How not to talk about Wendy Davis

Also, that comment about walking in your shoes might have been a little tone-deaf. (Photo Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)
Also, that comment about walking in your shoes might have been a little tone-deaf. (Photo Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

“The truth,” as Oscar Wilde said, “is rarely pure and never simple.”

A piece by Wayne Slater in the Dallas Morning News, billed as a major revelation about the True Story of Wendy Davis, has been generating a lot of indignation lately. In brief, Davis was not a single mother at 19, living in a trailer, because her divorce was not finalized until she was 21, and, according to the article, “she lived only a few months in the family mobile home while separated from her husband before moving into an apartment with her daughter.” Shortly thereafter, she met Jeff Davis, a lawyer. They married, bought a house, and had two children. “He paid for her last two years at Texas Christian University and her time at Harvard Law School,” the story continues, “and kept their two daughters while she was in Boston. When they divorced in 2005, he was granted parental custody, and the girls stayed with him.”

It’s an interesting piece. The primary criterion for determining how much you think it means is whether you liked Wendy Davis or not in the first place. And there are good and bad ways of criticizing it.

People keep framing their objections to the Slater piece by noting that his factual correction is very tiny, in the scheme of things (what’s a year or two?), then pointing out some AWFUL AND TERRIBLE THINGS that other people have said about Davis in response to the story, then noting that Politicians Exaggerate Their Life Stories All The Time, then adding that this just shows that she must be a threat.

I don’t think this is the best way of addressing this story.

To begin with, people, especially politicians, are always getting hoist on the details of their Log Cabin Origin stories. Art, as I think Shia LaBeouf said, is what you can get away with. So is political autobiography — as long as you don’t stretch too far. You can’t just hand-wave the details away. Knowing what someone means by “lived in a trailer” or “ran a marathon” comes in handy later on, when you are shoving microphones at him trying to agree on a shared definition of “is.” People connect, or don’t, on their stories. Did you really live this, or did you just stop by? It’s fair to ask. This certainly happens to Republicans. “Mitt, when you and Ann were eating meals on an ironing board, did you really need to live like this, or were you carpetbagging into the Struggling Young Couple Experience the way some political aspirants carpetbag into states?” What’s a year or two? It can be a lot. Look what happened to Marco Rubio. You get one date slightly, slightly confused (was that pre- or post-Castro?), and suddenly all heck breaks loose.

Second, let’s all agree quickly that “Abortion Barbie” is a terrible way to refer to a person. Any idea put forth by someone who thinks this is a cute nickname ought to be carefully examined by someone wearing gloves. But just because a story prompts a comment like that (or the others) is no reflection on the actual merits of the story. See: Any story ever posted on a news Web site, where the first comment is always “OBAMA IS A CLOWN-SATANIST.” Some of these stories are about local ice cream festivals. People will always have various despicable responses, but the responses are not the story, and you need to make a better case against the validity of a story than “But So And So Said Something Mean Afterward.”

Third, yes, I know, politicians exaggerate. They’ve been doing it for centuries. It’s hardly breaking new ground. But it’s still newsworthy when you notice it happening. If we’re suddenly operating by the principle that “of course politicians exaggerate and shape their life stories to please the crowd! We get it! That’s cool! Next!” there are many, many hours reading “Decision Points” that I want back.

As to that last point — this wouldn’t happen if she weren’t getting some people seriously scared — well, wait and see. As far as critics are concerned, I’m not sure how far you can get on the argument, “Well, maybe you were a single mom who lived in a trailer, but NOT LONG ENOUGH.” I don’t think it’s far.

That’s not to say there’s no objection to be made to the story. You could loosely paraphrase it as “Dallas Morning News interviews Wendy Davis’ ex-husband, who states that he was responsible for everything good that ever happened in her life and then she just ran off with his money.” The ex-interview is also a time-honored political tradition, usually to be found when the former spouse’s poll numbers have crept uncomfortably high.

But there’s another objection that doesn’t even go that far.

As Texas GOP legislator Becky Haskins said to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “if this involved a man running for office, none of this would ever come up.”

Take the case of a politician. When still young, this person weds an older, wealthier spouse who uncomplainingly cares for the couple’s children while the politician works long hours, rises in the ranks and pursues ambitions that lead outside the home. Scandalous, yes? Whoops, I’ve just described George Washington.

This — marry someone, have that person work and support you through school and care for the kids while you run for office — is a standard narrative. There’s even a variant where you divorce the individual in question and trade for someone more photogenic whose face moves less. It’s a familiar trajectory for a candidate for office — for men, that is. But the fact that Wendy Davis is a woman brings in different words. Gold-Digger. Child-Abandoner. Whatever happened to submitting to your husband? Didn’t you read Steve Pearce’s book?

At the same time, I don’t think it’s unfair to point out that, at least to an outsider, her second marriage seems to have helped provide the stability she needed as she transformed from a struggling teenage mother to a Harvard-educated lawyer with a promising political future. She said of her ex-husband, “He gave to me my adolescence. He gave me the opportunity to be a university student,” as she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1996. Could she have done it alone? She was already on the path — attending Texas Christian University on an academic scholarship and Pell grant when she met Davis. They married, and he became part of her story. This example can cut any number of ways. Amanda Marcotte at Slate notes, “This hit piece came out right in the midst of a tidal wave of conservatives telling women the best cure for poverty is to marry their way out of it. That is, apparently, unless you intend to run for office later, in which case you’re a gold-digger.”

It’s still a story of hard work. This was not a case of lying back on a barge and having opportunity grapes fed to you. It’s still compelling. It’s just a little less pure and simple. The truth seldom is.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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Alexandra Petri | January 21