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Commentary: In politics, facts can sometimes get the way

John Edwards lied about the cost of his haircuts. Fred Thompson lied about lobbying for a pro-choice outfit. John McCain insists that the U.S. was founded as a "Christian nation." Mitt Romney concocted the story about how his father marched with ...

John Edwards lied about the cost of his haircuts. Fred Thompson lied about lobbying for a pro-choice outfit. John McCain insists that the U.S. was founded as a "Christian nation." Mitt Romney concocted the story about how his father marched with Martin Luther King Jr. And Rudy Giuliani is one-man fib machine -- everything from why he had to provide police protection for his then-mistress to the cure rates for prostate cancer in Britain. Yet it is something Barack Obama said that bothers me most of all because Obama is a new kind of politician. He is supposed to be coolly authentic.

What concerns me is the lie or fib or misstatement -- call it what you want -- that involves Obama's assertion that more young black males are in prison than in college. It is a shocking statistic -- and it is wrong. But when The Washington Post's lonesome but formidable truth squad, Michael Dobbs, brought this to the attention of the Obama campaign, he not only got the brush-off but the assertion was later repeated.

You can appreciate the usefulness of this false claim. It says something compelling about the plight of young, black males that is essentially true -- their condition amounts to a calamity and something has to be done. But this particular comparison is wrong, and Obama must know it by now. Ought to be true is not the same as true.

After all, it ought to be true that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It ought to be true that he had ties with Osama bin Laden. It ought to be true that aluminum tubes were intended for a nuclear weapons program and it ought to be true, really, that none of this mattered since what mattered most of all was a larger truth: Saddam had to go and the Middle East had to be urban renewed for the sake of democracy.

In a recent provocative essay for The New Republic's Web site, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz coined the phrase "the delusional style in American punditry." He applied it to Obama's fans in the American press. His argument is that certain journalists are so enthralled by the sheer Obamaness of Obama that they are willing to overlook everything they know about the fundamental value of experience.

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In this regard, Wilentz cites a Boston Globe editorial that used Obama's memoir "Dreams From My Father" to extol Obama's real-life experiences. Wilentz is not persuaded. To him, the book is "not exactly a portrait of sterling honesty or authenticity."

I and others have written that Obama -- as he himself says in the introduction -- invented composite characters and altered chronology. But as The Chicago Tribune also reported, some of the events Obama passionately details seem not to have happened at all. Maybe his memory played tricks on him. Mine sure does.

But I am not running for president. And if I were, I'd pay particular attention to the truth -- to the nagging facts that sometimes get in the way of a good story.

So the cavalier dismissal of Dobbs, the Post's truth-hunter, is troubling. Since he writes that the Obama campaign would not comment, it is reasonable to assume that it doesn't give a damn -- that this is a little matter and the candidate is engaged in something grand. The phony statistic is, in its way, like a composite. There's a larger truth here, get it?

No. When John McCain sticks to his insistence that the Constitution established the United States as a "Christian nation," I don't like it, but I know McCain and I know his character. He has a record in public life going back, essentially, to 1967 when he was shot down over Vietnam and repeatedly tortured by his captors. Back in 2000, I might have gotten a bit "delusional" over him, but I had my reasons.

I am a bit enamored with Obama as well. But the man's public record is thin and the glow from him is distracting and my intuition tells me that sometimes intuition is no substitute for experience. So, I'll sit back and watch some more -- and wait to see if Obama or anyone in his campaign calls back Dobbs and corrects the record. "Facts are stubborn things," John Adams once said. So, to our regret, we keep learning the hard way.

Richard Cohen's e-mail address is cohen@wctrib.com .

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