Why the marathon story has legs, or a paean to Walter Lippman

There are those moments where real politics provides a teachable moment, far more effective than any anecdote or statistic.  Today, my public opinion class was reading Walter Lippman’s classic text, Public Opinion.  The continuing chatter about Paul Ryan’s misstatement about his marathon time led us to reflect on this quote, 90 years ago, but oh so relevant today.

Image courtesy of thedeets.com

Of leadership, reality, and the “pseudo-environment,” Lippman wrote:

Great men, even during their lifetime, are usually known to the public only through a fictitious personality.  Hence the modicum of truth in the old saying that no man is a hero to his valet.  There is only a modicum of truth, for the valet, and the private secretary, are often immersed in the fiction themselves.  Royal personages are, of course, constructed personalities.  Whether they themselves believe in their public character, or whether they merely permit the chamberlain to stage-manage it, they are at least two distinct selves, the public and the regal self, [and] the private and human.

Did the last week provide unique insight into Ryan’s private and human self?  Or was it an elaborate fiction that unfortunate facts have made impossible to stage manage away?

As an avid runner and a political scientist, I’ve been asked a lot about Ryan and marathons by the press, by my students, and by my neighbors.  My reaction as a runner was swift: every runner remembers their marathon time.  I posted a thread about the topic on a local message board, and a high-minded discussion of politics quickly degenerated into a mutual back patting session among runners who were faster than Mr. Ryan.  And not one of them failed to remember their time–to the second.

If not the exact time, all marathon runners recognize the three-hour barrier as a signal accomplishment.  Only 2.9% of male marathon runners (in 2011) ran faster than three hours (37.5% of runners beat four hours, by point of comparison).  Finishing a marathon is quite an achievement, but the number don’t lie.  A sub-three hour marathon is by any measure an elite time met by 3% or fewer of all runners (I missed this elite class by 33 seconds a decade ago).  4:01 is almost precisely middle-of-the-pack.

With that information in hand, as a political scientist, though, I worry less that Ryan is an inveterate liar as much as he is able to revise history regardless of the facts.

The Janesville story?  That strikes me as typical political sophistry: Obama claimed that the plant would not be closed in July 2008, and in December 2008 it was closed.  Billions of  government dollars were invested in GM and Chrysler, but the Janesville plant remained closed.  Ryan is, in essence, complaining that Obama failed to send some pork barreling his way.  That’s not unusual.

I have a harder time dismissing the marathon flub because I can’t come up with a credible reason for the misstatement.  The quote wasn’t off the cuff–he elaborated on his precise time.   This was a reasoned comment.  And the information was easily checked, so this wasn’t a policy claim based on disputed facts and conflicting interpretation.  I can only presume that Ryan deliberately misstated the time in some attempt to boost his image, or he really remembers that as the time, and he believes in his own elaborate fiction.

That’s why I think this story will have “legs.”  It is humorous, it’s easy to understand, and it evokes just the kind of emotional reaction and character judgment that may last well after the facts are lost.  Quoting Lippman once again:

The stimulus which originally pulled the trigger may have been a series of pictures in the mind aroused by printed or spoken words. These pictures fade and are hard to keep steady; their contours and their pulse fluctuate. Gradually the process sets in of knowing what you feel without being entirely certain why you feel it. The fading pictures are displaced by other pictures, and then by names or symbols. But the emotion goes on, capable now of being aroused by the substituted images and names.

All this written long before the rise of public opinion polling, the cognitive revolution in psychology, and the modern visual media.  Still a must read for any budding scholar in public opinion (and thanks to Donald Kinder for assigning me this reading 25 years ago.  Don, along with Susan Fiske, took the study of presidential personality out of psychoanalysis and into social psychological science.)

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