Ryan plays ‘fast’ and loose with the facts

Updated
 
Paul Ryan is not above exaggerating his athletic prowess, among other things.
Paul Ryan is not above exaggerating his athletic prowess, among other things.
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One of the more unexpected political controversies of the weekend involved Paul Ryan and, of all things, a marathon.

Last week, in an interview with Hugh Hewitt, Paul Ryan said that he had run a marathon in under three hours, or, more precisely, “I had a two hour and fifty-something.” That is quite speedy, and running fans in the forums of Letsrun.com treated the claim with great skepticism. The Internet bears no trace of the run, and Ryan doesn’t have the extremely lean frame of your typical fast marathoner. Also, people who run that quickly are generally neurotic about their times. Shouldn’t Ryan remember his exactly? “He is too intense and driven to just forget something like that,” one commentator wrote.

Slate and Runner’s World investigated. Questions were raised, given the criticism of Ryan’s honesty in his convention speech. This evening, the terrific running journalist Scott Douglas figured out that Ryan had actually run a 4:01 in the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1990, when he was a college student.

Pressed for an explanation, Ryan said through a spokesperson he mixed up his brother’s time with his own.

Now, I couldn’t care less about Ryan’s athletic abilities, and the fact that he got caught lying about his marathon time is trivial when compared to the lies he told in his convention speech last week.

But therein lies the point: a pattern is emerging and it’s an important one. When Paul Ryan talks about public policy, he says things that aren’t true. When Paul Ryan talks about President Obama’s record, he says things that aren’t true. And when Paul Ryan talks about himself, he says things that aren’t true.

I realize much of the political establishment resists this, because so many are invested in the notion that Ryan is a bold truth-teller with unimpeachable credibility. David Brooks defended the candidate’s convention falsehoods by blaming Romney speechwriters for forcing poor Ryan to say things that aren’t true.

But given the pattern, isn’t it time to reevaluate those old assumptions? Isn’t it possible that the establishment that celebrated Ryan’s alleged honesty simply fell for a con?

James Fallows had a good piece on why he thinks the marathon lie matters.

We’ve all exaggerated to make ourselves look better. You’ve probably done it. I know I have. (Let’s not think about the whole category of “what happens on first dates.”) But out of prudent self-protection, most people have a sense of “situational awareness” when it comes to self-burnishment. Somebody you’re talking to in a bar, and you’re never likely to see again, is in one category. Somebody interviewing you for national broadcast is in another. That is what I’m having a hard time fully understanding.

You’re on a nationwide show. You’re one of the handful of people most prominently in the national eye. You know that everything you say is going to be recorded, parsed, and examined. And still – last week, not at a freshman mixer or in a Jaycees speech somewhere – you happily reel off a claim that is impressive enough to get people’s interest and admiration, and specific enough to be easily testable. […]

This doesn’t fit the normal model of “efficient” political or human truth-shaving. It was a lie that was totally unnecessary – if he’d said he had run a five-hour marathon, we’d still know that he’s physically very fit. And telling it in his current state of 24/7-scrutiny and prominence was either unbelievably naive (“no one will ever double-check this”) or plain reckless (“I don’t care if they do”).

I know Republicans hate the comparison, but the media’s treatment of Al Gore in 2000 is relevant. If Gore had been caught lying about a marathon time, it would have been a huge story precisely because the establishment had decided that the Democrat was a “serial exaggerator,” and looked for evidence to reinforce the narrative.

Again, it’s not just the exaggeration; it’s the pattern of trying to deceive the public. Paul Krugman noted today the story of Rosie Ruiz who pretended to win the Boston Marathon in 1980, sneaking onto the course about a mile from the end.

“Obviously nobody cares how fast Mr. Ryan can run, and even his strange marathon misstatement wouldn’t be worth talking about in isolation,” Krugman explained. “What makes this incident so striking is, instead, the way it resonates with the essential Rosie-Ruizness of Mr. Ryan’s whole political persona, which is built around big boasts about accomplishments he hasn’t accomplished.”

Paul Ryan

Ryan plays 'fast' and loose with the facts

Updated