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HOW TO TRASH A RESPECTED DEM POLLSTER! Is there any chance Bendixen was simply answering Lizza’s question? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 2008

NARRATIVE NEVER DIES: Let’s face it: Narrative never dies. Yesterday afternoon, we had to run a rare mid-day errand. In the car, we put on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, a daily program on Washington’s public radio giant, WAMU. Disaster! The very instant we turned on the show, this escaped into the air:

KLEIN (2/18/08): We’ve seen other politicians tell these kind of “innocent” white lies. Like one time, Gore said that his mother used to sing him to sleep with a lullaby, the old labor song, “Look for the union label.” It turns out that the song didn’t come into existence until he was well out of law school. So he may not have been lying, but his mother was probably singing him lullabies at an inappropriate age. [Group laughter]

Nnamdi’s hapless guests were Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart; they were discussing their new, apparently uninformed book, Aristotle and an Aardvark Go To Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes. More on their philosophical backgrounds will emerge in a note below.

What was wrong with this genius recitation? It has now been almost eight years since USA Today’s Walter Shapiro launched this deeply damaging groaner about Candidate Gore. It happened in September 2000, and—tied to the simultaneous claim that Gore had lied about his dog’s arthritis pills (yes, you read that correctly)—it produced the three thousandth press corps frenzy about Al Gore, the world’s biggest liar. The frenzy turned Gore’s polling numbers around just as it seemed he was pulling away from his opponent, George W. Bush. The claim that Big Liar Gore has lied again was deeply damaging. Like so many previous claims, it was pathetically wrong.

Yesterday, Nnamdi’s hapless guest said this: “It turns out the song didn’t come into existence until [Gore] was way out of law school.” In fact, it was immediately clear—eight years ago!—that Gore had actually been telling a joke, a joke he’d told many times in the past. (A Nexis search made this fact quite apparent. Meanwhile, on the videotape, you could plainly see and hear Gore’s teamster audience laughing at what he had said—at his joke.) But so what? The “press corps” ran with its twin Gore liar tales, and the ensuing frenzy drove Gore back to parity with Bush. Eight years later, a pair of fools went on an important public radio program and they pimped this pure bullsh*t once again.

Narrative never dies, dear readers. Narrative never dies.

In this incident, we once again see again the actual shape of the actual American discourse. In our actual discourse, the dumbest, most uninformed people on earth take to the public airwaves, where they insist on repeating old howlers—howlers their equally dim-witted colleagues invented long ago. And their larger assessments are often heart-breaking. A few minutes after hearing Klein restate this groaner, Nnamdi asked his dim-witted guests to answer a deep, “philosophical” question. Being clueless on what had transpired himself, he failed to see the cosmic irony involved in the question he asked:

NNAMDI: One of the points you bring up in this book is that the politicians get away with this sort of thing because we, the citizens, let them. How are we the audience co-conspirators in the deceptions that politicians and others use? Why do we let them get away with it?

Nnamdi’s guests were tossing off howlers about politicians. Only naturally, therefore, Nnamdi wondered why we let politicians get away with such conduct! And omigod! Here’s the laughable answer he got. We were glad the analysts weren’t in the car to hear what Nnamdi’s guest said:

CATHCART (continuing directly): I think it’s easier than thinking. You know? I think we all adopt the same clichés about the candidates, both positive and negative, because frankly it’s easier. Plus we hear it over and over again, particularly now with the 24-hour news cycle, we hear over and over again that Candidate A is such and such a way...You hear this stuff enough and it’s just what fills your head.

NNAMDI: It’s easier than thinking!

CATHCART: Yeah. And it’s kind of given the moniker, “conventional wisdom.”

We hear the same clichés over and over, Klein said—having just recited a bogus old tale for perhaps the ten millionth time.

For the record, here’s what the authors boast at their web site: “Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, authors of the national bestseller Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, aren’t falling for any election year claptrap—and they don’t want their readers to either!” And readers, the spreading nightmare gets worse. As it turns out, the misinformed pair are both graduates of—what else?—the Harvard philosophy department! Once again, we had seen what happens when our greatest “thinkers” descend to breathe everyday air.

YOU CAN LISTEN: You can listen to the mayhem by clicking here. The eight-year-old howler about Gore’s lullaby comes about three minutes in.

Narrative never dies, dear reader. Narrative never departs.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For a quick summary of the pimping of Gore’s union joke, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/24/03. (Scroll down to HOWLER HISTORY.)

