Paul Ryan told the following story during his speech at CPAC last week:
This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the cabinet of my buddy Governor Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. But he told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch—one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids’. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him.
Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s “fact-checker,” looked into the anecdote, explaining his reasoning: “This was an interesting statement made by the 2012 GOP vice-presidential candidate, equating school lunches to an ‘empty soul.’ So one would think the anecdote, described by the National Review as ‘moving,’ would be rock-solid.” (One Pinocchio for putting the definite article before National Review.)
Kessler awarded the story four Pinocchios — his highest rating for dishonesty. Why?
Because the original source doesn’t support Paul Ryan’s budget, basically. Ryan heard the story told by Anderson in a 2013 congressional hearing about changes to federally provided food programs, and she characterized the tale as something “a little boy told me once.” Kessler discovers that the story is actually told at length in a 2011 nonfiction book by Laura Schroff, a woman who took care of an eleven-year-old homeless boy for years. That boy, Maurice Mazyck, once told her he wanted food in a brown paper bag because “when I see kids come to school with their lunch in a paper bag, that means someone cares about them.”
Schroff, Kessler points out, is now an anti-poverty advocate who doesn’t support Ryan’s policies. But the key line in the story is true: A poor kid wanted to get his sustenance from someone who loved him, and a brown paper bag would assure him and others that’s what happened. It’s not true that he told someone “he didn’t want a free lunch” as in a government-subsidized one — he told Schroff he didn’t want her to just give him money. He would be eligible for a free lunch at any public school, and he presumably had gotten food that way before he met Schroff. She suggested giving him money to buy whatever food he wanted, and he said he wanted food in a brown paper bag instead. So Anderson told the story with embellished context (a Wisconsin official says she misspoke) in a congressional hearing, and Ryan is being dinged for not figuring that out. That’s fair, but it doesn’t make him guilty of the highest degree of dishonesty.
If Ryan’s people had checked the story with Anderson, she might have explained where she’d heard the story and the right context would be added, and Ryan could use it to make exactly the same point, albeit less dramatically. Getting food isn’t the same thing as having someone who works to care for you — that certainly seems to be what now-35-year-old Maurice Mazyck thinks.
Too bad, Kessler decides, because the original source of the story doesn’t agree with what Ryan thinks this might suggest about public policy: ”A simple inquiry would have determined that the person telling the story actually is an advocate for the federal programs that Ryan now claims leave people with ‘a full stomach and an empty soul.’ So he also earns Four Pinocchios.”
He had given Anderson the highest degree of dishonesty for embellishments that helped her point, and Ryan gets the same rating for . . . citing the story originally recorded by someone he disagrees with, without looking into the facts himself. If you consult Kessler’s ratings system, Ryan’s own slip-up sounds like a one-Pinocchio issue (“Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods”) or two (“Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved”).
One of the principles Kessler lays out for his work: “We will focus our attention and resources on the issues that are most important to voters. We cannot nitpick every detail of every speech.” They can, apparently, do that — and decide the truthfulness of a story based on what issues are most important to the original source.
And, for the record, the Ryan budget doesn’t specifically cut federal school-lunch programs. It does reduce funding for anti-poverty programs (more on this here), but provides recommendations for how to accomplish those savings that don’t touch the school-lunch programs.