Paul Ryan and the Post-Truth Convention Speech

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RyanFamily.jpgPaul Ryan's speech was well-written, well- delivered, and well-received. All of that was evident to anyone watching on TV. It had a number of nice smilingly vicious hit lines -- starting with the masterful "staring up at the faded Obama posters" riff -- plus a note of encouraging uplift at the end.

It was also profoundly dishonest in ways large and small.

   Small: telling the sad story of the closing of the Janesville GM plant, and clearly implying that this was one more casualty of the Obama-unemployment era. Whereas of course the plant was shuttered before Obama even took office.

  Medium: telling that story on the assumption that no one would say, "Wait a minute: wasn't Obama the guy who was pushing the big auto-industry bailout, which your nominee and your party opposed? So wouldn't there have been a lot more closed plants if you'd had your way?"

  Large: blasting Obama for not enacting the outlook of the Simpson-Bowles commission, without noting that Ryan himself was on the commission and voted against its recommendations because they included tax increases as well as spending cuts.

  Large: blasting Obama for proposed cuts in Medicare without noting that Ryan has proposed those same cuts and much more.

Let's assume that Ryan knows the "real" answer on these points. If he's from Janesville, he knows when the plant shut down. If he was on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, he knows how he voted. So just as a personal matter, I wonder how he convinced himself it was OK to say things he knew were provably wrong in front of tens of millions of people.

 - If I were writing about the Janesville plant in an Atlantic article, I'd know with 100% certainty that one of our fact-checkers, probably Sue Parilla, would step in to say: Wait a minute, you can't write that! It actually closed before Obama was in office.

 - If I were writing it in a blog post, I'd think: Wait a minute, a lot of people are going to know the real story. I better put in a clause showing I'm aware of it too, or else people will rip apart my claim.

- If I were writing it for someone else to give in a speech, I'd think: Wait a minute, this guy is going to be pissed if I set him up to tell a provable lie in front of an audience.

- And if I were somehow in a position to say this myself before a huge audience, I'd worry about someone saying, "Wait a minute, I'm from Janesville too, and..." Or "wait a minute, didn't you vote against Simpson-Bowles yourself?"

So I am impressed, in a bad way, that Ryan thought he could just brazen it through. But it is also impressive that, at least in the short run, parts of the press are responding as they must in an era when politicians don't care. That is, they're not simply quoting "critics" about things Ryan made up. They are outright saying that he is telling lies. For instance:

  • The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, with the headline, "Ryan misleads on GM plant closing in hometown."
  • A more omnibus fact-check item also by Kessler, with half a dozen similar exaggerations, distortions, etc.
  • A very tough item by Jonathan Bernstein, on the WaPo's Plum Line blog, with the headline "Paul Ryan fails -- the truth."
  • And another on the Post's site by Ezra Klein. Sample: "Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn't adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation."
  • And even a WaPo editorial on the misleading nature of the speech.
  • An excoriation by Jonathan Cohn, in The New Republic, under the headline, "The Most Dishonest Convention Speech ... Ever?" As Cohn adds: "I'd like to talk... about what Ryan actually said--not because I find Ryan's ideas objectionable, although I do, but because I thought he was so brazenly willing to twist the truth.
    "At least five times, Ryan misrepresented the facts. And while none of the statements were new, the context was. It's one thing to hear them on a thirty-second television spot or even in a stump speech before a small crowd. It's something else entirely to hear them in prime time address, as a vice presidential nominee is accepting his party's nomination and speaking to the entire country."
    I know that TNR is not "mainstream" in the sense that the NYT, WaPo, AP, etc., are. Still this is a very powerful item. And it leads to:
  • An AP item headlined, "FACT CHECK: Ryan takes factual shortcuts in speech."
  • An item from NPR with a mildly "he said, she said" headline ("Fact Checkers Say Some of Ryan's Claims Don't Add Up") but that gets the main points across.
  • One just now from the NYT, with the headline "In Ryan Critique of Obama, Omissions Help Make the Case." It begins this way: "In his speech accepting the Republican nomination for vice president at the Republican National Convention, Representative Paul D. Ryan criticized President Obama for seeking Medicare cuts that he once sought as well, and for failing to act on a deficit-reduction plan that he too opposed."
  • Another excoriation by Michael Tomasky, in the Daily Beast, that is headlined "Paul Ryan's Convention Speech and his Web of Lies" and which begins, "It just boggles the mind to imagine how Paul Ryan can stand up there and lash Barack Obama for abandoning Bowles-Simpson when he did exactly that himself."
  • An item on the Fox News site for which there must be an interesting backstory, in which contributor Sally Kohn says that "Ryan's speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech."
  • On TPM, a catalogue with the headline "Top 5 Fibs in Paul Ryan's Convention Speech."
  • Update An excellent item I had somehow missed before, by Jonathan Chait in NY Mag, about "Paul Ryan's Large Lies and One Big Truth." Worth reading in general, and to see what that "truth" is.
  • And Dave Weigel in Slate, plus Zack Beauchamp in Think Progress, about the euphemisms some reporters still use in order to avoid saying that Ryan "lied."

To restate the larger points for the moment: The bad one is that a major party's nominee for national office apparently just doesn't care that he is standing in front of millions and telling easily catchable lies. The less-bad one is that parts of the media are noticing, and are trying to figure out what they can do in response.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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