Paul Ryan's Self-Made Myth

In politics and journalism, myth often passes as biography. For evidence, look no further than The New York Times and Washington Post's profiles of newly minted vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who by virtue of a few well-deployed anecdotes—told by his brother and by fellow congressman and confidant Jeff Flake—has been transformed into the apotheosis of the self-made man. The linchpin of this pull-yourself-up-by-you-bootstraps story is the death of his father when Ryan was 16. "It is remarkable that he chose a path of individual responsibility and maturity rather than letting grief take a different course," the candidate's brother tells the Times, which elaborates with an encomium worthy of an Anglo-Saxon epic:

His self-reliance followed him to summer camp, where as a counselor he canoed and hiked, and into young adulthood, where he took up deer hunting. …

It followed him into college, where he immediately took a passionate interest in the canon of conservative economic theorists and writers. …

It followed him to Congress, where his brand of conservative economics, honed in Washington’s conservative policy and research groups, eventually inspired the Tea Party freshmen in the House for whom Mr. Ryan has served as seer, cheerleader and workout buddy.

And, finally, it captured the imagination of Mitt Romney, who named Mr. Ryan as the Republicans’ presumptive vice-presidential nominee on Saturday.

The Post sings Ryan's virtues in less-poetic terms: 

Ryan’s big ideas bear the stamp of his own story: They stress independence and self-reliance, the qualities that took him from the mailroom to a spot on his party’s presidential ticket. What government owes its citizens, Ryan says, is not a guarantee of happiness—only a fair shot to pursue it. ... 

In his private life, Ryan pursues the hobbies of an everyman with an overachiever’s zeal. He sweats through grueling “P90x” workouts in the House gym. He beats other legislators in contests to recite the most lines from “Fletch.” And he fishes for catfish—with his bare hands.

I can see it now, a promo for a TV movie: a shot of Paul Ryan standing atop a mountain with a deer flung across his back dissolves into footage of him in a college dorm room, enraptured by Atlas Shrugged while through the window unruly women's rights protesters burn bras. We see a young Ryan working at McDonald's as a teenager, then cut to him running up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, sweat dripping from his brow. The Star-Spangled Banner crescendos as he reaches the apex. Text flashes across the screen: Paul Ryan, Self-Made Man.

You see, while the rest of us welfare recipients sit at home eating Doritos we bought with food stamps, Paul Ryan has been out there catching fish with his bare hands. Faced with the death of a family member, Paul Ryan "took the path of individual responsibility and maturity"—unlike the rest of us, whom grief would have pushed into the arms of the government.

Did anyone at the Times or the Post stop and say, Wait a minute, are we writing a profile or a fairy tale? Like countless kids across America, Ryan had a fast-food job in high school. He went to college. Surprisingly, when he took an internship on Capitol Hill, they didn't let him start out as a legislator, so he had to deliver mail. Sucking up to big wigs helped him make connections (he was voted "Biggest Brown Noser" in high school), which helped out his political career. He works out and hunts. He loves Ayn Rand. Nothing about these traits or accomplishments indicates that he is any more independent than, say, Barack Obama. But in an attempt to draw a connection between Ryan's ideology and his biography, journalists and politicians cite them as evidence of his extraordinary self-reliance.

But if you wipe the stardust from your eyes, you'll be forced to admit that for all his talk about the free market, Ryan has spent precious little time in it and in fact has benefited from government help more than most. When his father died, Ryan received Social Security payments that helped pay for his college tuition. He attended Miami University, a public institution that receives millions of dollars in federal and state money every year. Since then, Ryan has spent most of his life—15 years, to be exact—on the government's payroll. And as opposed to Mitt Romney, who earned his money in private equity, Ryan married into his fortune. Finally, one shouldn't forget that Ryan took home $20 million in stimulus money for energy efficiency in Wisconsin while protesting the stimulus, and $5.4 million in earmarks in 2008 while protesting earmarks—accomplishments that might have pleased his constituents but don't square with his small-government image. In short, Ryan is only around to warn about the evils of government because of government. 

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