THE BLOG
10/08/2014 06:22 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

Political Exaggerations: Stretching the Truth Is a Tradition in American Politics

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) said: "Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue." Politicians have apparently taken Galbraith's words to heart.

Through advertisements and meetings with voters, they are quick to trumpet a litany of accomplishments and virtues. Most recently, the Republican nominee for governor of Georgia, David Perdue, told Morehouse College students that his father, in his role as a superintendent of Schools, desegregated the Houston County schools. Perdue said his father "integrated I think the first -- if not the first or second -- county school system in Georgia, and he did it before they had to. He did it right after he got elected, and he did it because it was the right thing to do." Perdue failed to mention the fact that the desegregation plan was instituted after the NAACP successfully challenged the "Freedom of Choice" plan instituted by the Houston County School Board, which allowed but did not mandate integration.

Perhaps the most egregious exaggeration in U.S. political history of a candidate's background was the yarn spun by William Henry Harrison, who was elected President in 1840. Harrison was raised in a patrician family. His father was once Governor of Virginia. Yet Harrison brilliantly styled himself as "one of us." He dressed the part of a humble down-home candidate and boasted of the fact that he had lived in a log cabin. While it was true that Harrison once lived in a log cabin, it was only briefly after retiring from government service. Contrary to popular belief at the time, he was not born in a log cabin. Yet this tactic helped Harrison get elected. In fact, one of Harrison's supporter, Whisky distiller E.G. Booze, sold whisky in log-cabin-shaped bottles during the campaign to promote this master narrative (This is where the word booze came from.) Harrison's ploy worked and he was elected president. However, he was not able to do much as President, as he died of pneumonia just 31 days after his inauguration.

Lyndon B. Johnson had a fascination with the Alamo. His father, Samuel Johnson Jr., wrote legislation to give control of the Alamo to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. In 1966, while visiting troops in South Korea, Johnson accurately said that there is a picture of his father inside the Alamo. He then went a step too far by mendaciously claiming that his great-great-grandfather had died in the Alamo. In actuality, the great-great-grandfather that Johnson was referring to was a real-estate trader who died at home. When confronted with this inaccuracy, Johnson creatively told Press Secretary George Christian:"You all didn't let me finish. It was the Alamo Bar and Grill in Eagle Pass, Texas."

Perhaps the most famous political exaggeration has been grossly exaggerated in and of itself. When someone asks the question: "Who invented the Internet?" someone will invariably quip: "Al Gore." It is popular belief that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. This belief however is false. In reality, Gore told Wolf Blitzer on CNN: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." Gore was referring to his role as the lead sponsor of the 1991 High-performance Computing and Communications Act, which appropriated $600 million for high-performance computing and co-sponsored the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act of 1992. Critics chided Gore for his statement and falsely claimed that Gore had said he "invented the Internet." U.S. House Majority leader Dick Armey (R-TX) joked: "If the vice president created the Internet then I created the Interstate."

However, Gore has exaggerated other facts in his past. During his failed 1988 bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Gore told the Des Moines Register that in his early days as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, he got "a bunch of people indicted and sent to jail." However, it was later revealed that Gore's reporting resulted in just two municipal officials being indicted, and neither was jailed.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also has a history of exaggerating the facts. During his two Presidential campaigns, Romney continuously claimed that as governor of Massachusetts he made the "tough choices and balanced the budget without raising taxes." Romney was referring to the $3 billion budget shortfall he inherited when he assumed office in 2003. Romney did not mention that he raised over $500 million in "fees." Romney also raised corporate taxes under the guise of closing corporate loopholes and truncating local aid to the state's municipalities. This forced municipalities to cut services and/or raise property taxes on their residents.

Similarly, in 2007, Republican Presidential aspirant Mitt Romney told a voter: "I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I've been a hunter pretty much all my life." It was later revealed that Romney had only hunted twice in his life. Romney later said: "I'm not a big-game hunter. I've made that very clear. I've always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will."

Candidates with military experience often brandish this experience on the campaign trail, and occasionally get themselves into trouble. During his 2008 bid for an open U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut, it was revealed that the Democratic nominee Richard Blumenthal had on two occasions claimed he served as a Marine "in Vietnam." Blumenthal had in fact served in the Marines during the Vietnam era, but never served in Vietnam. He apologized for the remarks and despite this exaggeration was elected to the Senate by twelve points.

An amusing exaggeration came from Mark Roosevelt, the Democratic nominee for Massachusetts Governor in 1994. In an interview with the Boston Globe, he made the following comment about his tenure in the Massachusetts State Legislature: "A record of accomplishment probably unsurpassed by any legislator in the 20th century in Massachusetts." Roosevelt later retracted the comment, stating: "I can be sanctimonious." Roosevelt lost the Gubernatorial election, garnering less than 30 percent of the vote.

Politics is not the profession for the modest. To a great extent a politician has to be a salesperson. He/she must master the art of bragging about himself over and over again without overdoing it, appearing supercilious.

It takes a certain personality type to be ready, willing, and able to repeatedly tell voters of his/her stellar attributes. As the aforementioned cases reveal, politicians sometimes go a step too far and exaggerate what they have accomplished, sometimes losing all credibility. Robert Strauss, who served as chairman of the Democratic Party, captured this phenomenon of political exaggeration best when he said: "Every politician wants every voter to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself."