December 02, 2010

The irony is such that the word itself loses meaning. The ultimate Afghan con man, an oxymoron if there ever was one, is someone Hollywood couldn’t make up. A catch-him-if-you-can type of script wouldn’t make it past the first rewrite. Even “based on a true story” wouldn’t help. If it weren’t for the dead and maimed-for-life, I’d be laughing my pants off. Just as funny was the timing, at least for myself. I’d gone up to Connecticut to spend the weekend at Graydon and Anna Carter’s, he being the supremo at Vanity Fair. Once there I was given a Robert Harris book, Selling Hitler, about the con man who convinced everyone but David Irving that the Hitler private diaries were for real. That particular fiasco saw a hell of a lot of self-important people end up with lotsa egg on their faces.

It began on April Fool’s Day 1983, when the London Times telephoned the distinguished historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, by then Lord Dacre, to tell him of the greatest historical discovery ever. He flew to Switzerland to inspect the findings, which were in a bank vault and guarded like Fort Knox. We all know the rest. Trevor-Roper fell for the con, as did everyone else involved, meaning Rupert Murdoch, Newsweek, Stern magazine, and most journalists with the exception of David Irving. The latter was denounced as a historian without merit during numerous press conferences, until toward the end even he began to waver and doubt his original pronouncement that the diaries were as fake as Clifford Irving’s (no relation) fake diaries of Howard Hughes eleven years earlier.

“Talk about lotsa egg in faces; this guy makes Hugh Trevor-Roper look like Sherlock Holmes.”

Again, the irony of it all. I remember a top Newsweek editor telling me in Athens that Newsweek does not buy fake stories once I said to him that Clifford Irving was a con man. What did the poor little Greek boy know back then? Absolutely nothing. I may have been wild, but I always had common sense. Why would Howard Hughes pick a third-rater such as Clifford Irving to write his authorized biography? It didn’t make sense then, and the fact that Hitler’s diaries suddenly appeared as if by a puff of the magic dragon didn’t make sense eleven years later. Even at first glance, everything looked wrong: The paper, the ink, and the signatures. And they were dull, too dull even for the Führer. But the hacks were hungry, and they willed them to be true. This is why we have arguments in sport. In tennis, a player and his supporters are sure a ball fell in, while his opponent and his fans are certain it fell out. It’s happened to me thousands of times.

But back to the Afghan impostor. So desperate are the Americans to find a way out that they trusted some peasant that the Brits had spent a year developing, a soi-disant top Taliban commander empowered to speak and negotiate for them. To their credit, the CIA was skeptical, but cleverer people such as General Petraeus prevailed. The smelly, illiterate cleric with goat shit all over him was welcomed into the inner sanctum, flown by private jet to meet the other con man, president Karzai, and you know the rest. Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the impostor, was unknown to the Taliban except for his very smelly feet, if that. Talk about lotsa egg in faces; this guy makes Hugh Trevor-Roper look like Sherlock Holmes.


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