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History, according to Marco Rubio

If there is one lesson of political autobiography, it is that nobody actually has any idea what happened in the course of their lives at any time.

Marco Rubio, a charismatic senator from Florida and the son of Cuban immigrants, who is rumored to be among the juiciest picks for vice president for the Republican ticket, is coming under fire for possible exaggerations in his political narrative.

Was he gaining points by portraying himself as the son of refugees from Castro's Cuba when in fact his parents arrived in the United States a couple of years before Castro took power?

(A Post review of his family's documents shows that Rubio's parents came to the United States before Fidel Castro came to power, that his mother went back to Cuba with Rubio and his brother in 1961, but that they stayed only a few months and then returned to the United States.)

Or was Rubio's tale powerful enough on its own? And why did his Senate website say his parents emigrated after Castro's rise?

Maybe he's just trying to fit in.

Look at the shelves of political memoirs.

Bristol Palin claims that she succumbed to Levi Johnston under the influence of wine coolers and the brisk arctic air. Levi Johnston claimed that she jumped him in the shower and demanded he impregnate her. Both of them were there, and this occurred barely three years ago, so you can see how difficult this is.

In his memoir, Dick Cheney claims that nothing during the George W. Bush administration was his fault, but that if it was his fault, then he was right. I may be paraphrasing slightly.

Look, the past is notoriously hard to remember. I scarcely remember a thing, and I was there for a bit of it.

In the immortal words of Ronald Reagan, "It's possible we did, but I don't recall."

Exact memory? It's practically an oxymoron. Unless you're Proust, you might as well throw in the towel.

Sure, historians (and a few journalists) have the noisome habit of trudging through Actual Records of Actual Events and pinning them down with real dates. But surely a little something of the past dies when you apply these absurd and outdated standards of accuracy.

Political autobiography is an essay to win the applause of the moment. It is the paragraphs you read to the Rotary Club and at the church breakfast. If you say that you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth and that Gloria Vanderbilt once dandled you on her knee and gave you the deed to something, you tend to lose the crowd.

Our lives are generally less exciting than our recollections of them — Bill Clinton's being the only exception.

So whenever anyone emerges with a particularly compelling story, it's safest to assume that there is a detail or two slightly awry. A million little pieces, James Frey? Eight hundred thousand, tops. Three cups of tea, Greg Mortenson? More like two or eight.

You could update the old saying. There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and biographical statements on political websites. Until recently changed, Rubio's website still said that his parents came to the United States after Castro took power. This is not quite true, but it is not quite false either.

In the various sins of the omissions and subtractions in political autobiographies, we generally forgive you. Unless you tell it well enough to make us pay attention.

You may not buy Rubio's allocation of responsibility: "The dates I have given regarding my family's history have always been based on my parents' recollections of events that occurred over 55 years ago and which were relayed to me by them more than two decades after they happened. I was not made aware of the exact dates until very recently." But he tells it well.

"A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth," as novelist Tim O'Brien says. This is a quote that ought to be on the front page of every political memoir.

The only time a political figure has claimed he was incapable of shading or stretching the truth — "Yes, I chopped down that cherry tree!" — the anecdote itself turned out to be false.

Alexandra Petri is a member of the Washington Post's editorial page staff.

© 2011 Washington Post

History, according to Marco Rubio 10/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 24, 2011 4:58pm]
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