A version of the truth

“I wasn’t dumb.  I was simply the opposite of smart — which at the time meant slow, unfocused, undisciplined, and uncooperative… I’m not a bad person, really.”

The quote above is by the main character in Jennifer Kauffman and Karen Mack’s A Version of the Truth, a novel praised by one critic as “the ultimate story for late bloomers of every exotic shade.”

“I was not the greatest student in the world… I was a 60-watt bulb in a 100-acre society.” — Dave Spence, Republican candidate for Missouri Governor

“After high school, Dave attended University of Missouri-Columbia and earned a degree in Economics.” — Dave Spence for Governor website. 7:10 a.m. Jan. 11, 2012.

Memo to political candidates.  Don’t pad your credentials.  We know from long years of covering candidates that padding accomplishments and simplifying records are part of the game. Thousands of dollars are spent each year on consultants who are hired to, in effect, put lipstick on a pig.

Well, that’s not entirely fair.  Most candidates are not pigs.  Most are decent people with ideals and causes they believe others will find attractive enough that the candidate will be asked to be a leader in some position.  But thousands of dollars are spent on their image. But image is a fragile thing and one tap has been known to shatter some of them.

We’ll have to see if the revelation that Republican Governor candidate Dave Spence really did not get a degree in economics from the University of Missouri as his website claims this morning.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports his degree was really in HOME Economics.  Spence confesses he wasn’t bright enough to get into the business school.   So he pursued business-type courses in what is now the University of Missouri College of Human Environmental Science, one of those manufactured department names that says, well, nothing.  It was the College of Home Economics in our day, but those days were distinctly different from today’s academic disciplines within that field, whatever it is.

Anyway, Dave Spence studied family economics and management on his way to a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics.

Ask yourself, guys, how eager you would be to admit that your studies in college gave you a degree in home economics.  Talk about image!   Economics is economics you might think.  And a BS in Home Ec is a degree in economics of a sort.  And after all, are voters more likely to support someone who understands Keynesian (and other) economic theories, the role of the Federal Reserve Bank, the flow of money, and so forth or someone who is perceived by his degree to have studied cooking in college?

And how much should those of us in the media make of this?   Other news organizations have picked up the Post-Dispatch story and have circulated it far and wide.  It’s even in national publications. But should we give it a longer shelf life?

You see, the thing about stories like this is that they invite further probing by reporters, further looking for cracks in the image, further questions about veracity. Versions of truth can be drops of blood in the water. for candidates and reporters—and for rival candidates.

Candidates such as Dave Spence—who has no political experience and thus no callouses from past campaigns—sometimes find that their substantial personal accomplishments are obscured by the simplest shading of the truth.  Leaving a version of the truth on his website three days after telling the Post-Dispatch, “If you want me to change it, I will” is likely to invite questions.

It also is not a case of what the Post-Dispatch wants him to do.  Whether Spence corrects the information is up to him not up to the newspaper. Some folks might make judgments about him because that one line remains on his website.

Reporters also have to evaluate how much of the story of Spence not being smart enough to get into the business school is worth reporting today. He did go on to study economics through a different venue.   Does this issue really matter thirty or so years later when Spence has taken his own company from a startup to a plastic container manufacturer that he sold for $260 million?  Does the kind of college degree he got make any difference in light of that?

(As a matter of full disclosure, this reporter must note that he graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism with a grade point average that would not come close to getting him into the school today).  At some point many years after those great days on campus, are grade points and the kind of degree a person got as meaningful as what the person has done with his or her life?

For Dave Spence, for now, apparently it is which is why his “degree in economics” remains on his website.  For reporters and possibly for political opponents it also is.  For the same reason — because VERSIONS of the truth are always important.

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