Paul Ryan said he ran a marathon under three hours. Runners World magazine showed that he did not, that he has run one marathon, in 1990, and his time was 4:01:25. One reaction to Ryan being caught saying something that wasn’t true is that it’s nothing that voters will care about, that it’s not a substantive like the substantive lies in his speech at the Republican convention. I think that is horribly wrong, and not only because his statement had another lie that I haven’t seen anyone else catch. This lie about marathoning–and a closer looks makes it difficult to see it as anything other than a deliberate lie– may turn out to be the best way for voters to see him for what he is: a person and a policy maker concerned with marketing over accomplishment. It is also a lie that exemplifies the Randian arrogance and self-delusion at the core of Paul Ryan’s public image.
The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson says Ryan’s time, for a twenty year old, was “entirely average; in fact, for the race that Ryan ran, it was below average.” That’s not really true. To finish a marathon, at any age, is not average. It takes preparation, at a bare minimum three or four months of disciplined fitness work, as well as focus and an ability to push yourself to finish the race. A 4:01 marathon is an achievement of which anyone should be proud.
But the difference between a 4:01 marathon and a sub-three hour marathon isn’t a quibble over a workout time. It’s a difference between what someone did, and who someone is. For most men, breaking three hours in the marathon requires at least two or three years of serious training. It’s not simply getting in to shape, it’s training: probably 40 to 80 miles a week for most of the year, regular 12 to 15 mile runs, attention to diet, rigorous adherence to a schedule, consistent and sufficient rest and sacrificing some indulgences that give people pleasure. A man with a time of 4:01.25 is someone who has run a marathon. A man with a marathon time better than 3:00:00 is a marathoner.
For someone who doesn’t run, the difference between a four-hour marathon and a two-fifty-something may seem inconsequential, and easy to confuse. But for someone who does run seriously, it’s immense. To make an analogy to an activity that Ryan is unquestionably good at, it’s like the difference between doing twenty-five pushups (not bad!) and a hundred (holy smokes!)
That’s an OK analogy, but it’s comparing things one is capable of doing. A marathon is a performance, and your time is the level of your achievement. What Ryan did was akin to someone with a bachelor’s degree, who thus knows the magnitude of the difference, saying she has a PhD. Or, like someone elected to the Wisconsin House of Representatives telling someone who wouldn’t be likely to catch the lie that he was a member of the United States House of Representatives.
And for those who might still believe that Ryan’s tongue simply slipped, look again at what he said:
H. H.: Are you still running?
P. R.: Yeah, I hurt a disc in my back, so I don’t run marathons anymore. I just run ten miles or [less].
H. H.: But you did run marathons at some point?
P. R.: Yeah, but I can’t do it anymore, because my back is just not that great.
H. H.: I’ve just gotta ask, what’s your personal best?
P. R.: Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.
H. H.: Holy smokes. All right, now you go down to Miami University…
P. R.: I was fast when I was younger, yeah.
Note that Ryan didn’t say he couldn’t run another marathon, but that he doesn’t run marathons anymore, that he “had a” personal best, which conveys the meaning that it wasn’t a single event, but a period of time where he ran marathons, plural. How would the term “personal best” have meaning if you did that thing only once? How could he run only one marathon but mistakenly remember it as more than one? Why didn’t he say that time is also his personal worst?
Paul Krugman points out the obvious: Ryan lies about policy, so it shouldn’t be a surprise he lied about his marathoning. But Krugman makes another important point, about how his image has helped Ryan get away with lying:
[T]he response from the Beltway [that Ryan's budget did not add up] was that it can’t be true, because he comes across as such an honest, sincere fellow. So little things indicating that this character judgment was all wrong do matter.
I don’t know why the usual suspects continue to have such faith in their ability to sense character, although I can guess: it privileges those who can actually have one-on-one conversations over those who just, um, actually analyze policy proposals. I mean, any old blogger can analyze policy.
Ryan gets away with policy lies because the bloviators and very serious people of Washington ignore what he does, and focus on who they believe he is. They annointed Ryan as the “serious” Republican, so they can’t fathom that he might be perpetrating a fraud. They overlook him putting out a “budget” with no numbers, and when pressed on it blithely said it was just a “marketing document.” They overlook him being forced to admit the Romney-Ryan campaign hadn’t run the numbers of their budget proposal. “He’s a numbers guy, a wonk,” they think. “He wouldn’t be that brazenly dishonest.”
Ryan has cultivated an image of a serious intellectual, someone conversant in philosophy, a man of ideas. But is there any foundation for this belief? He did not graduate from college with any distinctions, and never did post-graduate work. He has no significant writings. His only think tank work was as a speechwriter/publicist. He presents himself as a serious and devout Catholic, but when he invoked Catholic social teachings to defend his budget, Catholic social teachers showed he is clueless about Catholic social teachings. And he presents himself as a player in Congress–and in terms of messaging he is–but in over twelve years in Congress he has had only two piece of legislation become law.
When Al Gore got in trouble for seemingly stretching the truth while on the stump, it was invariably a case of Gore trying too hard to connect with a voter, to demonstrate to them “I understand you, and I’m actually more like you than you may realize, I’m one of you.” In contrast, the image Ryan cultivates, and that the DC bloviators suck up, is straight out of Ayn Rand: “I come from the same place as you, but I work really hard, I’ve accomplished more than you, I’m better than you.”
Now he wants us to believe he’s faster than us too.