Column: Facts and Fables and the Art of Political Autobiography
In politics, lying is the new sex. Even the lesser sin, exaggeration, is grounds for questions about your suitability to run for office. Americans may be becoming more like the French in tolerating peccadilloes (just ask Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina or Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana about surviving sex scandals), but get a detail wrong about whether you divorced at 21 or at 19, and woe unto you.
That’s what happened to Wendy Davis over the weekend.
You may know her as the Texas state senator in pink sneakers who delivered an 11-hour filibuster against abortion restrictions in June. The onetime teenage single mother who lived in a trailer park and graduated from Harvard Law School was so well-spoken, impassioned and appealing that she is running for governor less than a year later.
But now she’s being Swift-boated. The story of the courageous, articulate and inspiring lawyer has become the tale of a fabulist who can’t be trusted after the Dallas Morning News raised a swirl of questions about her personal history, some provided by her ex-husband. She says the allegations came from her would-be Republican opponent in the gubernatorial race, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. The attacks won’t work, she says, “because my story is the story of millions of Texas women who know the strength it takes when you’re young, alone and a mother.”
Nonetheless, Republicans fact-checked her life story and found the timeline wanting. Davis herself acknowledged that “my language should be tighter” when it comes to the details of her biography and promised to be “more focused on the detail.”
I may be soft on anyone who takes a good story and makes it better. I grew up in an Irish family where Sunday dinner would have been no more than well-done roast beef and mashed potatoes had it not been for uncles outdoing one another about the size of the fish they’d caught and the poker pot they’d won. And what is journalism but organizing facts into a compelling narrative?
Davis has the bad luck to have a second ex-husband giving his side of the rags-to-riches story (he says he supplied the riches). Yes, she and her daughter lived in a mobile home, but only for a few months before moving into an apartment, and she worked two jobs. Enter the second husband, an older lawyer with whom she had a second daughter. They divorced in 2005 but not before, he says, he paid for her last two years at Texas Christian University and for Harvard Law, and kept her two daughters while she was there. Davis said that she and her husband cashed in a 401(k) and took out loans to pay for her tuition and that she split time between Massachusetts and Texas. When they divorced, he asked for and got custody of the two girls, and Davis was doing well enough by then to pay child support.
Did Davis “cavalierly deceive voters” with a “fanciful narrative,” as Abbott’s spokesman Matt Hirsch said, or is there a truthiness to her telling of her life 30 years ago? The elements of working her way up from hardscrabble beginnings are as she’s described them.
Davis already faces an uphill climb in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. Women have a hard time in Texas. When former Gov. Ann Richards ran in 1990, it was no barbecue. She was accused of using cocaine and being an alcoholic, albeit a recovering one. At a debate, her Republican opponent, Clayton Williams, refused to shake her hand. At one point in the campaign, he expressed the hope that she wouldn’t “go back to drinking again.” An oil and gas wildcatter, he outspent Richards 2-to-1, but lost after a joke about rape that went too far, even by Wild West standards: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”
There’s something at work here where men get to boast and women are supposed to be modest and sweat the details. Look at Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken, N.J. If she gets a single fact wrong about her allegation that Gov. Chris Christie’s administration threatened to stiff her city on Hurricane Sandy recovery funds, she’ll be toast, and Christie will remain the self-proclaimed hero.
I don’t agree with Davis on the filibuster that made her famous. Abortions should be illegal after viability, which is coming earlier and earlier as neonatal care improves. But I do agree with her on the arc of her life. She started out dirt poor and rose through pluck and luck (though that ex-husband is a mixed bag) to make a huge deal of herself. Nothing that happened over the weekend takes away from that. But still, it’s too bad for her she didn’t run off to Argentina with a polo player, or two. Then she’d be ahead in the polls.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.