POLITICS JANUARY 20, 2014
Texas state Senator Wendy Davis’s personal story has been one of her greatest assets in her ongoing campaign for governor. At the many public appearances that have dotted her path to national prominence, she has recounted being raised by a single mother with a sixth-grade education; marrying and having a child in her teens; living in a trailer; and in an up-by-the-bootstraps reversal, becoming the first member of her family to graduate from college and then going on to earn a Harvard Law degree. So, accusations in The Dallas Morning News that Davis embellished her narrative cut to the heart of her appeal. But the story, published this weekend, may be more guilty than Davis of inflating the facts to make its case.
The Morning News’s key finding has to do with Davis’s late teens. Davis has previously said that she was married and divorced by 19, living in a trailer with her daughter, Amber. The chronology turns out to be a little off: Davis and her first husband, a construction worker named Frank Underwood, got separated when she was 19 or 20. After they split, she lived in their mobile home another few months, then moved in with her mother. By the time she divorced Underwood at 21, she and Amber had their own apartment.
With or without these subtle tweaks, the dead-end reality of Davis’s early life remains the same. After admitting inaccuracies to the Morning News reporter, Davis offered, “Most people would identify with the fact that we tend to be defined by the struggles we came through than by the successes. And certainly for me that’s true.” The most paradigmatic political narratives—from Marco Rubio’s to Barack Obama’s—are almost always achieved with a touch of creative license. Still, it’s worth asking why Davis felt compelled to play up her trailer park origins. Instead of dwelling on this point, though, the article reaches to apply its thesis to the rest of Davis’s life.
After proving that Davis’s lows weren’t as low as she would have fans believe, the Morning News points out that her highs weren’t all her own doing: Her second husband, Jeff Davis—a lawyer 13 years her senior, from whom she split in 2003—helped finance her education. It’s unclear why this should detract from the fact that Wendy Davis enrolled in community college while supporting her daughter, got herself into Texas Christian University on an academic scholarship, and graduated top of her class. And it’s no scoop: Others have reported that Jeff Davis cashed in his 401(k) and took out a loan to help pay for Harvard, and took care of Davis’s two daughters while she studied in Massachusetts.
But the Morning News takes it a step further, quoting Jeff Davis saying his then-wife moved out right after he finished paying off her schooling. “It was ironic,” he quipped. “I made the last payment, and it was the next day she left.” Davis, who pointed out that she contributed to the family’s bank account as a working lawyer from her Harvard graduation in 1993 until their separation a decade later, called the charge “absurd.” Besides Davis’s ex-husband, the other source used to paint a portrait of her ambiguous character is an anonymous colleague from the Fort Worth City Council. In other words, the foundation for the smear is shaky at best.
“A lot of what she says is true,” Jeff Davis told the Morning News. But when she met him in her early twenties, he said, “she got a break.… Good things happen, opportunities open up. You take them; you get lucky. That’s a better narrative than what they’re trying to paint.” It’s not, of course. In a country preoccupied by the ideal of self-sufficiency, personal triumph will get you farther, so Davis doesn’t give a shout-out to her ex-husband every time she mentions her ascent from trailer park to Ivy League. But this doesn’t amount to “blurring the facts” or embellishment. Davis’s Cinderella story is as deeply improbable as she makes it sound, and took, along with luck and a supportive husband, a lot of smarts and hard work.
As for the actual embellishment of Davis’s trailer park days, it’s hard to say whether she conflated the timelines of her separation and divorce out of sloppiness or intentional chiaroscuro. Either way, the ensuing controversy is a reminder that it isn’t worth bending the facts. In the limelight of a campaign, critics catch such gaps—and they may take the opportunity to spin a narrative of their own.