When I look back on my years of parenting and being parented, the lessons arrange themselves around one central idea: truth and trust intertwine.
My younger son “used his words” to work through this lesson. He was five when I promised him a mint crunch ice cream cone at the corner sweetery. He was disappointed when we got there and that flavor was sold out. “Dad, you lied!” I promised something I couldn’t deliver. It was a mistake, which is a different sort of untruth than a lie.
Both my boys learned to catch me when I rounded a corner or gussied a number to tell a better story. I told them a million times that an exaggeration is not always the same as a lie. Facts can as easily obscure a truth as tell it. We all assemble facts to tell stories. We also dissemble — arrange or omit facts — to tell stories.
Once the power struggles of adolescence kicked in, my boys and I moved to the third level of the truth-trust-twine. Truth must be more than what’s undisprovable. Just because nobody can prove you’re lying doesn’t mean you’re not lying. Asking for trust when you know you’re not trustworthy is hard to do.
Politicians ask for our trust every day. Public trust is the coin of their realm.
Al Gore allowed some to believe that he helped begin the Internet, and that his college years formed the basis of Eric Segal’s “Love Story.” That sort of exaggeration has a legal term: puffery. If you outlawed puffery, you could still have politics, but there would be no politicians.
So I can forgive Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan for his aw-shucks claim to talk show host Hugh Hewitt when asked about his personal best time for a marathon: “Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.”
The Republican campaign staff realized that Ryan had committed puffery in the first degree. Race times are published. Ryan’s claim is disprovable. They unearthed a race result of a little over four hours for Ryan’s personal best.
Ryan wanted to demonstrate that he once was fast on his feet. But I wonder if he hasn’t better portrayed that he’s fast and loose with the truth.
I called everyone I know who has run a marathon. Every one of them knew the exact time of their personal best, usually down to the second. Retired KVAL news producer Jack Spaulding told me, “There are days at my age when I’m lucky if I remember my name. But three-twenty-three in Utah. I think it was 1995.”
“Knowing accurately what you’ve accomplished is the most important part of any race,” said Blair Bronson. He’s race director for the Best in the West Triathlon Festival this weekend in Sweet Home and Foster Lake.
You train for six months, deny yourself almost every earthly pleasure, and what do you get in the end? You get your exact time, and a tee shirt. Only one of those will be yours forever.
Ryan’s initial claim, which he hasn’t yet disavowed, is that he just doesn’t remember his best marathon time. That strains the truth-trust-twine for me. Short of early onset Alzheimer’s, I’ve never met a marathoner who didn’t know his own personal record. It becomes part of their self-identity.
If Ryan stands by his claim that he can’t remember his best marathon time, that might give Americans pause — at least those who follow running as a sport. But of course, he’s only a vice presidential candidate. It would be different if his running mate Mitt Romney similarly has tugged or torn that truth-trust-twine.
When asked whether he led a marauding band of high schoolers to forcibly cut the hair of a classmate they may or may not have suspected was gay, Romney claimed he couldn’t recall the incident. If a young Romney bullied a classmate in high school, I can imagine forgiving him for what we’ve learned to call a “youthful indiscretion.”
But if Romney did it and he doesn’t recall, even after the story is retold to help jog his memory, that’s really troubling.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs