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Watchdogs make it harder for politicians to stretch the truth

Cindy McCain's past is the latest to be questioned after errors were found.

By / August 20, 2008

On the stump: Cindy McCain speaks to reporters in Birmingham, Mich. Her arm was sprained when an enthusiastic supporter vigorously shook her hand.

Mary Altaffer/AP

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Gilding the lily is nothing new to politics. From the 1840s when William Henry Harrison claimed to have been born in a log cabin (it was actually a Virginia plantation) to Ronald Reagan's reminiscing about flying over Germany in World War II (he did, but only in a movie), politicians have taken perfectly good stories and embellished them.

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This campaign is no exception. During the primaries, Hillary Rodham Clinton had to back away from claims she "ducked sniper fire" in Bosnia in 1996. Mitt Romney found himself having to explain how he "saw my father march with Martin Luther King," when it turned out his father never marched with the Rev. Mr. King.

The latest embellishments come from the McCain camp. Cindy McCain has repeatedly referred to herself as an "only child." This week came news that she actually has two half sisters, although apparently she had very little contact with them.

The McCain campaign had also put out the story that Mother Teresa "convinced" Cindy to bring home two orphans from Bangladesh in 1991.

Mrs. McCain, it turns out, never met Mother Teresa on that trip. (Once contacted by the Monitor, the campaign revised the story on its website.)

Such exaggerations may simply be the product of a faulty memory or a desire to be "better" than one is in a political culture that requires larger-than-life idols. But with the advent of the fact-checking obsessed blogosphere – and a media racing to keep up – such self-aggrandizement doesn't last as long as it once did.

"It's all about myth-making," says Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Politicians love to turn their stories into great epics, and sometimes they have to embellish to smooth out the story line."

"But now there are too many professional and amateur fact-checkers," he says. "And there are hundreds if not thousands of bloggers who have detailed knowledge on specialized information, so you really can't get away with stretching the truth anymore."

The story about Mother Teresa "convincing" Mrs. McCain to bring home two children from an orphanage in Bangladesh has been retold many times. Initially, the "About Cindy McCain" page on the McCain campaign website read: "Mother Teresa convinced Cindy to take two babies in need of medical attention to the United States. One of those babies is now their adopted daughter, 16-year-old Bridget McCain."

The media picked up the theme. A story earlier this year on ABC's "Good Morning America" stated, "With Mother Teresa's encouragement she brought her fourth child, Bridget, home." An April 2008 Wall Street Journal profile states that Mother Teresa "implored" Cindy to bring the girls to the United States. Other articles say Cindy did it "at the behest" of Mother Teresa.