The parsimonious explanation of Jeb Bush’s self-identification as “Hispanic” on a 2009 voter form is the explanation he offered himself: a simple slip of the pen, a clerical error whose only effect was to skew a government statistic by many zeros past the decimal point. Another ridiculous non-story, right?
Well, maybe not quite. Reporters who spend a lot of time with candidates often accumulate impressions of those candidates that they cannot convey within the norms and conventions of political reporting. You can’t just assert that a candidate is unintelligent, or a habitual liar, or casual with taxpayer money, or a phony consciously building a false image of themselves for political advantage. And oftentimes the proofs of those impressions are tedious, or complicated, or furiously denied by the campaigns’ publicists. And then a story will materialize that’s unimportant in itself—and maybe even exaggerated or unfair—yet which somehow enables the public to see what the reporter sees: Sarah Palin mangling the details of Paul Revere’s ride, Hillary Clinton’s little fib that she carried only one email device, Chris Christie overstepping guidelines on hotel costs, John Edwards’ $400 haircut.
Do you remember the details of the Paul Revere story? So big deal, Clinton had an iPad as well as a Blackberry. Guidelines are just that. Edwards’ haircut actually cost only $150; the other $250 covered the stylist’s travel costs to Edwards’ destination. Silly stuff in every case! And yet notwithstanding its silliness, somehow also true and interesting.