Political Biographies Often More Fact Than Fiction

Oct 25, 2011


NEAL CONAN, host: There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and biographical statements included on political websites. That's at least how Alexandra Petri updates the old adage in a recent column. She follows up The Washington Post story that charged Florida Senator Marco Rubio with embellishing his background. She muses: Was he gaining points by portraying himself as the son of refugees from Castro's Cuba when, in fact, his parents arrived in the United States years before Castro took power, or was his tale powerful enough on its own? Why does his website say his parents came after Castro? Well, maybe he's just trying to fix it.

Petri writes the ComPost humor blog for The Washington Post and contributes to the editorial page as well, and joins us now from the studio at the newspaper here in Washington. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

ALEXANDRA PETRI: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And exact memory, an oxymoron, you suggest.

PETRI: Indeed. I think unless you're Marcel Proust, you have no idea what happened in the course of your life at any time. And the only reason Proust knew that was because he didn't go out very much.


CONAN: There is - you rustle up a number of famous quotes. My favorite, though, is omitted. Charles Barkley, the great basketball player, asked a question about his autobiography, said he was misquoted.


PETRI: Yeah. I think it's gone from say what you didn't mean to writing what - it seemed like a good idea at the time. I mean, they say the definition, actually, of a quotation is something that somebody said that seemed to make sense at the time, and why should autobiography be any different?

CONAN: And this goes back to Thucydides, of course, the great historian of the Peloponnesian War, and you note that he fessed up to the fact that when he was there, he sort of made up quotes.

PETRI: Oh, yes. Thucydides was actually known for being very scrupulous about this sort of thing. But he did admit when he wasn't at a particular event, he just said something that seemed to make sense in the context. So, really, for all we know, "Pericles's Funeral Oration" could have just been a series of armpit noises.


CONAN: He was noted for being a little bit more articulate, that I think you have other sources on that. But you may be right about that. And this goes to modern biographies, which, of course, end up, yes, in books. "Fed Up!" was Rick Perry's tome that he's, of course, had to explain now that he's on the campaign trail. But mostly on websites, political websites.

PETRI: Yeah. My - one of my favorite quotes about this, they had - on the - Scott Brown's website, they've been having a little kerfuffle with this lately because they had a statement, like a value statement, on the student welcome page that described not Scott Brown's life, but Elizabeth Dole's life. And the quote was that the narrative was inadvertently transferred without being rewritten, which is one of my favorite circumlocutions ever.

CONAN: I tried to explain that to my history teacher back in eighth grade. She didn't appreciate that line.

PETRI: Yeah. I meant to rewrite it. I didn't get around to rewriting it, but it was going to be really good when I, you know, didn't not rewrite it.

CONAN: In retrospect, I guess I was fortunate that my dog ate it.


PETRI: Yeah.

CONAN: As we look at the political uses, of course the narrative - a politician's story these days is probably the most powerful thing that they have to sway voters, many of whom don't know who Marco Rubio is.

PETRI: Oh, exactly. I mean, pretty much every politician who's risen up lately, from Barack Obama to John Edwards, a lot of that is they have a story that viewers and readers connect with. But the trouble is that the more exciting and more sort of connective your story is, the more likely it is to contain a little bit of what Tim O'Brien memorably called story truth rather than truth truth.

There's - he was the guy who wrote "The Things They Carried," and he has this great saying that a thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. And that should sort of be the front page of all political autobiographies and all speeches because what you're getting at is the truth truth. And while the fact truth might have been that this morning I sort of slept in and then I ate a waffle, the truth truth is that I climbed Mount Everest, and then rescued a kitten from a tree with my other hand, so...

CONAN: And politicians, as you note in your piece, are not the only ones who are subject to this kind of truth-truth.

PETRI: No, absolutely not. It's pretty much everyone, at some point, in their - from Greg Mortenson, the "Three Cups of Tea" guy. Now, who knows how many cups of tea it was to the million little pieces, which is the variable number of pieces between zero and two billion, I think, at this point.

CONAN: More pieces after the revelations than perhaps before. We'll never know.


CONAN: The - however, does it really make, in this age, that much difference?

PETRI: Well, no. You can always fix it in post, as they say, in the media biz but - as long as you tell a compelling story that gets people to visit it, then later somebody could go in and fact-check it. But the worst thing you could do is be boring, I mean, or self-deprecating. I - there's this - one of my favorite, sort of, memoir stories that actually turns out to be true is George W. Bush's autobiography. He has this story how he - his mother gave him a thesaurus and he's sitting there at school, and he wants to come up with a more elevated word for tears. So he writes this essay where he says, lacerates pour down my cheeks. And nobody has ever questioned that because they think, yeah, it sounds about right.

CONAN: It sounds about right. We've heard similar constructions from that same source. And the political biography, as you also note in your story is, well, a reconstruction of the world as we might have preferred it to be.

Exactly. As long as people have been writing political biographies, they've been getting it slightly wrong. There's the hagiography. And so why not eliminate the middle men when you're writing your own and just write your own hagiography? And...

You - there's a wonderful line in your piece. Dick Cheney claims in his memoir that nothing that occurred was his fault, but that if it was his fault, then he was right.


PETRI: I think that encapsulates pretty well what everyone's trying to say.

CONAN: And it's the essence of the political biography. Errors may have occurred as opposed to I made some mistakes.

PETRI: Exactly. We're - any unforeseen events that may or may not occur, we were prepared for, to paraphrase.

CONAN: And these days, of course, politicians have - well, not just these days, but politicians always have staffs that are ready to leap on anybody else's factual error and claim that it's a - well, clearly, a source of great moral failure.

