Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fudge Factor

The kerfuffle over the Washington Post‘s investigation of Sen. Marco Rubio’s story of his family’s arrival in the United States from Cuba has gotten a bit of attention here in Miami. It includes a debate over the definition of the term “exile,” and just how much outrage can deflect from the fact that Mr. Rubio’s story that his parents emigrated to Miami after Castro’s takeover in 1959 isn’t exactly true.

Mr. Rubio’s response in Politico follows the usual track of a politician being caught in an embarrassment: self-righteous outrage, a hair-splitting explanation, and, of course, blaming the media that caught him.

That is an outrageous allegation that is not only incorrect, but an insult to the sacrifices my parents made to provide a better life for their children. They claim I did this because “being connected to the post-revolution exile community gives a politician cachet that could never be achieved by someone identified with the pre-Castro exodus, a group sometimes viewed with suspicion.”

If The Washington Post wants to criticize me for getting a few dates wrong, I accept that. But to call into question the central and defining event of my parents’ young lives – the fact that a brutal communist dictator took control of their homeland and they were never able to return – is something I will not tolerate.

Every politician, regardless of party, invokes the fudge factor when they’re telling their family history, usually doing it to make them sound like they’re part of the great American narrative of hard work and coming up from humble beginnings to achieve greatness. (Even the rich guys like Mitt Romney and George W. Bush try to make it sound like they’re the hero of a Horatio Alger story.) It usually doesn’t matter; no one really cares if you played Little League or if your dad worked two jobs to get you into college. But in Mr. Rubio’s case, that includes the shared experience with the Cuban community of exile and overcoming terrible conditions to reach the beach of freedom. I don’t know what his family dynamic with his parents was, but usually when your parents make a rather momentous decision to leave their homeland and emigrate, the circumstances — including the date — would be a part of the story. Whether or not you’re connected to the Cuban community here in Miami, it strains credulity that Mr. Rubio got “a few dates wrong.” And in the narrative of the Cuban revolution, the difference between 1956 and 1959 is very important.

Mr. Rubio has now made an attempt to correct the record by updating his website to remove references to when his family came to Miami. That’s a tacit admission that yes, the dates do matter. Allowing the story that your parents arrived after the revolution to be told without correction makes him complicit in creating the false impression that his family’s experience is shared with those who actually did flee the country as the rebels arrived in Havana.

The question becomes whether or not Mr. Rubio’s rise in the Republican party, both nationally and in Florida, would be any different if he had been upfront from the beginning about his family history. He certainly has the political instincts and charm to do well in a campaign, and he has done a fine job of cultivating the right connections to be elected to the state legislature and then on to the United States Senate. But if he had not embellished his narrative with the story of fleeing communist Cuba, would he be the right-wing rock star that he is now? I don’t know the answer to that. Neither, apparently, does Mr. Rubio, but he isn’t willing to take a chance on the answer.