Embarrassing Tales Told by Politicians

Brain areas involved in memory

Human memory can be amazingly accurate and detailed. It is possible for people to accurately recall events that happened in the decades previously. Yet humans are also subject to numerous memory errors, which are actually adaptive for most purposes, but can be embarrassing when they happen to people in the public eye.

On Saturday it happened to Mitt Romney. During his speech to a Tea Party rally in Flint, Michigan, Romney described a vivid childhood memory

Romney recalled he was “probably 4 or something like that” the day of the Golden Jubilee, when three-quarters of a million people gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American automobile.

“My dad had a job being the grandmaster. They painted Woodward Ave. with gold paint,” Romney told a rapt Tea Party audience in the village of Milford Thursday night, reliving a moment of American industrial glory.

The Golden Jubilee described so vividly by Romney was indeed an epic moment in automotive lore. The parade included one of the last public appearances by an elderly Henry Ford.

But Romney couldn’t possibly have been a the Golden Jubilee, because it happened in 1946–about 9 months before baby Willard was born. Was he lying? No, of course not. He probably formed this false memory based on stories told by family members, and perhaps family photos. This is a very common type of memory error–confusion about the source of a memory. Romney probably heard this story many times and perhaps rehearsed it by thinking about it and talking about it to family and friends.

Most theorists now believe that memories are stored in various locations in the brain and have to be reconstructed each time we recall them. Confusion can develop if we have memories of several events that happened in the same place–people can get mixed up about which time a specific event happened.

As you might expect, memory errors become more common with age. There are a number of famous stories about Ronald Reagan’s outrageous memory errors. He repeatedly told a heartrending story about a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after the plane was hit by enemy fire. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the aircraft. Reagan could barely hold back tears as he related the pilot’s heroic response: “Never mind. We’ll ride it down together.” Supposedly the pilot had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously.

Journalists searched in vain to learn about the war hero. They could find no Medal of Honor winner whose story matched the one told by Reagan. Finally the source of the story was identified as a scene from a Hollywood movie, “A Wing and a Prayer.” Reagan had recalled the “facts,” but not their source.

Another famous example is Reagan’s oft-repeated tale about how he had helped to liberate Auschwitz after World War II ended. In fact Reagan event repeated this “memory” to Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, explaining that he had

returned to Hollywood with film footage of the ghastly scenes he had witnessed, and if in later years anyone controverted the reality of the Holocaust over the Reagan dinner table, he would roll the footage till the doubts were stilled.

Of course no Americans were involved in the liberation of Auschwitz, which was a Russian operation. And although Reagan was in the Army, he never left California where he was involved in making propaganda films. Interestingly, Barack Obama also told a story about the liberation of Auschwitz back in 2008. Speaking to a New Mexico audience about the need for mental health care for veterancs, Obama recalled a family story about his uncle.

“I had a uncle who was one of the, who was part of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps,” Obama said, slowly and methodically. “And the story in my family is that when he came home, he just went into the attic, and he didn’t leave the house for six months. Alright? Now, obviously something had affected him deeply, but at the time, there just weren’t the kinds of facilities to help somebody work through that kind of pain.”

It turned out that Obama’s Uncle actually was involved in the liberation of a concentration camp, but it was Buchenwald, not Auschwitz. This was probably a story that was told repeatedly in Obama’s family, and he simply forgot the name of the camp and substituted a famous name–Auschwitz.

And then there was the 2007 speech in which Obama seemed to suggest that his parents had been brought together because of the Civil Rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Obama was born in 1961. The speech actually had two doozies in it. Obama also claimed that the Kennedy family had been responsible for bringing his father to the U.S. Here’s the relevant quote:

What happened in Selma, Alabama and Birmingham also stirred the conscience of the nation. It worried folks in the White House who said, “You know, we’re battling Communism. How are we going to win hearts and minds all across the world? If right here in our own country, John, we’re not observing the ideals set fort in our Constitution, we might be accused of being hypocrites.” So the Kennedy’s decided we’re going to do an air lift. We’re going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is.

This young man named Barack Obama got one of those tickets and came over to this country. He met this woman whose great great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves; but she had a good idea there was some craziness going on because they looked at each other and they decided that we know that the world as it has been it might not be possible for us to get together and have a child. There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don’t tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Alabama.

I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I

Actually, the Kennedy family did donate $100,000 to the airlift program, but not until Barack Obama, Sr. was already in the U.S. As for how his parents got together, Obama’s campaign staff claimed that he had meant that the Civil Rights movement generally was responsible, but I think it was probably just an honest mistake. Certainly his speechwriters should have done some more careful fact-checking, but Obama was probably reporting what he “remembered.”

I’ll just share one more interest example of a high-profile false memory. This one from George W. Bush. Bush was in Orlando, Florida at a town hall meeting where he took questions from the audience. A young boy asked Bush how he felt on 9/11.

QUESTION: One thing, Mr. President, is that you have no idea how much you’ve done for this country, and another thing is that how did you feel when you heard about the terrorist attack?


