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Carson, Biden, Reagan and the Art of the Tall Tale

<p>Memory is a liar, as our friends and families keep interrupting to remind us. It’s not that we can’t recall the past accurately—it’s that our pasts are almost never as exciting as they ought to be. Lacking the discipline or the motivation to tell our stories straight, we recast our personal histories for dramatic effect, shaving away the boring passages and emphasizing the bits that make people wag their tails. Over time, some of us (you know who you are) embellish, sprinkling a little <a href=”http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-GB6OUuy208A/VByNcTYyOQI/AAAAAAAAC7g/lh2b5XG-fY0/s1600/jumbo%2Bgro%2B%EF%80%A0king-size%2Bcanary%EF%80%A0%2Btex%2Bavery.jpg” target=”_blank”>Jumbo-Gro</a> on our personal histories and, if nobody stops us, we usurp stories that happened to our kin, or the guy across the street, somebody we read about. At our worst—or our best, depending on how you look at it—we command our imaginations to produce compelling personal anecdotes that speak profound truths about us and also happen to be, in the factual sense, totally false. And that’s before we mount the barstool.</p><p>Yes, I’m talking about Ben Carson. In recent weeks, some of the presidential candidate’s most thrilling and inspirational tales have been debunked by the press. The Daily Beast cast its <a href=”http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/10/08/was-ben-carson-really-held-at-gunpoint.html” target=”_blank”>doubts</a> on the story he’s told on the stump about having once been held up at gunpoint at a Baltimore Popeyes. CNN <a href=”http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/05/politics/ben-carson-2016-childhood-violence/index.html” target=”_blank”>investigated</a> Carson’s claims to have been a violence-prone “stabbing, rock throwing, brick hurling and baseball bat beating” teenager, and found no evidence of those behaviors. POLITICO hit the candidate for having repeatedly <a href=”http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/ben-carson-west-point-215598″ target=”_blank”>claimed</a> to have been offered a full West Point scholarship, when there’s no evidence that such a thing happened. And the <i>Wall Street Journal </i><a href=”http://www.wsj.com/articles/ben-carsons-past-faces-deeper-questions-1446861864?alg=y” target=”_blank”>poked</a> holes in two Carson stories from his early days—sheltering white students during a high-school riot and being declared the “most honest” student in the wake of a prank engineer by a professor at Yale University. </p><p>But I’m not talking about Carson exclusively. He’s not the only politician to demonstrate a unique relationship with the biographical truth. President Ronald Reagan famously <a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1984/03/05/reagan-38/26b480c6-3d54-46d0-b0fe-1c426c139847/” target=”_blank”>told</a> Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and later Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal that he had worked as a photographer in a U.S. Army unit that filmed the Nazi death camps. The trouble is, Reagan didn’t go to Europe during the war. (The White House denied the accounts as they were published in the <i>Washington Post</i>. The <i>New York Times </i>included the Shamir account in Reagan’s <a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/06/obituaries/06REAG.html?pagewanted=4″ target=”_blank”>obituary</a>.) Hillary Clinton claimed to have <a href=”http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/hillary-clinton-and-me-2008-campaign-106568_Page3.html#.VkD9M7-8BqE” target=”_blank”>braved</a> sniper fire in 1995 during a visit to Bosnia during the war. Never happened. Presidential candidate Marco Rubio has <a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/marco-rubios-compelling-family-story-embellishes-facts-documents-show/2011/10/20/gIQAaVHD1L_story.html” target=”_blank”>called</a> himself a “son of exiles,” even though his parents left Cuba two and a half years before Fidel Castro took power. And during the 1988 presidential campaign, Joe Biden <a href=”http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/press_box/2008/08/what_kind_of_plagiarist_is_joe_biden.html” target=”_blank”>lifted</a> and then embroidered the details from an emotive speech by the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. When he first started quoting Kinnock, he cited his source. But as the campaign progressed, he appropriated Kinnock’s speech and life story as his own without giving credit. The revelation sank his campaign, and would have been an issue had he joined campaign 2016. </p> <p>It’s one thing for civilians to exaggerate their personal histories. As long as you don’t lie on your r&eacute;sum&eacute; or on a legal document, you’re safe in most cases. In person, it’s likely that nobody listens closely to your stupid stories about your glory years or how you humiliated that crooked used car salesman. But politicians know people are listening. Their words are recorded, transcribed, and analyzed. What induces them to embroider the specifics of their lives? Are successful politicians, like some of us storytellers, still unsatisfied with their lives even though they’ve accomplished so much? Why play the puffer fish when you’re the biggest fish in the pond?