Advice to Wendy Davis: You can’t have it both ways.
Not that Davis is looking for advice, certainly not from the news media where her free ride ended this month as suddenly as it began last summer. And certainly not from the Business Press where we have voiced our skepticism regarding her qualifications to run for, much less serve as, governor of Texas.
That said, we’ll plow ahead.
Davis, facing only one obscure opponent in the Democratic Party’s March 4 gubernatorial primary, has been running what is known in political circles as a “biographical campaign.” That’s one in which the candidate emphasizes his or her life story and character as opposed to a heavy-duty professional or political resume.
Davis’ resume as a member of the Fort Worth City Council and a state senator representing Fort Worth’s District 10 is thin at best, revealing very few significant accomplishments that she can call her own. She takes her fair share of credit for the City Council’s relentless pursuit of economic development, and for leading some no-chance legislative battles in Austin – most notably the Democrats’ futile opposition last June to a bill limiting abortions. That one put Davis on the map, of course, when the national media and pro-choice activists from far and wide went delirious over her late-night filibuster that briefly delayed passage of the bill. The subsequent news coverage – up to and including Maria Shriver’s recent Today show segment that was more fawning PR than journalism – focused almost exclusively on the things Davis likes to talk about. Those things, as most everyone has noticed by now, include her rise from poverty as a single mother and her persistence in acquiring an education that culminated with a Harvard law degree.
The adoring news coverage not only propelled her to a level of nationwide celebrity that even she could not have envisioned before Davis filibuster fever swept the country but also seemed to be paving her way to a smooth-as-silk coronation as the Democratic candidate for governor – and, maybe, just maybe, to the governor’s mansion.
But the bandwagon hit a bump in the road when a Dallas reporter best known among Republicans for excoriating George W. Bush took a closer look at the celebrated Davis bio.
The reporter, Wayne Slater, discovered that some elements of the bio don’t match up completely with Davis’ descriptions. She was 21 years old at the time of her first divorce, for example, not 19 as she’s been telling the story. And her much-ballyhooed trials and tribulations as a single mom living in a trailer park may not have been as trying as advertised – after a few months in the trailer, Slater reported, Davis and her daughter moved into an apartment. Then there’s the matter of her schooling at TCU and Harvard. The way she’s described that experience, it would be easy to conclude that she worked her way through school. We’re not saying she made that claim, but a casual listener could make the assumption.
Turns out her second husband cashed in a retirement account to help finance her education – and looked after the kids while she went off to Boston to complete her education. Davis has acknowledged her husband’s help in interviews over the years but has noticeably downplayed that part of the story in her current campaign.
Faulty memory? Selective memory? Pure imagination? The late Ronald Reagan, a onetime actor who became president of the United States, used to recall incidents from his life that turned out to be not his own experiences but things that happened to characters he played in the movies. Of course, the septuagenarian president had a lot more turns of the calendar standing between him and his formative years than Davis does. At 50, we would think, she should be able to remember what she did or didn’t do in her early 20s.
Does it matter? Of course it matters. If the voters can’t trust a candidate to tell her life story accurately, how can they trust anything else she says? Davis says she needs to be more careful about the details – an understatement of the first order. But perhaps more problematic for Davis than the chronology of her climb-to-success story were the questions Slater raised about the circumstances of her divorce from her second husband, former City Councilman Jeff Davis.
The breakup evidently wasn’t pretty. Here’s an excerpt from Slater’s Jan. 19 story in the Dallas Morning News:
“In his initial divorce filing, Jeff Davis said the marriage had failed, citing adultery on her part and conflicts that the couple could not overcome.” The final divorce decree did not mention adultery, Slater reported, adding that Jeff Davis was awarded parental custody and Wendy Davis was ordered to pay child support of $1,200 per month. Wendy Davis’ daughter from her first marriage was a 21-year-old college student at the time and the Davis’ daughter Dru was in ninth grade, according to Slater’s report.
Not surprisingly, Wendy Davis’ political opponents and detractors have latched onto this information to cast aspersions on her moral fiber as well as her veracity.
Davis refuses to talk about it.
“What I committed to my daughters when I started this journey was that I would not revisit a very difficult time in our life which was that period,” Davis told the Associated Press. “I am not going to revisit that for the purposes of this campaign, not today, not in the future of the campaign. I would just remind you that there are always two sides to every story in a divorce.”
And this is where the advice comes into play.
If a candidate for public office, especially an office as important and prestigious as governor, wants to present herself to voters as a case study in personal growth and courage she has to be brave and honest enough to face up to the lowlights as well as the highlights of her biography, no matter how embarrassing they might be.
No one likes to talk about divorces. Marital breakups are difficult; the circumstances surrounding them are usually complex, almost never cut and dried. There are, as Davis says, always two sides to the story.
But voters have a right to know what sort of person is asking them to afford her the privilege of leading their state. They have a right to ask about her priorities, her life choices, her approach to making the hardest decisions that any person has to make. It is simply insufficient for someone who offers up her personal triumphs as her most meaningful qualification for leadership to claim that her personal failures are private and not subject to public scrutiny. For Davis to suggest such a thing is naive if not disingenuous.
Equally indefensible is the suggestion by some Davis partisans that she is only facing these questions because she is a woman. A sexist plot? Just ask Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and John Edwards – to name but three prominent examples – if male politicians are immune to scrutiny of their personal lives and marital foibles.
If Wendy Davis doesn’t want to answer questions about her private life – or only wants to talk about the personal experiences she’s proud of – she has an option. She can withdraw from elective politics and retreat to private life.
If she wants to be taken seriously as a candidate for governor, she needs to run on her complete biography, not just the scenes that conform to her political script.