How much will Wendy Davis’s bio gaffe matter?


Wendy Davis speaking at an education meeting in Texas earlier this month. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Add Wendy Davis to the long list of politicians (and public figures more broadly) who shave a little here and add a little there, all in an effort to connect with and inspire voters by being both accessible and exceptional. It’s a version of the campaigning in poetry, governing in prose idea.  And when it comes to biographical narratives, campaign verses are often written in broad strokes — compelling Horatio Alger-like stories, full of up-from-nowhere Americana.

They are what literary types call narratives of ascent. In Davis’ retelling of her story, she was the single teenage mom who juggled low-wage jobs, then worked her way to a Harvard Law degree.  It’s an inspiring story.  Generally true.  Yet the details — a lawyer husband who helped her pay for school and take care of her daughters — make it more complicated, less catchy.

And politics, where being a self-made man or woman is a selling point, is full of these types of bite-sized stories.  Often that shorthand way of describing a life doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny, as Davis is finding out.

Davis, who is running for governor in Texas, and her allies are now pushing back, blaming opponents for a story that appeared in The Dallas Morning News that questioned some of the public details about her life story. She also released an early biography that clarifies and fleshes out her early years.

Again, she’s in good company.

Remember Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)?  Is he the son of Cuban exiles or Cuban immigrants?

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)?  Native American ancestry or not?

Did Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) serve in Vietnam or just say he did?

Are the characters in President Obama’s memoir real or composite?

How much did Mitt and Ann Romney actually struggle when they were a young married couple?

And don’t forget Bill Clinton, the man from Hope.  Even that detail, a speech writer’s dream, was a bit more complicated — Clinton was born in Hope, yet spent most of his boyhood in Hot Springs.

But the man from Hot Springs doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So for Wendy Davis, so gifted at the optics of politics (remember those pink sneakers and the 11-hour filibuster), now what?  What’s clear is that this type of biographical scrutiny has tripped up many a politician.  Yet it has hardly doomed anyone. (See the above list).

For her part, Davis has quickly turned this into a partisan campaign fight with a dash of identity politics, a surefire way to rally the troops. She has crafted a very specific image — blue collar, populist feminist — that has resonated both in Texas and more broadly with the national Democratic base. While her name recognition has increased, she still trails in polls.

The bottom line is this: People who liked Wendy Davis before the more complicated story of her background emerged will like her all the same. And those that didn’t will have yet another reason to root against her.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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Nia-Malika Henderson · January 19, 2014