</p><p>“Everybody tries to create, especially in America, tries to create a log cabin story,” Charles Krauthammer <a href=”http://nation.foxnews.com/2014/02/01/krauthammer-wendy-davis-lies-what-coincidence” target=”_blank”>said</a> last year on the Fox News Channel when Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis was caught enhancing her early history. There’s nothing wrong with a politician churning the word bucket to portray himself as wise, fearless, stoic, experienced, honest, or stalwart as long as the stories are true. But a politician who gets caught building reputation from fantasy finds his credibility corroded, sometimes beyond repair. It’s like an adult cheating in T-ball against 5 year olds.</p><p>Barack Obama had this all figured out when he wrote the indemnifying clause into the introduction of his autobiography, <i>Dreams From My Father</i>. “For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology,” Obama <a href=”http://mail.blockyourid.com/~gbpprorg/obama/Dreams_from_My_Father.pdf” target=”_blank”>wrote</a>. In other words, <i>Don’t hold me to what you’re about to read, folks! </i>Imagine if Carson possessed the forethought to compose such an exit clause. He could wave the pages at his critics and laugh questions away.</p><p>If Carson were made of different stuff, he slip out of the media’s grip on his reputation. He could cut off the questions about his past with Donald Trump-style defiance, saying, <i>It happened because I said it happened</i>, or by making a grand joke about his decades-old recollections, saying, <i>I remember a lot more about the late 1960s and the early 1970s that most of the stoners in the press corps. </i>Instead, he’s accusing the press of a double standard, <a href=”http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/259553-white-house-carson-not-facing-tougher-scrutiny-than-obama” target=”_blank”>claiming</a> that the press didn’t dissect Barack Obama in campaign 2008 the way it’s dissecting him now. But even if that were true (and it isn’t) it wouldn’t and shouldn’t give Carson a free pass. </p><p>Carson needs to acknowledge that in running for the White House, he invited exactly the sort of scrutiny he’s receiving. It’s okay, generally, for regular people to lie about their pasts. If my neighbor wants to claim he backstroked his way across the English Channel, that’s his business. His cry for attention is harmless. But a candidate for president is asking voters to place power and responsibility in their hands. Presidential candidates should know enough to police their mouths about the mundane without our asking, “Pretty please.” This is where Biden struck out, and rightly so. If Carson can’t get his story straight, it’s his problem, not the press corps’. </p><p>And in Carson’s case, especially, we have every right to hold him accountable for his personal story because practically everything we know about his hypothetical performance as president is contained in that personal story. The conventional politician has some sort of fossil record for reporters to comb through, some sort of claim to merit the job. Even other outsiders, like Ross Perot, could claim some special savvy with public policy that merited the leap into the White House. All Carson has is the charisma contained his soft voice and in his personal story, which he has been <a href=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2015/11/05/ben-carson-the-humblebragging-instrument-of-god/” target=”_blank”>retailing</a> since 1992 in such books as <i>Gifted Hands</i>, <i>Think Big</i>, <i>The Big Picture</i>,<i> America the Beautiful</i>, <i>and A More Perfect Union</i>. As log cabins go, the Ben Carson story may be a cozy place to hang out, but right now, I don’t think I would want to live there.</p><p>******</p><p><i>I’ve got my eyes set on buying a juke joint, preferable near a crossroads where Ol’ Scratch hangs out. Send real estate information to <a href=”mailto:shafer.politico@gmail.com” target=”_blank”>Shafer.Politico@gmail.com</a></i><i>. My <a href=”http://politico.us2.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=26f1798168150c8a8ed512264&amp;id=151813914f” target=”_blank”>email alerts</a></i><i> were offered a full scholarship to Slippery Rock. My <a href=”https://twitter.com/jackshafer” target=”_blank”>Twitter</a></i><i> feed is home schooled. And my <a href=”http://www.politico.com/rss/jackshafer.xml” target=”_blank”>RSS</a></i><i> feed, which was broken by the new POLITICO CMS, is retaking the SATs.</i></p><br>

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