Candidates Stick to Script, if Not the Truth, in 2016 Race
“I only tell true stories,” Carly Fiorina assured employees during one of her first speeches as the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard in 2000.
But the stirring story that Mrs. Fiorina, now a Republican candidate for president, told that day about the creation of HP and its first product, had a glaring problem: It was almost entirely inaccurate, according to an internal transcript, an oral history of HP, a book and a company historian.
In the end, it may not matter.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, the truth is starting to look deeply out of fashion.
Donald J. Trump has brazenly denied calling Senator Marco Rubio the “personal senator” of Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg — even though the quote was published on Mr. Trump’s campaign website.
Now it is Ben Carson who appears to have shaded the facts, repeatedly claiming that he was offered a full scholarship to the United States Military Academy, even though he never applied there nor was granted admission. As for his oft-told story of attempting to stab a childhood friend, nobody else has verified the account, and Mr. Carson refuses to identify the friend, who he now says is a close relative.
Confronted with questions over these claims, Mr. Carson engaged in a practice that has become routine in this race: He harshly turned the question back on the reporters who asked them.
“Don’t lie,” he admonished them during a news conference on Friday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
The presidential campaign is still in its early and unsettled stages, and many subplots are still to unfold. But so far, the old and powerful structure of the venerable news media as a gatekeeper, seizing on the candidates for any untruth and deeply wounding them in the process, seems to be crumbling, replaced by a more chaotic environment.
Deep disregard for the news media has allowed candidates to duck, dodge and ridicule assertions from outlets they dislike and seek the embrace of those that are inclined to protect them.
Today, it seems, truth is in the eyes of the beholder — and any assertion can be elevated and amplified if yelled loudly enough.
When a moderator in the last Republican debate tried to hold Mr. Trump accountable for his campaign’s description of Mr. Rubio as the personal senator of Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Trump simply denied it, volubly, over and over.
“I never said that. I never said that,” he declared to the moderator, Becky Quick of CNBC.
Ms. Quick tried to clarify the matter. “So this was an erroneous article the whole way around?” she asked.
Mr. Trump dubiously accused the news media of doing “bad fact-checking,” eliciting an apology from Ms. Quick.
After the debate, amid intense mockery from the candidates, it was CNBC and Ms. Quick who were derided. Mr. Trump never answered for his campaign’s description of Mr. Rubio, and paid no price for denying it.
In many ways, Mr. Trump has set the tone for the embroidery: His grandiose and sweeping claims have generated an entirely new category of overstatement in American politics. Several of his statements are so outlandish that they cannot even be disproved. Mexico, he assures voters, will pay for the giant wall he will erect along the border. Deporting millions of illegal immigrants will be simple, he explains. He can correct a trade imbalance with China, he says, because “I beat China all the time.”
Mr. Trump, to be sure, utters plenty of refutable claims. To buttress his argument that America has a “stupid” immigration system, he has asserted, repeatedly, that Mexico does not grant citizenship to those born on its soil, as America does.
That is false. Mexico, in fact, has a form of birthright citizenship.
The tendency to bend facts is bipartisan. Mrs. Clinton has rationalized her reliance on a private server for both her personal and State Department emails by saying she preferred using a single electronic device, even though she used multiple devices, like an iPad, to read and send email.
It has been three long decades since revelations of plagiarism by Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Gary Hart’s relationship with a young woman compelled both to sheepishly end their quests for the White House. Since then, a new playbook has emerged, epitomized by the water-muddying, opponent-blaming tactics of Bill Clinton during his first run for the presidency, amid accusations of infidelity.
Confronted with claims in 1992 that he had engaged in a sexual relationship with Gennifer Flowers, Mr. Clinton’s campaign emphatically denied it. Years later, Mr. Clinton acknowledged in a deposition that he had had sex with Ms. Flowers.
Give no ground, political strategists frequently counsel their candidates in today’s new arena of fact-twisting.
When journalists pressed Mrs. Fiorina on her description of an undercover video released by opponents of abortion, she stuck with her original wording about “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”
Media fact-checkers have roundly disputed this account. Yet a few days later, when Chuck Todd, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” asked Mrs. Fiorina to acknowledge “that you exaggerated this scene,” she refused.
The candidates complain about a news media fixated on “gotcha” questions and spotting small factual errors that can occur when fatigued candidates, traveling nonstop, slip up. But patterns tend to emerge over time, not in a single moment.
At Hewlett-Packard in 2000, Mrs. Fiorina told a tale familiar to many of her employees: the relationship between HP and Disney, which she called the company’s “first customer.”
“One day, two young men named Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard went to visit Walt Disney, and they listened to his dream,” she said, according to a transcript obtained by The New York Times. After the trip, she said, HP’s founders “went away to their garage and they invented a product, and that product was called the audio oscillator.”
Each of those statements is incorrect, according to a corporate history, “The HP Way,” and interviews with a company archivist, Karen Lewis, and a longtime spokesman, Roy Verley. The audio oscillator, they said, was not created in response to a request from Walt Disney. It already existed before the company showed any interest. Disney never met with both Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard. And Disney was not HP’s first customer.
“It’s inaccurate on three levels,” said Ms. Lewis, who helped Mr. Packard write “The HP Way,” a definitive history of the company. A spokeswoman for Mrs. Fiorina, Sarah Isgur Flores, pointed to Mrs. Fiorina’s public relations staff at HP. “I assume it was written by the speechwriting team,” she said.
Reached on Saturday, Mrs. Fiorina’s campaign aides seemed unperturbed by the discrepancies and declined to make the candidate available for comment.