The biography of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is the story of America. He is the son of Cuban immigrants who came to the United States in 1956 in search of economic opportunities and who worked hard to give their children a better life than the one they left behind. Years later, Rubio would enter politics and become a star in the national Republican Party.
It's an inspiring life story, but oddly, it's not the one that Rubio has invoked in recent years.
Instead, the freshman senator has been telling a different story, portraying his parents as exiles from the brutal regime of Fidel Castro. Political forces, not economic aspirations, drove them to emigrate to the United States, he has suggested.
Last week, the St. Petersburg Times and the Washington Post ran articles that challenged Rubio's version. Both newspapers documented his parents' arrival in Miami three years before Castro took power and before the mass exodus from Cuba began. Now Rubio faces questions about his credibility. It's unclear whether he lied or unintentionally recast his family's journey to this country. He has emphatically denied embellishing it for political gain and insists that although he may have gotten the dates wrong, his parents were in fact exiles.
Who can say, in the end, who is an exile and who is not? What's clear is that this smart, ambitious politician felt that he had a better chance of winning elections if he emphasized a narrative that portrayed him as the son of exiles even though, in reality, his story more closely mirrors that of other Latino immigrants who come to the United States in search of work. "Nothing against immigrants," he said in 2009, "but my parents were exiles."
Unfortunately, the story of the hardworking immigrant doesn't sell very well in the Republican Party at the moment, and Rubio understood that. Not too long ago this country put out the welcome mat for those who came to pursue the American Dream. But those days are past.
It's unclear whether conservative voters and tea party supporters who backed Rubio because he played up his exile roots will forgive him, either in Florida or if he is ultimately selected to be on the national ticket. Let's just hope that he doesn't learn the hard way that some distinctions aren't worth making.