If there is one lesson of political autobiography, it is that nobody actually has any idea what happened in the course of their lives at any time.
Roger Ebert tells us that “The British satirist Auberon Waugh once wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph asking readers to supply information about his life between birth and the present, explaining that he was writing his memoirs and had no memories from those years.”
Perhaps Marco Rubio should have done the same.
Now Rubio, a Florida senator, the charismatic son of Cuban immigrants who is rumored to be among the juiciest picks for the vice presidential slot, is coming under fire for possible exaggerations in his political narrative. 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? And why does his website say his parents came After Castro?
Maybe he’s just trying to fit in.
Look at all the shelves of political memoirs.
Bristol Palin claims that she succumbed to Levi Johnston under the influence of wine coolers and the brisk arctic air. Levi Johnston claimed that she jumped him in the shower and demanded he impregnate her. Both of them were there, and this occurred barely three years ago, so you can see how difficult this is.
Dick Cheney claims in his memoir that nothing that occurred was his fault, but that if it was his fault, then he was right. I may be paraphrasing slightly.
Look, the past is notoriously hard to remember. I scarcely remember a thing, and I was there for a bit of it. I think there may have been cows.
In the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, “It’s possible we did, but I don’t recall.”
Exact memory? It’s practically an oxymoron. Unless you're Proust, you might as well throw in the towel.
Sure, historians (and a few journalists) have the noisome habit of trudging through Actual Records of Actual Events and pinning them down with real dates. But surely a little something of the past dies when you apply these absurd and outdated standards of accuracy. In order for a thing to be measured and dated, it has to stop moving, like a butterfly on a pin. And people who keep butterflies on pins are creepy.
Since people have been writing history, they have been writing history wrong. The Ancient Greek historian Thucydides noted in Book I of his History of the Peloponnesian War, that when he wasn't there, he wrote speeches for the people that seemed appropriate to the occasion. This means that, for all we know, Pericles’ funeral oration consisted of a series of lip farts.
Admittedly, this was only one lapse in an otherwise painstaking quest for accuracy. Thucydides didn’t even trust his own recollections of events, preferring to call on outside sources. If Marco Rubio’s parents had come up to him with “family lore” and imprecise dates, he would have thrown his old-fashioned writing implements at them.
This is why people find Thucydides so boring.
Thucydides took pride in this. As he said, in Richard Crawley’s translation, “I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”
The trouble is that this is exactly what political autobiography is: an essay to win the applause of the moment. It is the paragraphs you read to the rotary club and the church breakfast. If you say that you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth and Gloria Vanderbilt once dandled you on her knee and gave you the deed to something, you tend to lose the crowd.
Our lives are generally less exciting than our recollections of them — Bill Clinton’s being the only exception.
So whenever anyone emerges with a particularly compelling story, winning the applause of the moment in spades, it's safest to assume that there is a detail or two slightly awry. A million little pieces, James Frey? Eight hundred thousand, tops. Three cups of tea, Greg Mortenson? More like two or eight.
You could update the old saying. There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and biographical statements included on political websites.
Inevitably this is the fault of some beleaguered staffer, and you almost feel bad pointing it out. For instance, Scott Brown did not plagiarize Elizabeth Dole’s life story. The narrative was "inadvertently transferred without being rewritten" – that's one of my favorite phrases of all time – probably by an intern who wanted to go to lunch or something.
Rubio's website still says that his parents came to the United States after Castro took power. This is not quite true, but it is not quite false either.
As long as there have been political autobiographies, there have been various sins of omission and subtraction, of the greater and lesser variety.
Where you think this one falls depends greatly on your own perspective.
If the story loses an extra level of resonance for you once you realize that Rubio was only the son of exiles in the sense that they arrived three years before Castro took power, later thought they might go back, and then decided not to, it will matter to you a great deal. If you think he is the son of exiles regardless, that his story – a mother working as a hotel maid, a seventy year-old father bartending long hours, all to give their son a shot in a new country – retains its power, then, you probably think it's a tea-cup tempest. How much do those three years matter to you?
History is a jumble of the badly remembered and the badly retold. We generally forgive you — unless you tell it well enough to make us pay attention.
Whether or not you buy his allocation of responsibility — “The dates I have given regarding my family's history have always been based on my parents' recollections of events that occurred over 55 years ago and which were relayed to me by them more than two decades after they happened. I was not made aware of the exact dates until very recently…” Rubio tells it well.
And as Parson Weems would remind us, what did happen is sometimes less true than what didn't happen. Does that make sense?
"A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth," as Tim O’Brien says. This is a quote that ought to be on the front page of every political memoir.
The only time a political figure has claimed he was incapable of shading or stretching the truth — “Yes, I chopped down that cherry tree!” — the anecdote itself turned out to be false.