In real time, even Bob Novak said Gore had been joking. (It was perfectly obvious from watching the tape. You’d have to be a “narrative whore” to miss it.) But so what? At the New York Times, Richard Berke was still playing it dumb on our answering machine, a full three weeks later. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/9/00, to learn how George Bush found his way to the White House. (Most of our real-time work on this topic was at the now-defunct SpeakOut.com.)

HOW TO TRASH A RESPECTED DEM POLLSTER: According to one progressive or semi-progressive think tank, Sergio Bendixen “is recognized as one of the preeminent experts in Hispanic public opinion research in the United States...Sergio’s unique abilities and experiences make him a key addition to [the New Politics Institute] and understanding the coming political battleground of the 21st century.” Just click here.

For many years, Bendixen has been a highly respected Hispanic pollster. But is he also a slobbering racist? Richard Thompson Ford was happy to say so—and the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section put his charges into print (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/18/08). Let’s make sure we understand how aggressive Ford’s charges were—before we look at the “evidence” behind the gentleman’s judgments.

Let’s be frank: Ford pulled no punches as he denounced the vile racist. According to Ford, here’s what Bendixen was “really” doing when he made a certain remark to a reporter last month:

FORD (2/17/08): [M]odern racism isn't like the water in a well. It's more like the scum in a pond: It might settle to the bottom if left alone, but it can also be whipped up into a froth. And that's what Bendixen was really doing.

Bendixen had been “playing the race card,” Ford also said; he had been drawing on “the inexhaustible well” of “American racism.” He had engaged in “subtle race baiting;” he’d been trying to “whip racism up into a froth.” Indeed, Bendixen’s race-baiting had already produced blowback among Clinton’s Hispanic supporters, Ford said—without offering a speck of evidence. But then, Bendixen had slimed members of various groups, including his own; according to Ford, Bendixen had “insist[ed] that Hispanics are anti-black bigots,” and he had “insinuat[ed] that black politicians won't serve the interests of Hispanic constituents.” As he closed, Ford said this: “So far, the Clinton campaign's attempt to scare Hispanic voters away from Obama has met with significant success.”

In short, all-knowing Ford pulled few punches as he denounced the racist Bendixen. He made the most serious charges you can make in our politics—and Outlook put his claims on its front page. But how exactly had Ford come to know that Bendixen had been engaged in the strategy he described? The plainly brilliant Stanford professor offered amazingly little evidence. Indeed, here’s the only point in his piece where he even specified what Bendixen had done:

FORD: It's conventional wisdom that American racism is an inexhaustible well that cynical politicians can always dip into if they want to sink their opponents in a campaign. That's what Sen. Hillary Clinton’s Hispanic pollster, Sergio Bendixen, seemed to be doing when he told a reporter last month that Latino voters haven't generally "shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates."

From those eleven words, Ford assembled his assault. In so doing, he showed us how easily a professor-feller can yell race in our current climate.

Was Bendixen playing a race card when he made the quoted comment? Was he “insisting” that Hispanics, his own ethnic group, “are anti-black bigots?” Like Ford—like Outlook’s John Pomfret—we have no earthly way of knowing. But let’s look at the New Yorker piece in which Bendixen was originally quoted. As we do, we’ll see how easy it has become to lodge our culture’s most serious charge against a highly respected person.

Bendixen was originally quoted by The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza at the end of this long piece; the piece appeared shortly after Clinton won the New Hampshire primary. Bendixen was quoted at the end of the piece. But uh-oh! Before getting there, a reader might have noticed passages in which an unnamed Obama senior adviser could have been said—by a hostile, reckless or stupid observer—to be “playing a race card” too:

LIZZA (1/21/08): Of all the worrisome trends that reappeared for Obama in New Hampshire, the most vexing may be the potential impact of race. Pollsters are trying to determine whether he experienced the so-called “Bradley effect.” In 1982, when the African-American mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, ran for governor, the final polls showed him with an average lead of eight points over his white Republican rival, George Deukmejian. And yet Deukmejian won, by a point. A similar phenomenon occurred in Virginia in 1989, when L. Douglas Wilder ran for governor against a white opponent, Marshall Coleman. He appeared to be leading by ten points but won by less than one. In both cases, white voters were more willing to tell pollsters that they supported the black candidate than they were to actually vote for him.

