Sunday, 2 September 2012

When lying becomes a habit

Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for the vice-presidency of the United States has attracted some attention with the dishonesty of his speech to his party's convention.  He does seem to have been particularly brazen, but I suppose it can be said in his defence that his job there was to please the party faithful, not media fact-checkers, and that's just what he's done.  And the leaders of the Democratic Party are themselves quite willing to stretch the truth when they see political advantage in it.

So whereas I am horrified by the professed beliefs of today's Republicans, and sympathetic to Barack Obama, who does lots of things I disagree with but perhaps would do much better if he had more freedom to act, I don't propose to make much of Ryan's mendacious polemics.  But I am concerned with a small, but to me significant lie he told in a telephone interview he gave ten days ago, for radio broadcast.  I quote from the interviewer's transcript (the interviewer, Hugh Hewitt, is a supporter of Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate):
HH: But you did run marathons at some point?
PR: Yeah, but I can’t do it anymore, because my back is just not that great.
HH: I’ve just gotta ask, what’s your personal best?
PR: Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.
HH: Holy smokes. All right, now you go down to Miami University…
PR: I was fast when I was younger, yeah.
Now, running a marathon inside three hours is doesn't make you a champion, but it's a pretty good effort - Lance Armstrong ran just under three hours in his first marathon.  So running enthusiasts wanted to know more.  And they found out that Ryan has in fact run one marathon, in just over four hours.  Running a marathon in four hours is creditable enough, but it's not what you'd call "fast", so Ryan didn't just blurt out the wrong time, he clearly claimed to have been much better than he actually was.  (A spokesman has confirmed that Ryan "mixed things up".)

If you've never run a marathon you may have to take my word for this, but everyone I know who has run one (or more) remembers their (best) time quite accurately - mine is 3:15:52 .  It's inconceivable that one could misremember a time of over four hours as under three hours - the difference is huge, equivalent to knocking two and a half minutes off one's time for a mile.  (I'd welcome comments agreeing or disagreeing from any marathon runners reading this.)

Ryan couldn't have expected to gain many votes by claiming an impressive marathon time, nor if he'd thought about it could he have expected not to be found out.  The only explanation I can think of for this lie is that he'd told it so many times before that he repeated it without thinking.  That is, he's a man who's in the habit of lying about a question on which most people are scrupulously honest.  The only other politician I can think of who lies so casually is Jeffrey Archer (the British pulp novelist), who incidentally seems to have been a genuinely talented runner before getting himself locked up for perjury.

Does it matter if Ryan is a habitual liar?  Well, the vice-presidency of the United States is not usually an important office (would you recognize Joe Biden?), but there are exceptions (Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford).   And whereas I expect politicians to dissemble on occasions in their roles as populists and diplomats, I think it important for them to remember the difference between truth and fiction when they come to make decisions.  I suspect that George W. Bush often didn't care about that distinction.  I fear that Paul Ryan has simply forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. 3:14:50
    And then they changed GFA to 3:00. Grrr.

    But yes, burned into my brain.