19 or 21: How Much Did Wendy Davis "Blur" Her Biography?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 22 2014 11:42 AM

19 or 21: How Much Did Wendy Davis "Blur" Her Biography?

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Republicans hate these blurred lines.

Photo by Stewart F. House/Getty Images

Four days ago, Texas journalist Wayne Slater published a dynamite profile of Democratic gubernatorial candidate/national star Wendy Davis. His thesis: Her biography, which is one Rob Lowe cameo away from being a Lifetime movie, had been "blurred" for effect. On the right side of the Internet, and increasingly in the centrist analysis-o-sphere

- "Davis was 21, not 19, when she was divorced."

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- She lived in a mobile home for "only a few months."

- Her second husband "paid for her last two years at Texas Christian University and her time at Harvard Law School."

- When she divorced her second husband, Jeff, in 2005, he got custody of the kids.

Slater points out that Davis has not emphasized any of this in her public statements or in the many profiles that followed her 2013 filibuster. He quotes a statement she made during redistricting: "I got divorced by the time I was 19 years old. After I got divorced, I lived in a mobile home park in southeast Fort Worth."

That's a falsehood—she was only separated at 19—but I notice that Davis has often found ways to avoid it. Davis's campaign site claims, in a lawyerly way, that "by 19, she was on her way to becoming a single mother, working two jobs just to make ends meet." This hasn't been adjusted since the Slater piece; the language was the same one month ago. In a glowing Today show profile cited by Slater, Maria Shriver said of Davis that "by 19, she was getting divorced and living in a mobile home park."

OK, so Davis emphasizes the year that she decided she was in a failing marriage, and de-emphasizes when the divorce was final. Erick Erickson, who has led a charge on this part of the story, emphasizes that the false version appeared in a "sworn testimony," that in the same testimony she underrated by a year how old she was when her parents were divorced, and that "a Harvard educated lawyer should know the difference between separation and semantics." I defer to my Double X colleagues to discuss how much a female politician should have to answer for fudging her age.

The rest of the "blurring" is much more loaded. The story of Jeff Davis making "six figures" and paying much of Davis' tuition—then getting divorced—is simply emasculating. Jeff recalls that Davis moved out when his final check cleared. "It was ironic,” he tells Slater. “I made the last payment, and it was the next day she left." In her response to the Slater piece, Wendy Davis has only responded to "attacks on the personal story of my life as a single mother who worked hard to get ahead."

The Republican response to this can work on two levels. It can first respond as the Greg Abbott campaign has—accusing Davis of "systematically deceiving" voters, when the distortions were arguably minor. On the sub rosa level, it can hope that voters think differently about a single mother who left her husband once she was done paying for law school. Obviously any Republican who leads with that is going to generate a backlash—but it can be part of the undernews.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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