Did Obama experience a similar fate in New Hampshire? The evidence is murky, but his campaign believes the question is important enough to warrant study. When I asked a senior Obama adviser whether the Bradley effect was a possible explanation for the gap between the final poll numbers, which showed Obama leading by an average of eight points, and the ultimate outcome, he replied, “Definitely.”

As Lizza notes, the evidence for the Bradley effect was, at best, murky; later, he quotes an expert on the phenomenon saying (Lizza’s paraphrase) “there’s no evidence yet of the Bradley effect operating in New Hampshire.” But if someone wanted to scream and yell about the bad faith of Obama’s campaign, that person could play some (reckless) games with that senior adviser’s one-word answer. Later, Lizza summarized the Obama campaign’s view—and he showed that he was thoroughly clueless about the shape of our current press/politics:

LIZZA: Other pollsters who study this question are convinced that the Bradley effect is a vanishing vestige of the nineteen-eighties. David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, points out that Obama’s percentage of the vote on primary day was identical to the average percentage he was receiving in pre-election polls. “The problem in the polling was entirely in their estimates for Hillary Clinton,” Bositis said. “There was absolutely no Bradley effect, and there has not been a Bradley effect for many years.” ...

He may be right, but the fact that Obama’s campaign thinks the problem is worth further inquiry and that race has once again become the subject of widespread chatter could be an ominous development for his candidacy. The best hope for an Obama victory was to kill the race issue in the crib of Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which have overwhelmingly white electorates. Racial politics have been refreshingly absent from this campaign, partly because of the lack of diversity in the first two states and partly because Obama has never made his race central to his campaign. That’s about to change, as Nevada, with its large Hispanic population, and South Carolina, with its large black population, prepare to vote. Obama has an interest in downplaying his race in both states. There are lingering tensions between the Hispanic and black communities which he doesn’t want to inflame, and some residual skepticism among black voters concerning Obama’s electability among whites.

Who knows? Maybe Bositis is a vile racist too, despite his progressive background. (Pomfret may want to check with Ford. Surely, Post readers deserve to be told.) But in this passage, Lizza says the Obama campaign was voicing concerns about racial politics—and Lizza suggests that “racial politics” might harm Obama in the states to come. This shows how poorly he understood the way our press/politics works.

A person who wanted to trash Obama (unfairly) could make some hay with the work we have quoted—especially if that person were held to “standards of evidence” like those found in Ford’s Outlook piece. Such a person could claim that Obama’s advisers were pimping the Bradley effect all around, despite the fact that experts were saying it hasn’t been present for decades! By traditional standards, that wouldn’t have been fair, based on what Lizza has written here; as far as anyone can tell from Lizza’s piece, Obama’s advisers had expressed reasonable concerns in a reasonable way. But don’t worry: If Obama were the one the press corps loathed, the press corps would have been pimping these narratives. After all, when Lizza quotes Bendixen, Bendixen makes reasonable statements too—statements which have now been used to make him the world’s biggest race man.

What follows is the rest of Lizza’s report. This includes the entire segment dealing with Bendixen’s statements. It is on this basis, and on nothing more, that Ford made his remarkably serious claims about Bendixen’s race-baiting conduct. As you read this passage, we make one suggestion: Try to separate what Bendixen says from Lizza’s editorial judgments. And try to remember—you’re only seeing the fragments Lizza has quoted:

LIZZA (continuing directly): Interestingly, in the final days of the New Hampshire campaign, when defeat looked certain for Clinton, it was Hillary’s aides who started talking privately about racial politics. They argued that on February 5th, when twenty-two states vote, Hillary’s fire wall would be Hispanic voters in the largest states, such as California and New York.

On the morning after Clinton’s victory, I talked to Sergio Bendixen, one of her pollsters, who specializes in the Hispanic vote. “In all honesty, the Hispanic vote is extremely important to the Clinton campaign, and the polls have shown—and today is not a great day to cite polls—that even though she was slipping with women in Iowa and blacks in South Carolina, she was not slipping with Hispanics,” he said. “The fire wall doesn’t apply now, because she is in good shape, but before last night the Hispanic vote was going to be the most important part of her fire wall on February 5th.” The implications of that strategy are not necessarily uplifting.

