Sorting Truth From Campaign Fiction

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mitt Romney says he "saw" his father "march" with Martin Luther King Jr. Rudolph W. Giuliani claims that he is one of the "five best-known Americans in the world." According to John McCain, the Constitution established the United States as a "Christian nation." Ron Paul believes that a "NAFTA superhighway" is being planned to link Mexico with Canada and undermine U.S. sovereignty.

On the other side of the political divide, Sen. Barack Obama says there are more young black males in prison than in college. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton claims she has a "definitive timetable" for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. John Edwards insists that NAFTA -- the North American Free Trade Agreement -- has cost Americans "millions of jobs." Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. boasts about his experience negotiating an arms-control treaty with Leonid Brezhnev.

All those claims, made over the past four months as part of the presidential campaign, are demonstrably false.

With just four days until the Iowa caucuses, the art of embellishment and downright fibbing is alive and well in American politics. But the popularity of blogs, YouTube and information databases such as LexisNexis, along with the 24-hour news cycle, has made it easier than ever for the media and rival campaigns to spot the mistakes and exaggerations of presidential candidates.

"The rules of the game are changing," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor and veteran observer of political campaigns. "A claim that something is inaccurate is being vetted more quickly and moving into the media more quickly."

On Friday, when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee attempted to link the chaos in Pakistan after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto with the issue of illegal immigration, skeptical reporters immediately questioned the claim. The Huckabee campaign was unable to provide convincing backup for his assertion that "we have more Pakistani illegals coming across our border than all other nationalities except those immediately south of the border," a statement at odds with U.S. Border Patrol data.

Huckabee later cited a March 2006 Denver Post article to support his claim that 660 Pakistanis crossed U.S. borders illegally last year. In fact, the newspaper wrote that 660 Pakistanis were apprehended crossing into the United States between 2002 and 2005. U.S. Border Patrol data show that Canada, the Philippines and Poland accounted for larger numbers of illegal immigrants than Pakistan.

Even as own his comments were being questioned, Huckabee criticized Romney yesterday at campaign stops in Iowa, saying he concocted parts of his past. "You are not going to hear me making up stuff about my biography," said Huckabee, who also referred to Romney's exaggeration of his hunting exploits: "I don't go around saying I was a lifelong golfer because I once rode in a golf cart when I was 8 years old."

When a candidate is caught making a clearly false statement, embarrassment or ridicule often ensues -- and over time a reputation can form. But the electoral rewards derived from stretching the truth or distorting a rival's record just as frequently outweigh the fleeting political costs.

"I would not say that the level of honesty or deception is better or worse than in past campaigns," said Brooks Jackson, director of the Annenberg Political Fact Check, who has been truth-squadding political candidates since 1992. "It is a function of running for office that you want to say things that are pleasing to voters."

Some campaign operatives argue that candidates are becoming more cautious about their public pronouncements, for fear of being caught making a mistake. "I think candidates are being more careful," said Mike Gehrke, research director for the Democratic National Committee. He notes that the ease of retrieving information online has made it possible "to fact-check at a much more granular level than ever before."

Candidates' responses to challenges on accuracy can be as revealing as their original statements. Rather than acknowledge that he made a mistake about his father marching with King, Romney argued over the meaning of the word "saw," saying he used it in a "figurative" sense without the intention to mislead. His aides put reporters in touch with eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen his father "hand in hand" with the civil rights leader. Contemporaneous newspaper reports showed that the two men were in different parts of the country on the date in question.

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