Paul Ryan’s marathon puffery matters less than his convention whopper

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

The cliché that “a presidential campaign is a marathon not a sprint” dates back to at least to Michael Dukakis in 1988—and probably much earlier than that. But never before has a marathon itself emerged as a character issue in a presidential race. All that changed when Paul Ryan boasted to radio host Hugh Hewitt that his personal best marathon time was “under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.”

At first, this seemed like another minor physical fitness detail that fit into the gush about the Republican veep nominee’s hotness. Ryan is, after all, the kind of anti-pork politician prone to brag that his body fat is between six and eight percent. His P90x workout routine undoubtedly is better known than his position on overhauling Medicare. The toned and honed abs of Romney’s second banana have become an obsession in certain circles as New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser warbled about “Ryan’s rocking body.”

But while Ryan’s buff-itude seems genuine (at least until the rumors of a stunt double begin), his marathon times turn out to be fishier than Bill Clinton’s golf scores. When challenged by Runner’s World, the New Yorker and other publications, Ryan eventually backed off and admitted in a statement that “if I were to do any rounding, it would be to four hours, not three.” In short, Ryan’s sub-three-hour marathon disappeared in a few quick strides and a cloud of dust.

It seems implausible that Romney’s running mate could have so badly misremembered his running time, even if the race was the hitherto obscure 1990 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. (I am no runner, but I can accurately recite from memory every statistic that I compiled as a 13-year-old playing Pony League baseball).

Does Marathon-gate matter? I suppose you can concoct a slippery slope in which a political leader who will fib about his sporting achievements might also dissemble about whether Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.

But I have my own, more benign theory about Ryan’s Hype. A month ago as House Budget chairman, Ryan lacked a mass following beyond Wisconsin, Capitol Hill and conservative idea mavens. Now he is either destined for the vice presidential mansion or becomes anointed as a frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. That sort of dramatic liftoff can mess with any politician’s sense of self (see Palin, Sarah). Entranced with the fawning coverage of his physical fitness mania, Ryan, I suspect, felt the need to embellish his running story for no political purpose beyond feeding his own ego. 

What troubles me far more about Ryan’s honesty is the story he told last Wednesday night in his convention acceptance speech about the closing of the General Motors plant in his hometown of Janesville. The VP nominee linked a 2008 Obama campaign speech in Janesville expressing the hope that the factory would last for a century with GM shuttering the plant within a year. The obvious implication was that Obama’s economic policies as president led to laid-off factory workers in Ryan’s home town.

There was one problem: The time sequence proves nothing of the sort. Obama made his hyperbolically hopeful comments about the Janesville GM facility in February 2008. Four months later, just as Obama was nailing down the presidential nomination, the beleaguered automaker announced that it would close the plant. Almost all the production at the factory halted on Dec. 23, 2008, when GM laid off 1,200 workers and stopped making SUVs. Twenty-eight days later, Obama was inaugurated as president. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel unequivocally concluded that the GM story was “false.”

What baffles me about Ryan is why he told that grotesquely misleading story during his star-spangled turn at the Republican convention. It was just a few throwaway lines in a speech—and certainly truthful Wisconsin examples could have been found to illustrate economic hardship while Obama has been in the White House. Ryan both intimately understood the chronology and should have assumed that his remarks would be fact-checked.

Truth-telling does matter in political campaigns, even if “fact” has become a subset of “spin.” Athletes might occasionally exaggerate their exploits to impress listeners, but it requires a different form of hypocrisy knowingly to tell a whopper about your home town in the biggest speech of your political career. 

Watch Paul Ryan's Speech from the RNC: