The more I think about the Rubio scandal, the more I am troubled by it. It’s not just that having lived in the Soviet Union for a quarter century, I find it offensive when people falsely claim themselves or their families to have been victims of Communist oppression. I am really concerned about the “Palinization” of the political right.
If you are a politician caught in a lie, I want you to take it like a man, show some humility, admit the lie in a straightforward manner and apologize as sincerely as you can, then just move on (unless some more drastic step – e.g. resignation – is warranted).
In this particular case a 50-word statement from Sen. Rubio would have sufficed and the whole scandal could have been a one day affair. Instead the senator went on the attack, continued lying, feigned outrage, accused the fact checkers of lying and insulting his family (although at the same time he quietly rewrote his official biography on the Senate website).
What’s much worse, conservative media immediately jumped to his defense and joined him in his attack on the Washington Post. They ridiculously claimed that the only reason for the article was the leftist media’s fear of Hispanic conservatives and that the Post would never have done that to a liberal (at the same time they cheerfully reported that the very same newspaper had just given Joe Biden its Four Pinocchios award for lying about potential effects of Republican opposition to the Obama jobs bill). So you see, Marco Rubio is a victim here, not a perpetrator.
The Right has to break with the relatively recent tradition of treating any inconvenient facts as outrageous attacks. It also has to come to grips with the fact that one of its rising stars has lied about an important matter and keeps on lying and ponder what all this may tell us about his character.
First of all, we need to recognize that Rubio lied. Until more than a day after the publication of the story, his biography on the Senate website contained this sentence: ”In 1971, Marco was born in Miami to Cuban-born parents who came to America following Fidel Castro’s takeover.” It is not an embellishment or exaggeration – it’s a lie. There’s no way to spin it. At the time his parents came to America Castro was living in exile in Mexico. He had not even started his takeover yet. In his counter-attack Rubio suggests that he made an honest mistake rather than lied: “My understanding of my parents’ journey has always been based on what they told me about events that took place more than 50 years ago — more than a decade before I was born. What they described was not a timeline, or specific dates.” With all due respect, this tortured explanation is itself a lie.
I can tell you from personal experience that if you come to America as an immigrant you never forget the moment. I immigrated two decades ago. My first child was born just two weeks ago. But you can bet that when he’s old enough to understand dates he’ll know the “timeline” and ”specific dates”. And Marco Rubio expects me to believe that his parents never told him anything and that he never ever was curious enough to ask them when they immigrated or how long they have lived in America?
Furthermore, the Cuban revolution was the central event for his family and families all around him when he was growing up. That event was constantly talked about, and Rubio himself admits that when he claims having a deep understanding of what it means to lose one’s country (never mind its total irrelevance to American politics). Yet he never asked his parents what it was like to live under Fidel Castro, or how long they lived under him, or what it was like to leave Cuba at that time, or any other question that might possibly give him a clue that his parents never actually lived in Communist Cuba?!
We also need to recognize that it was a substantial lie. Rubio is often called “Republican Obama”. There are in fact many similarities between them. Each of them had a very thin record of actual accomplishment before getting elected to his current office. Neither of them has ever been a policy wonk. Neither is very effective in office. Each of them got nominated thanks to the same lucky break: even though a stronger and better qualified rival was favored to win the nomination, a significant segment of the party base was very eager to punish that rival for some highly symbolic ideological transgression (voting for the Iraq war in case of Hillary Clinton, giving Obama a hug in case of Charlie Crist).
But the most important common factor is identity politics. Obama would not have become a senator, let alone president if his father had been a graduate student from, say, Switzerland rather than Kenya. Rubio would not have become the Florida House speaker (especially at such a young age), let alone senator if his parents had immigrated from Ireland rather than Cuba.
And since identity politics has been central to Rubio’s political career, his lying about his identity is a much, much more serious matter than a typical run of the mill white lie in politics, like the first lady telling New Zealanders that she was named after Sir Edmund Hillary.