The Real Mystery of Paul Ryan's Marathon Time

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Executive summary: the mystery in this case is why someone just stepping into the spotlight of national attention would risk telling an (a) entirely unnecessary and (b) very easily disprovable lie. It doesn't make "normal" political sense, where you lie to get out of a jam, or because you think you can't be caught. Now the details:
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I mention this to close the loop from an item yesterday. Here's the setup:

- Paul Ryan's standing in public life was originally based on his image as the Republican party's truth-teller. That is why he was so often called "brave" and "serious." Agree or disagree with that characterization, it has been his brand.

- Given that, I said it was surprising that he'd been so careless in his convention speech about leaving himself open on easily-disprovable claims. For instance, if he's going to criticize President Obama for not implementing the Simpson-Bowles recommendations, shouldn't he mention that he was on the panel and also voted against its proposals? (And on through the rest of the list.) If his brand as truth-teller mattered to him, why not build in those protections? It would be so easy to do. "In the end, I also opposed the recommendations, because they didn't go far enough. [etc] But the president failed..."

- Now we have the odd fact that last week -- when he was already the VP choice, when everything he said was being watched and recorded, when he knew he was in the national eye -- he said on a national radio show that his best marathon time was under three hours, "I had a two hour and fifty-something." When in fact, thanks to Scott Douglas of Runner's World, it appears that his "personal best" was more than an hour slower, 4:01.* Interestingly, Runner's World seems to have come up with this info not in an effort to expose Ryan but to celebrate his athleticism. His announced time sounded so impressive that they wanted to learn more. My friend (and very good runner) Nicholas Thompson of the New Yorker followed up here.

We've all exaggerated to make ourselves look better. You've probably done it. I know I have. (Let's not think about the whole category of "what happens on first dates.") But out of prudent self-protection, most people have a sense of "situational awareness" when it comes to self-burnishment. Somebody you're talking to in a bar, and you're never likely to see again, is in one category. Somebody interviewing you for national broadcast is in another. That is what I'm having a hard time fully understanding.

You're on a nationwide show. You're one of the handful of people most prominently in the national eye. You know that everything you say is going to be recorded, parsed, and examined. And still -- last week, not at a freshman mixer or in a Jaycees speech somewhere -- you happily reel off a claim that is impressive enough to get people's interest and admiration, and specific enough to be easily testable.

I don't understand this. I can understand, while obviously deploring, why Bill Clinton brazenly said "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" on national TV. It was a flat-out lie that to him might have seemed necessary to his survival. I can understand the little embellishments politicians and everyone else make -- especially when these occur in early days of the campaign, or in odd corners where you think no one is listening.

That's why I mention it one more time: This doesn't fit the normal model of "efficient" political or human truth-shaving. It was a lie that was totally unnecessary -- if he'd said he had run a five-hour marathon, we'd still know that he's physically very fit. And telling it in his current state of 24/7-scrutiny and prominence was either unbelievably naive ("no one will ever double-check this") or plain reckless ("I don't care if they do"). Unless we get into Jonah Lehrer territory -- that is, the realm of people who self-destructively take needless risks with the truth -- I just am amazed.

Update I see that Nicholas Thompson has just grappled again with the Why?? question. His answer is better than any I have come up with yet. I will plan to leave it at that, while still pondering.
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* Knowing the reality of Ryan's 4:01 time, his exchange with Hugh Hewitt is the more surprising. As mentioned yesterday:

HH: Are you still running?
PR: Yeah, I hurt a disc in my back, so I don't run marathons anymore. I just run ten miles or yes.
HH: But you did run marathons at some point?
PR: Yeah, but I can't do it anymore, because my back is just not that great.
HH: I've just gotta ask, what's your personal best?
PR: Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.
HH: Holy smokes.
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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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