't conservatism. The enemy is bullshit." I immediately cut it out and taped it to my desk. I was in the trenches of the bullshit wars. I even had a motto.

"One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies," said J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, the greatest enemy of phonies of all. I felt like a grown-up Holden, surrounded by phonies, and it felt crummy, as he would say. In the very last month of the twentieth century, I changed jobs and went to work on the Internet, as an editor for The dot-com bubble burst a few months later. Terrific timing on my part.

Do We Hate Us?
Part of my new job meant regular travel between Washington, D.C., where I live, and New York City, where Satan lives. One Tuesday a few months after the Battle of Florida ended, I was headed to a 9:30 a.m. Delta shuttle at Reagan National Airport. The lawyers, investment bankers, lobbyists, and media types like me who are shuttle regulars lined up as usual about a half hour before the flight, barely looking up from our PalmPilots and Wall Street Journals. As the first passengers entered the ramp to the plane, the gate agents turned them around and said there was a delay at LaGuardia Airport in New York. Someone on a cell phone said they heard that a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I called my newsroom and they confirmed that something had happened but didn't know much more. It was about 9:15 by then and the gate agent said all the New York airports were closed.

I ran to my car parked in the nearby short-term lot. It was past 9:30 when I pulled onto the George Washington Memorial Parkway along the Potomac River, listening to radio reports that the planes that hit the World Trade Center appeared to be commercial airliners. I tried to get the newsroom back on my cell phone. As I drove near the Pentagon from the southeast, I saw a mass of dark smoke rise up from behind the building.

After 9/11, the whole bullshit-detection business seemed trivial. A good deal of the news I had covered over the years and many of the stories I had worked so hard on now struck me as frivolous. The entire country felt like it had been naive and immature. Americans were stunned and disoriented; the terrorism they watched stalking foreign lands on television had come to their own country, bringing real blood and real death. A few weeks after 9/11, Newsweek magazine set out to answer an essential question with a cover story headlined "Why They Hate Us."

"Everything has changed" was a common platitude at that time. But of course everything hadn't changed.

Certainly politics had not changed. A little more than a year later, the debate in the Senate over granting the president authority to invade Iraq smelled more of posturing than statesmanship. A year after the invasion of Iraq, polarization was again the Big Idea that pundits used when describing the country. Civic distemper was back, with the exaggeration and animosity common to fresh disenchantment. An unpopular war, a corporate crime wave, and an economy that was great for the rich and hard for the rest combined to put the country in a foul humor. Revelations about sexual abuse by Catholic priests spread disillusionment and cynicism; was there no corner of society left that we could look at with innocence and uncomplicated respect?

The attention we lavished on American Idol, Lindsay Lohan, and Anna Nicole Smith proved we could be every bit as superficial as we were before some 2,700 Americans were murdered in a single day. But there was something new: a sense of civic embarrassment bordering on shame. The sort of phoniness discovered at the Tomb of the Unknowns was rampant and alienating, but it was a subset of something much bigger. Americans were down on themselves, and for good reason, it seemed. We needed a new cover story to explain this new condition. We needed to figure out why we hate us.

"National pride," the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in Achieving Our Country, "is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition of self-improvement." Our lack of national pride--our lack of social self-respect--makes all society's problems harder to solve.