You'd Better Be Perfect … Or Lucky (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

Arkansas politics are more than I can say grace over, but I can’t help noticing some headlines out of neighboring states. For instance, over in Texas, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is being flayed because her trailer park-to-Harvard Law autobiography was a bit overblown. She has repeatedly described herself as a single mother at 19 when, in fact, the divorce wasn’t final until she was 21. What’s more, she and her daughter lived in a mobile home for only a few months.

The devil is always in the details, and Davis isn’t the first politician to learn a hard lesson about exaggeration of the 10-miles-in-the-snow, uphill-both-ways variety. It will be a few years before the demographic shift makes any Democrat electable as governor of Texas, so I don’t think it’s going to matter much whether she was a divorced 19-year-old mother living in a trailer park or a separated 21-year-old mother living in an apartment. But the narrative of a young woman who overcame mistakes made early in life is compelling for this reason: It really is hard.

Fortunately for Wendy Davis, she had help. She remarried at 24 to a man who was closer to 40 and pulling down “well over six figures,” or so he told the Dallas Morning News. He helped her pay for a degree from Texas Christian University and to attend Harvard Law School while he stayed back home in Texas with his stepdaughter and the daughter he and Wendy had together.

So while her years as a struggling single mother were undoubtedly difficult and stressful, they didn’t last very long. By 24 — this would have been the late 1980s — she enjoyed a household income that was four times the median. By 30, she had a degree from the most prestigious law school in the country. (Her second marriage would also end, after 18 years.)

I give Wendy Davis plenty of credit for overcoming the kind of mistakes that sentence millions of young women and their children to a lifetime of poverty, but she also had luck on her side. How many teenage mothers get a do-over that includes a top-tier income? How different would her story be if her first child had been disabled? Or if she and her first husband had actually tried longer to make a go of their shotgun marriage? What if she had not had the innate intelligence to succeed at Harvard Law? What if her second husband hadn’t been quite so successful a breadwinner or quite so willing or able to take care of children on his own?

Compared to a lot of people who become parents in their teens, Wendy Davis had it pretty easy. She does, however, seem to have compassion for people whose mistakes were not so quickly and completely overcome, and compassion is in very short supply in political circles these days. The war on poverty is being replaced by a war on the poor. Another Texan, Republican U.S. Rep. Louis Gohmert, recently suggested raising taxes on poor people because — well, who can fathom why anyone would think that deliberately making the poor even poorer was a good idea, morally or economically? And yet it was an applause line for Gohmert because there seem to be a lot of Americans who suspect that the poor will pull those bootstraps just a little harder if they are properly shamed. (Imagine the outcry from his party if Gohmert had suggested raising taxes on anyone besides the poor.)

Meanwhile, other people make mistakes that are, on their face, much more egregious than an untimely pregnancy or a disastrous early marriage. But because they are already rich and/or powerful, or because they chose their parents wisely, they never miss a meal — or another fabulous opportunity. Exhibit A: Bobby Petrino is again in a position of influence and authority over college students. Exhibit B: Being the confessed patron of a prostitute is not a big enough mistake to keep U.S. Sen. David Vitter from being re-elected and now running for governor of Louisiana. Exhibit C: Anyone named Kardashian.

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Jack and Witt Stephens’ father, A.J. Stephens, famously told the future billionaires that “poverty is not a thing to be proud of or ashamed of, but to be gotten shed of as quickly as conveniently possible.”

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.