For most presidential candidates, a compelling personal history is an essential item in the campaign tool kit.
Think Hillary Rodham Clinton and her campaign statements about fighting for women. Marco Rubio and his biography of the immigrant family that made good. Carly Fiorina and her “secretary to CEO” career path. Ben Carson and his up-by-the-bootstraps persona.
For an electorate hungering for authenticity, a strong back story matters.
But, just as tales at the dinner table sometimes get embellished, so do stories on the campaign trail.
Blame human nature, fuzzy memory or political calculation.
In any event, “if you’re going to err, you are probably going to err on the side of advancing your own cause — and that’s true for everybody,” says Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at New York University.
As Donald Trump wrote in one his books, “A little hyperbole never hurts.”
Some candidate narratives are rock solid. Others fall apart on closer inspection. And many fall somewhere in between: a little bit cock-eyed or requiring the addition or subtraction of a key detail or two.
Questions about a biography can be telling to voters, Renshon says.
“If your biography is suspect, and who you say you are needs to be revised frequently,” he says, “then how are we going to be tell whether or not, when you say you are going to do something for us, that you actually will wind up doing that?”
A closer look at some of the tales told by the campaign class of 2016 — and the back story to those back stories.
Clinton re-raised some eyebrows this week with her Veterans Day tale of checking out whether she should join the Marines back in 1975. She was 27 that year, the year she married Bill Clinton and was working as a lawyer in Arkansas.
She said the Marine recruiter “looks at me and he goes, ‘Um, how old are you?’ ” Clinton recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m 26, I’ll be 27.’ And he goes, ‘Well, that’s kind of old for us.’ And then he says to me … ‘Maybe the dogs will take you,’ ” meaning the Army.”
Why would Clinton, a lawyer, want to join the Marines? The idea was met with skepticism back in 1994, when she told the story as first lady, and again this week, when Republicans used it as an opportunity to rehash any number of alleged Clintonian embellishments.
In response to a recent Associated Press query, her campaign said “her sole reason for visiting the recruitment center was to determine if there was a suitable opportunity for her to serve in some capacity. Her interest was sincere and it is insulting, but not surprising, that Republicans would attack her for this, too. “
The episode inevitably brought fresh reminders of Clinton’s 2008 tale about a harrowing visit to war-torn Bosnia in March 1996 as first lady. Clinton, during her 2008 run for president, recalled landing under sniper fire and running with her head down to get in her vehicle. She joked that one mantra around the Clinton White House was that “if the place was too small, too dangerous or too poor, send Hillary.”
Security was very tight on Clinton’s goodwill tour to Bosnia, but officials said at the time that she took no extraordinary risks. Video of the visit shows her being greeted by a child on the tarmac and given a warm hug — not ducking and running.
The retired neurosurgeon and political neophyte has crept to the front of Republican polls with his inspirational tale of rising above an impoverished upbringing in Detroit and overcoming violent tendencies as a youth to reach the top ranks of medicine. His campaign has brought a cascade of questions about elements of his personal history.
Carson last week clarified previous claims that he’d been offered a scholarship to West Point, saying that while he’d been told he could get an appointment to the school, he never applied.
He also faced questions about his oft-repeated claim that he tried to stab a close friend as a teenager. Citing privacy concerns, his campaign has refused to name the person involved.
In addition, police in Baltimore recently said they didn’t have enough information to verify Carson’s account of being held at gunpoint at a fast-food restaurant there more than 30 years ago.
Carson said at the latest GOP debate that he’d faced lies about his life story and undergone unprecedented public scrutiny.
“Thank you for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade. I appreciate that,” he told the moderators.
Fiorina loves to recount her tale of rising from a secretary position to the executive suite at Hewlett-Packard as a story that is “only possible in this nation and proves that every one of us has potential.” Her political action committee’s website is fromsecretarytoceo.com.
This isn’t exactly a rags-to-riches story, though. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was an abstract painter.
Fiorina’s stint as a secretary at a real estate brokerage firm came when the Stanford graduate quit law school after deciding it wasn’t for her. “I answered the phones. I typed. I filed,” she recounted in a 2001 commencement address at Stanford. “My parents were, understandably, quite concerned. This wasn’t exactly what they’d hoped for, for their Stanford graduate.”
Eventually, she went off to Italy to teach English, and then decided to go to business school and get an MBA. From there she soon began her march up the management ladder.
Rubio’s bio on his Senate website says his parents “came to America from Cuba in 1956 and earned their way to the middle class working humble jobs — my father as a bartender in hotels and my mom as a maid, cashier and retail clerk.”
That’s a revised version of the story Rubio related early on as a freshman senator, when he offered himself as “the son of exiles” who “understand what it means to lose the gift of freedom.” His Senate biography once said he was “born in Miami to Cuban-born parents who came to American following Fidel Castro’s takeover.”
In fact, Rubio’s parents left for Miami nearly three years before Castro seized power in a revolution against dictator Fulgencia Batista. Rubio’s father was a store security guard when he and his wife left, and came to the U.S. for economic reasons, his staff said in 2011. Rubio said then his family had tried to return to Cuba in March 1961 but quickly left because they did not want to live under communism.
Trump’s status as super-rich businessman is an integral part of his campaign persona as a self-made capitalist success story who had beat long odds.
“I mean, my whole life really has been a ‘no,’ ” Trump, the son of a successful real estate developer, told New Hampshire voters last month. “And I fought through it.”
He did have a little help along the way, though.
“I started off in Brooklyn. My father gave me a small loan of $1 million,” Trump said. “I came into Manhattan and I had to pay him back. I had to pay him back with interest. “
Describing a $1 million as a “small loan” caused a few double-takes.
As for his wealth, Trump is proud to declare himself worth an eye-popping $10 billion.
His personal financial disclosure to regulators shows his assets to be worth at least $1.4 billion. But it’s impossible to tell from the documents exactly how much Trump is worth because the figures are detailed in broad ranges, with the top category being “more than $50 million.”
Trump complained that the forms aren’t adequate to reflect his wealth. He once sued an author for a lowball estimate of his fortune. But in a deposition, he once acknowledged that his estimates of his wealth can vary with his mood. “Even my own feelings affect my value to myself,” he said.
He’s also admitted to “truthful hyperbole.”
“I play to people’s fantasies,” he wrote in “The Art of the Deal.”
“People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.