One of the reasons why we enjoy building up our heroes is the loud thud they make when they topple from their pedestal. A preferred method of toppling is to catch them in a lie.
Americans are very honest people. And they expect everyone else to be honest with them.
The most visible testament to that is the iconic American mailbox. No German would ever have his mail delivered into an unlocked box, with a flag signaling to any perpetrator from afar that there is mail inside to be stolen. That’s why German mailboxes are highly fortified devices allowing mail only to go in, but not come out, unless you have a key. Germans believe that opportunity makes a thief, or at least gives rise to all sorts of mischief.
Or take the infamous U. S. immigration forms which ask us to truthfully report whether we are terrorists or drug abusers. The Germans would never ask such questions because of their generally misanthropic disposition. They expect people to lie in certain situations. Like when you are a terrorist – they feel that lying simply comes with the territory.
Americans, on the other hand, are very upset if they find out that they have been lied to. That’s why they have laws on the book that make lying to government officials a crime, for example. And more often then not, people don’t go to prison for the crime they committed but for the fact that they lied about something in that context.
So it’s a dangerous proposition for a politician to lie. But clearly, not every lie is a toppler. It seems that political lies are much more harmless than personal lies from a candidate.
If you lie about a $725 billion chunk of your Medicare plan, no one really cares. $725 billion is a big number. Who can count that many zeros anyway? And do we really want to take the other guy’s word for it?
A personal lie, however, can be really damaging. Polishing your Vietnam records, fibbing your marathon times, claiming to have invented the Internet, or overstating the visibility of distant continents from your porch are not easily forgiven. It’s the kind of lies we might hear from a neighbor whom we detest.
So it will be interesting to see how Paul Ryan’s dramatic overstatement of his marathon time plays out for him.
It certainly has the potential to be really bad. It was an unequivocal untruth, he was called out by others, he offered a very weak explanation, and it goes to a key element of his hero narrative, that is his fitness.
What might save him, though, is that it’s a topic many Americans cannot relate to. Who runs marathons, after all? It’s not a mainstream activity, and to some it may seem outright odd. And many may put it in the same category as the size of the fish they caught last summer – is just grows a bit over time.
So I think for now it’s a wash. But keep in mind that Saturday Night Live hasn’t yet returned for the season. Once they start chiseling away at the pedestal, this lie may prove to be a well-sized chisle.