Marco Rubio's Family Fiction: The Ticker

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By Francis Wilkinson

Of all the gotchas that can trip a rising politician, none is more devilish than a family expose. A pol can navigate many things -- just look at Mitt Romney's ideological tacking over the years -- but families are forever.

Last week's stories in the Washington Post and St. Petersburg Times about Florida Senator Marco Rubio were not disqualifying; Rubio might yet end up on the Republican ticket next year. But they exposed a falsehood that was integral to Rubio's political biography, revealing that his parents had arrived in Florida in 1956 rather than -- as Rubio had repeatedly maintained -- after Castro gained power in 1959.

The flight from Castro's thuggish oppression has an ideological currency, especially in the Republican Party, that an earlier flight from Castro's thuggish predecessor lacks. Legends, including false ones, have a way of working their way into family lore, but Rubio must have known that his official Senate biography, which stated that his parents "came to America following Fidel Castro's takeover" wasn't right.

Or did he?

Even as fully grown adults, people can take remarkably elastic views of their parents' history. In 1998, campaigning to be New York State attorney general, Catherine Abate openly struggled to reconcile her campaign for the state's highest law enforcement job, her memory of her late father and newspaper articles that identified him as a longtime mafia captain in the Lucchese family. Abate had a reputation for integrity and decency, but when it came to her father, she embraced denial.

The conflicts in Rubio's story are about politics, not crime. His parents' lives are not diminished by the fact that they arrived in the U.S. in 1956 instead of 1959. But Rubio's political narrative is. As his spokesman Alex Conant told the St. Petersburg Times, his parents emigrated in search of "economic opportunity." In this, they are not unlike millions of other immigrants -- legal and otherwise. And Rubio's contention that they would have returned to Cuba but for Castro -- What? They liked Cuba better than the U.S.? -- has none of the political romanticism of a dangerous flight from communism.

Rubio had a clear political motive to change his family history. But as a survey of Washington and 50 state capitals confirms, politicians convince themselves of convenient falsehoods all the time. Rubio may be just another who believes his own fiction.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)


-0- Oct/24/2011 19:04 GMT