Well, Jordan (ph), you’re not going to believe what state I was in when I heard about the terrorist attack. I was in Florida. And my chief of staff, Andy Card — actually I was in a classroom talking about a reading program that works. And I was sitting outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower — the TV was obviously on, and I use to fly myself, and I said, “There’s one terrible pilot.” And I said, “It must have been a horrible accident.”

But I was whisked off there — I didn’t have much time to think about it, and I was sitting in the classroom, and Andy Card, my chief who was sitting over here walked in and said, “A second plane has hit the tower. America’s under attack.”

But Bush could not have seen the plane hit the first tower, because there was no footage shown on TV until the next day. Bush obviously watched the footage later and became confused about when he had first seen it.

We all make errors like this–we just don’t often do it in front of a crowd of people and then end up getting fact-checked afterwards. The fact is, our memories are quite reliable for most daily purposes. It wouldn’t be adaptive for us to remember every single detail of what happens to us. But it pays to be aware that our memories can fail us is predictable ways.


8 Comments on “Embarrassing Tales Told by Politicians”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    Here’s an interesting article on memory and memory research.


  2. peggysue22 says:

    There’s been a lot of discussion about memory and memoirs in my creative nonfiction writing group. And there have been a number of writers that have been ‘caught’ making things up or simply recalling things differently than other participants. I remember reading an article last year that memory scientists/neurologists believe that the ’emotion’ involved with the memory alters it, depending on the personality, the reaction you had in the moment, the sense of joy, shame, guilt attached to ‘the event.’ So, even if our memories are stellar, we’re more likely than not to have tweaked a memory in some way. Rather than the video cam/audio set in our heads, our memories are impressions at best.

    That being said, some memoir writers just flat-out lie. Like the woman who wrote a concentration camp memoir, a Jewish survivor story, only to be be outed. She was never in a camp. She wasn’t even Jewish. Her excuse? Her reaction to the stories of others was so intense, she felt as if she’d lived it.

    Obviously, she was a fiction writer :0).

    Fascinating subject, BB. In fact, Pierce had a blog post up and mentioned Bob Kerry’s Vietnam experience as a Seal, an attack on a village in which a number of women and children were slaughtered. There was a link that I followed that offered a number of different versions about what happened that night. There you have all the years that have passed as well as the fear, guilt, shame attached to the action.

    Amazing. Good one!

    • bostonboomer says:

      Some people do just exaggerate their memories or make things up for a better story. But we all make these common memory errors. The interesting thing is that memories can also be incredibly accurate. Even young children can report event accurately and resist influence.

      When you’re remembering your own history, it isn’t necessary to get every detail right, and of course different people remember different aspects of an event. Attention is a big part of memory, because what you are paying attention to or what you are interested in is more likely to make it out of working memory and into long-term memory.

      Eyewitness testimony is unreliable because different people focus on different aspects of an event and because of other characteristics of memory that are actually helpful in our everyday lives. For example, over time we build up “scripts” of how to handle various situations based on past memories of similar situations. I’m not expressing this very well, I know.

      • peggysue22 says:

        No, I think you explained it well, BB. When it comes to memoir writing this subject can get very contentious. Purists believe that everything should be ‘factual,’ no embroidering. Others feel that license can be taken for dramatic effect. It’s a no-win argument. It’s almost as bad as coming up with a definition of what constitutes creative nonfiction, how big the tent is. It’s one of those ‘how many angels could dance on the head of a pin’ moments.

        Anyway, interesting stuff.

  3. quixote says:

    When I was very young, three or so, an incredibly dense brown fog enveloped our house. Years went by, and it gradually dawned on me that it was odd that nobody talked about it. More years went by, and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t in the history books. By then, I knew that nothing like it had ever happened before or since. It should have been written up! Then, about ten years ago, I heard about the Great London Smog of 1952. It was a dense choking yellowy-browny goop that even got indoors, and lots of vulnerable people died.

    That’s when I finally figured out what had happened. I must have heard my parents talking about it, and pictured it vividly enough to put myself right in it, so to speak, from half a planet away. The funny thing is, it *feels* like a real memory, even now that I know where it came from. It’s a very bizarre feeling. And if the event hadn’t been so impossible, there’s no reason why I would ever have realized it came from a good imagination.

    • bostonboomer says:

      That’s fascinating. I think children picture things so vividly because everything is new and fresh to them.

      I’m always fascinated when I get together with my brothers and sisters how they will remember completely different things than I do or will remember specific events completely differently. It’s because you tend to recall what was important to you at the time.

  4. dakinikat says:

    I wonder what’s the root causes of all these and if we’ll ever know what might be due to defense mechanisms that cover up painful events vs. organic problems like Altzheimer’s to these memories that seem to be capture from hearing stories so long they become real. I’ve always been fascinated by our childhood memories too. Early childhood memories I’ve found frequently have been put there by my parents and their photos and the constant retelling. Then, there are others that seem real, but some times I wonder. Fascinating subject!

    • bostonboomer says:

      There are logical adaptive reasons for some of the memory errors. It’s actually adaptive to forget a lot of stuff too. We’d go nuts if we remember everything. It’s also very possible to forget something completely for years and then have it come back when you return to the place where the memory happened, or if you’re reminded by another person who was there. It’s not “repression,” it’s just putting something in the background somehow. I find memory so interesting!