When I asked Bendixen about the source of Clinton’s strength in the Hispanic community, he mentioned her support for health care, and Hispanic voters’ affinity for the Clinton era. “It’s one group where going back to the past really works,” he said. “All you need to say in focus groups is ‘Let’s go back to the nineties.’ ” But he was also frank about the fact that the Clintons, long beloved in the black community, are now dependent on a less edifying political dynamic: “The Hispanic voter—and I want to say this very carefully—has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

By the way: Lizza’s insinuations to the side, Clinton’s aides had been “talking publicly about racial politics” all through the previous year; for example, here’s a press release about Clinton’s support among Latino voters—from May 2007. Was the campaign wrong to release that?

At any rate, that was the end of Lizza’s piece. The piece ends with Lizza winking hard about the way the Clinton strategy is “not necessarily uplifting.” But then, Lizza scatters his not-necessarily-bright opinions all through this passage—opinions he didn’t have the courage to state clearly, argue for or defend. By this past Sunday, Lizza’s winking opinions had turned into Ford’s claims of nasty race-baiting.

Our question: What exactly is supposed to be wrong with the things Bendixen is quoted saying? On what basis can we assert that he is a vile race-baiter? Is it somehow wrong when a pollster “start[s] talking privately about racial politics” in the way Bendixen does here? According to Lizza, Obama’s senior advisers “were talking privately about racial politics” too. Was it OK when they talked about race (we’d day yes), but wrong when Bendixen did so?

One more question, one we’ll look at tomorrow: Is there any chance Bendixen was simply answering a question—a question Lizza had asked?

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the ways Bendixen’s remarks have been interpreted, by Ford and others. But in the meantime, please understand this: The press corps is currently playing the “race card” in the way they tend to play all their cards. Eight years ago, they were playing the ”liar card”—and they played that nasty card quite dishonestly. They misquoted Gore, and they paraphrased wildly; they kept insisting that he had told lies long after it became clear that he hadn’t. (Eight years later, see “Narrative never dies,” directly above.) This is the way your modern “press corps” works—the way it always plays its cards. In their (pathological) hands, Gore became the world’s biggest liar—and a phony, and a faker. Today, he holds the Nobel Peace Prize—and a highly respected Dem pollster has become the world’s biggest race man.

Is this how we want the game to be played? For many “progressives,” the answer is currently yes. (We’ve accepted this conduct for a good many years.) They will, of course, be crying big tears if the game turns against Obama (as it well might). Our question: Why do we let this gang of crooks play their cards at all?

NOTES FROM AN ARCH-RACIST: Last year, Bendixen wrote this research-based piece for AlterNet (and for La Prensa San Diego) about the young people of California. In this excerpt, his racist leanings are really quite evident. How could anyone miss them?

BENDIXEN (4/27/07): One in eight of the nation's young people live in California. Three-fifths are youth of color, and nearly half are immigrants or the children of immigrants. "These young people represent the forefront of the cultural continuum," New America Media Executive Director Sandy Close told us. "To gauge their hopes, fears and perspectives about the future is to glimpse who we are becoming as a society."

If Close is right, there is much to be hopeful about in the new California. What we found surprised and heartened us. The young people we spoke with left us convinced that California's greatest social capital may be the optimism, and inclusiveness, of the younger generation.

Taken together, the 600 voices we listened to via cell phone offered a portrait of a generation coming of age in a society of unprecedented racial and ethnic diversity. If California's young people do in fact reflect our collective future, we are well on our way to a society where race no longer defines identity, and borders matter less than personal relationships and communities born of cultural affinity.

California's young people, as reflected in our poll, are strong believers in the American Dream. Overwhelmingly—across race, ethnicity and gender—they believe strongly in their ability to determine their own futures. Despite obstacles, they expect to create successful lives for themselves and imagine a more inclusive and tolerant society for one another. This collective optimism represents a valuable resource for California, and a mirror of what the United States is becoming as a global society.

One thing our conversations with California youth made clear is that this generation embraces, rather than fears, the state's increasing diversity. When asked what defines their identity, they were as apt to cite fashion and music as they were race or ethnicity. The overwhelming majority of young people cited the state's diversity as a strength and maintain diversity among their immediate circle of friends. Two-thirds had dated someone of a different race, and nearly 90 percent said they would be open to marrying or entering into a life partnership with someone of a different race.

If you can’t see Bendixen’s racism there, we don’t know what will convince you. One more question: Is there any chance Bendixen was simply answering the question Lizza had asked?