Paul Ryan caught a lot of guff last week—correctly—for delivering a vice presidential acceptance speech which was festooned with lies and false assertions. It was so bad that when the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and his staff scoured the speech looking for truth, lies, and misleading statements—they produced a grand total of two “true” policy items. Two.
But what intrigues me today isn’t the big lies like the ones for which Ryan has been excoriated recently. Right now I’m more interested in the smaller variety of lie whose triviality raises questions about their deployment. I’ll give you two examples.
Ryan caught notice last week when he told the conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt that he had run a sub-three hour marathon. This is apparently an impressive enough figure that Runner’s World wanted to find out more. What they found out was that his actual personal best time was a hair over four hours. I’m no runner (I follow my wife’s dictum: Run only when chased), but even I know that a difference of more than an hour in a marathon time is a big deal.
So why tell the lie?
As James Fallows writes:
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.
I don't understand this. I can understand, while obviously deploring, why Bill Clinton brazenly said "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" on national TV. It was a flat-out lie that to him might have seemed necessary to his survival. I can understand the little embellishments politicians and everyone else make -- especially when these occur in early days of the campaign, or in odd corners where you think no one is listening.
Or I’ll give a more contemporary large-lie example: I understand why Romney has made a fabrication about President Obama’s welfare policy a centerpiece of its campaign; I condemn it, but I can see the anything-to-win reasoning behind it (for more, see Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s blunt explanation).
But if big lies have a purpose, what’s the point of trivial untruths?
Here’s another example, from way back in November. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer opened a GOP presidential debate he was moderating by telling the crowd that “yes, that’s my real name.” Romney in turn introduced himself by saying, “I'm Mitt Romney and yes, Wolf, that's also my first name.” Except that it’s not. His first name is in fact Willard.
So what was the point of claiming otherwise?
This isn’t a partisan thing. I’m not trying to draw conclusions about Ryan’s and Romney’s personal veracity here (though I think there’s an abundance of evidence that their campaign is setting a new standard for political mendacity). I’m just really curious—why tell small, dumb lies?