Genealogy in Politics

Facts and evidence are a fundamental part of genealogy. Without these, genealogy would be nothing more than folklore (and Ancestry member tree hints).

Unfortunately, facts and evidence are not always as important in politics. What happens when politics and genealogy collide?

A couple months ago there was some attention on Senator Marco Rubio’s family history. The Huffington Post reports:

In a campaign ad last year, he said: “As the son of exiles, I understand what it means to lose the gift of freedom.” Rubio’s biography on his Senate website previously said he was “born in Miami to Cuban-born parents who come to America following Fidel Castro’s takeover.” It has been changed to say Rubio “was born in Miami in 1971 to Cuban exiles who first arrived in the United States in 1956.”

We now know that Rubio’s family left Cuba three years before Fidel Castro took over; technically his parents were not exiles, they were immigrants.

Rubio was born 15 years after his family immigrated to America. I can easily imagine the stories told to a young Rubio; parents unable to live in their home country, came to America for a better life, still maintaining their Cuban culture. How many of us were raised with certain assumptions about who we are only to find in our research varying info? In addition, the Cuban-exile community in Florida didn’t see anything wrong with Rubio’s statements.

So, Rubio gets a pass. What about Elizabeth Warren, claiming to be of Native American heritage? Her opponent, Senator Scott Brown has accused Warren of lying about her heritage and receiving an unfair advantage in her hiring at The University of Pennsylvania and at Harvard. Both schools have said it was not a factor in her hiring and the Native American heritage was only revealed afterwards. I believe the schools, why not? But Brown has been very persistant in his attacks on Warren’s heritage claims.

Here’s what Warren had to say:

“When I was a little girl, I learned about my family’s heritage the same way everyone else does — from my parents and grandparents.

My mother, grandmother, and aunts were open about my family’s Native American heritage, and I never had any reason to doubt them. What kid asks their grandparents for legal documentation to go along with their family stories? What kid asks their mother for proof in how she describes herself?”

I can relate to that (except I am that kid that asks their mother for proof!).  Warren is obviously not an official member of any tribe and she is strictly relying on family lore and secondary sources. Quite a few tribes have come forward, each with different takes on Warren’s claims, positive and negative. I’ve watched enough of Henry Louis Gates’ PBS specials to know that one’s self identity can vary greatly with actual heritage and DNA. Who am I to judge?

I will say that it is a bit alarming when politicians come forth with their family heritages with little to no actual evidence (or care of finding any such evidence), and they use it in a way that is supposed to make them more qualified for the position. No one’s heritage makes them more or less qualified for public office. Maybe all this attention will create some jobs for genealogists (a campaign genealogist!). Genealogists are extremely detail and fact oriented, people that politicians (and journalists) could use more often.

What do you think? Should politicians refrain from retelling their embellished family lore? Should they be more diligent about digging up their own history? I’m trying to think of how I would weave my own family history into a stump speech.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Barbara Updegraff Pirolt on September 30, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    I think you should send your blog to Rubio and call him out on it! But really, he’s a politician what would you expect.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Betty on October 1, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Does it really matter? Our President still has not proven where he was born and will not show any proof of his past.

    Reply

    • I don’t know, does it matter? I think so, that’s why I wrote a post about it and think it’s worth discussing. I don’t think what Rubio or Warren said make them bad people or less qualified for the job. But, if a genealogist were to make these same half-truth statements, it would not be acceptable and their legitimacy would deteriorate. What’s interesting is how the opponents have been critical of Rubio (Democrats) and Warren (Sen. Scott Brown), while sometimes forgetting to fact-check themselves. So does it matter, should we be so picky? Genealogists are picky.
      What’s also interesting is how politicians weave their heritage into their stump speech; it’s obviously important for them to communicate it voters. An example is how President Obama often refers to his WW2 vet grandfather who “served in Patton’s army.” Everyone does it.
      Regarding President Obama’s birth, his birth certificate (primary source) has been made public and there is also a newspaper birth announcement (secondary source). That’s proof. If anyone’s interested, Megan Smolenyak (a very well-known genealogist) has done extensive research into President Obama’s maternal roots: http://www.honoringourancestors.com/barack-obama.html.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Les on October 5, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Politicians should refrain from retelling their embellished family lore. I do not think it can be used to forecast what kind of job the person will do. But it is better than negative ad’s.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the comments, Les. It’s interesting. I’d probably avoid mentioning my ancestry for fear of someone finding and exploiting the black sheep. But I could totally see myself including a bit about my parent’s strong work ethic. Les, what if we were running for Mayor of Philadelphia? You think we would mention something about descendants of the Op den Graeff family? “My family was the original founders of Germantown, brought to America with the help of William Penn himself…” Not that it makes us more qualified, but definitely a fun anecdote!

      Reply

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