PETRI: Well, yeah. Because - it's funny how this goes from one person scouring a website, and suddenly it's this big deal that you altered a line or two or a date or two. And in the great scheme of things, some say, oh, it doesn't matter. He got the story truth correct. And everyone else says, well, no. This is particularly germane to the narrative that he's trying to sell into why I connect with him. So the degree to which it bothers you really does vary based on how much the detail was telling for you in the first place.

CONAN: There is another narrative that has been spinning out in the Republican presidential field, and that is, of course, Herman Cain, the Godfather Pizza executive or former Godfather's Pizza executive who - campaigning as the outsider, the Washington outsider, who, as it turned out, worked as a head of a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., the Restaurant Association, for a number of years.

PETRI: Yeah. And he said all kinds of fun, sort of, quirky stories coming up with him because his presentation of himself as the Godfather's Pizza CEO. He's also been more of a motivational speaker than a pizza company CEO for the past decade or so. And there's a wonderful song - I don't know if you've seen the song of Herman Cain singing, imagine there's no pizza. It's really revelatory, and I highly recommend it.

CONAN: Well, he does seem to have a sense of humor, which is occasionally cited as an excuse for apparent misstatements. But any case, the idea that people's political biographies or their self-biographies, we all, I think, make up stuff about ourselves.

PETRI: Well, exactly. I think part of it is that your memory can only hold so much. You develop this, sort of, narrative through line that maybe somewhat accurate but is at least colorful. And you value consistency over the actual sort of specifics of things. The better a story it is to tell, the less you remember who you've told it to and also, the easier it is to, sort of, widget it into the same shape the next time around than going back and say, well, was he really sitting on my left? What was really going on?

It becomes - it takes on a life of its own when you tell a story enough times, that I think political stories as the, sort of, the ultimate example of the story that gets told and retold over and over again. Once you told it often enough, it becomes true in a way that it had no relevance to the initial facts that shaped it. It's just a - this is the cow story or this is the tree story. And...

CONAN: I think Ronald Reagan was the champion of this. He would tell stories over and over again of the belly-turret gunner in the airplane who, well, nobly stayed in his post until the plane crashed. It turned out to have been from a movie or Corporal Akino reporting for duty. Again, it was from "Back to Bataan." But he told it with such conviction. And we have the same kind of thing in the journalism business. They're called stories too good to check.

PETRI: Exactly. Because when you come across a narrative like that - I'm trying to think of a good recent example, but when you have somebody who's lifting cows off the street using telekinesis - I don't know why cows are coming up so often in the course of this. I guess they've just...

CONAN: Cows are funny, that's why.

PETRI: Yeah. They're a fixture of the past. They have those funny black and white spots where you can camouflage in old movies. And so - I think when you see a story that's really fun to tell, it gains a certain value that's totally unrelated to whether or not it may be simply speaking true. As Ronald Reagan once said, it's possible we did. I don't recall.

CONAN: Let's go to a phone call. Patty's(ph) on the line calling from Anderson, Ohio.

PATTY: Hi. I just - I was listening to the show, and I think that a subset of what you're discussing was best described by the writers of the drama "Mad Men." And they describe it as ineptitude with insufficient cover rather than calling it a lie.


CONAN: That's good. I like that. That, of course, is a fictional drama.

PATTY: It is, kind of.

CONAN: Kind of.

PETRI: Yeah.

CONAN: It tells a kind of truth though.

PATTY: I think so. Yes.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Patty. I like the observation.

PATTY: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we go to - this is Tom, and Tom's with us from Kansas City.

TOM: Yeah. Hi. Thanks for taking my call. Say, I just want to say I don't find this that humorous. I mean, I do think people do make mistakes and exaggerate, but you're talking about people who, you know, are potentially going to be the president of the United States or at least a senator or something. And to just lie about who you are, just, to me, isn't cute or funny or some slight mistake. It's an attempt to alter who you really are in order to make yourself to be something you're not.

CONAN: We'll have to see whether the voters of Florida - how seriously they take it. It's interesting that in subsequent interviews, Senator Rubio has said that he was just relating the story as he was told it by his family and that it doesn't make any essential difference that, yes, they were exiles from Cuba. Whether they arrived two years before Castro took over or two months after he did, does not make essentially much of a difference because they could not return to Cuba. But, Alexandra Petri, what do you make of the caller's comment?

PETRI: I think that's interesting. I think he gets to a good point because these are stories that have tremendous staying power, and proportional to their staying power, you could have people who become senators and become president, as you said, as with when Churchill said a lie could get halfway around the world before the truth has got its pants on. And so if you do have something that turns out to be a lie, that is really fundamental to how somebody is portraying themselves.

I think it really - the serious of it comes back down to, well, how fundamental is it to the way this person is portraying himself. So if you feel absolutely that '59 is qualitatively and vitally different, then going back at '61 and feeling that while you couldn't stay, like, I don't know. From not knowing this perspective, the idea that you wanted to go back somewhere and couldn't stay in there, like, I'm not exiled from this bar because I was going to - I intended to go back and I couldn't stay in there for a longer period of time, but I think that's a whole another kettle of fish into which I think it's the family, but...

CONAN: Well, maybe we ought to all go back and re-watch "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," the great John Ford movie, and remember that - Jimmy Stewart well -did he or didn't he? We'll have to see. When the story becomes the truth, the actual facts just get in the way. Alexandra Petri, thank you very much for your time today.

PETRI: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog for The Washington Post and wrote "Marco Rubio's Truer-Than-True Story" in the October 21st issue, and she joined us from a studio at the newspaper. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.