Thursday, September 17, 2009


Opponents of President Obama's healthcare reform have got the better story, said New York Times columnist Gail Collins last week, in "The End of Civility." (I'm growing more and more fond of her dry humor and ability to poke holes in balloon-headed politicians.) Speaking about Obama's speech to Congress last week, she said, "'Security and stability' is not quite as exciting as stories about old people being executed or registered Republicans being stripped of their Medicare. So, I was hoping that the reform side would ... start floating stories about how universal health care would save the car industry or combat hair loss." I think there are a lot of things going on with the healthcare "debate" (such as it is), including obstructionism and the raw exercise of power, but Collins has identified an important one. This is, I suppose, a question of how the story is framed, but it seems more that: not just the position that one or the other side takes, but the emotions that they stir, and the craving for a good story that they excite. Regardless of the facts. 

This reminds me of a great story from "Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa," by R.A. Scotti. The painting was stolen in 1911 by a Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian worker living in France who had the painting in his possession for over two years. In 1932, about 18 years after the painting had been recovered, a journalist named Karl Decker claimed to uncover the true story of the theft. Decker says he met a someone in Casablanca named Marques Eduardo de Valfierno, who claimed to have masterminded the theft in which Peruggia was only a minor player. Valfierno said that he found six separate buyers who each pledged to buy the Mona Lisa if he could steal it. Not content to get just one payment, Valfierno paid a forger to make six copies of the painting, and then each of the buyers would be told he was getting the real thing. The total haul was equivalent to about $90 million in today's dollars. The idea was to keep the real painting hidden at least long enough to sell the forgeries and get away; Valfierno would get the lion's share of the payments, but Peruggia received a handsome sum. After Peruggia gambled away his earnings from the theft, he supposedly tried to sell the real Mona Lisa to legitimate art dealers. He was arrested, and he told the judge that he had stolen the painting with the intention of repatriating the painting to Leonardo da Vinci's native Italy. He was sentenced to a year in jail. Check out the book for  the full story of this fascinating theft.

Now, that's a pretty fabulous story -- so fabulous that it may even be a fable. Decker was known for fabricating a thing or two in his career, and even if he was told this story, maybe he was being lied to. At this point, it's perhaps impossible (?) to verify, and there's good reason to doubt it. But this account had some traction when it first came out, perhaps in part because it was far more dramatic than the account of a humble custodian who decided, almost casually, to steal the painting. (His patriotic intentions were thrown into question by the fact that he tried to sell the painting several times.) Which story would make the better movie? The true story doesn't always win, it may just be the better story. Or as Pablo Picasso puts in the books' epigraph: "The only thing that's important is the legend created by the picture, and now whether it continues to exist itself."  

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