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TUESDAY, MARCH 3, 2009

Digby’s catch: Digby made an excellent catch last weekend (just click here). On CNN, Jack Cafferty asked viewers to e-mail their reactions to a deeply troubling story. His presentation was very familiar. It started out like this:

CAFFERTY (2/27/09): The House of Representatives passed a $410 billion spending bill. It is loaded with pork, courtesy of both parties.

The New York Times reports one watchdog group says the bill includes $8 billion for more than 8,500 pet projects. Among them are these: $1.7 million for a honey bee laboratory in Texas; $1.5 million for work on grapes and grape products, including wine. This is my favorite—$1.8 million to research swine odor and manure management in Iowa. They could do the same research in Washington, D.C.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! But is there really something wrong with federal money for swine odor and manure management? Is it obvious that such spending is “pork?” That it should be derided as a “pet project?” It didn’t occur to Cafferty to ask—any more than it occurs to Dana Milbank, who presents the Same Tired Script in this morning’s Post (click here, then groan). But uh-oh! When Cafferty read his e-mails, some viewers had given impressive reactions. This is just one of the viewer reactions the gentleman read on the air:

CAFFERTY: Ed in Iowa writes: "Here in Iowa, we're sure in need of some swine odor and manure management. And I can tell you that for darn sure, since I live downwind to several hog farms. What you don't understand, when you make fun of this, is that it's a huge problem. Pigs are big business here. Their manure could be used for fertilizer and biofuels, instead of just polluting the air and the water. It is a smart investment that will pay off in clean air, clean water, cheap food, and jobs.”

Will that money turn into “a smart investment?” Like Cafferty, we have no idea. But Ed in Iowa knocked Cactus Jack off his perch. And Cafferty read other responses in which viewers took him well beyond his tired old Insider Mockery.

Good God! What a different world it would be if liberals knew how to respond to Standard Brain-Dead Frameworks. Through the bulk of the past twenty years, conservatives or mainstream journalists could rattle off an array of such scripts, confident that liberals and Dems (famous and otherwise) would never give an intelligent rejoinder. Digby made a superlative catch as viewers gave intelligent answers to Cafferty’s tired old script. And to Cafferty’s credit, he read several right on the air:

CAFFERTY: Kevin writes: "Earmarks can be wasteful or incredibly valuable, just like any type of spending. Let's look at one of your examples: $1.7 million for honeybee research. This seems silly at first glance. But when you recall that there appears to be something wiping out the honeybee population, and that these bees are necessary for crops, like apples, peaches, soybeans, pears, pumpkins, cucumbers, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries, then it quickly starts looking like maybe we ought to be spending more money on this research.”

Nice work! Just because some piece of spending might “seem silly at first glance,” that doesn’t mean that it is. That answers suggest an important point: Hacks will often try to make spending sound silly when it actually isn’t.

One of the response Cafferty read touched on Bobby Jindal’s speech. For our money, this e-mailer’s answer didn’t quite hit the mark:

CAFFERTY: S. in Michigan: "It depends on what ends up being called an earmark and who labels it as such. For the state or city getting the money, it is progress money, or an investment. For others, it becomes pork, or an earmark, et cetera. For example, for Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, monitoring volcanoes is an earmark, but, for Alaskans, monitoring hurricanes may be earmarks. So, should we stop doing both?”

Alas! There’s a bit too much of Pilate there, asking “What is truth?” To us, a stronger answer would have proceeded like this:

REVISED ANSWER: For Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, monitoring volcanoes is an example of silly spending. But what is supposed to be silly about something like that? This is what Republicans often do: They sift through spending bills, pulling out some small provision which might seem silly at first glance. But often, the spending isn’t silly at all! Why do we fall for this bull-roar?

You could spend years in the 1990s without hear an intelligent rejoinder to the bull-roar of the day. (No one is cutting Medicare; we’re just slowing the rate at which the program will grow.) Digby noticed Cafferty’s viewers giving a better type of response. But uh-oh! Jindal’s speech had presented some typical cant about wasteful spending, including his comments about volcano management about high-speed rail. It would be a very good thing if people like S in Michigan knew the best ways to respond. By the way: In the current climate, most viewers will be on the “liberal” side, if they hear the coherent response.

Jindal’s speech provided a teaching moment about a standard type of cant. So what did some liberal leaders do? Some liberal leaders changed the subject; they spent oodles to time trying to prove that Jindal’s a big fat liar. It’s hard to prove that from what Jindal said—and in the process, some liberal leaders embellished a good deal themselves.

Alas! There’s a famous old saying among lawyers: If the facts are against you, you argue the law. If the law is against you, you argue the facts. Last week, the issues were with us—so we talked about character! In our view, changing the subject that way was just dumb. Unless you deeply want to believe that you’re part of The One Honest Tribe.

At present, people agree with Dems and libs on most basic issues. Our reaction? We change the subject to talk about character! We think that impulse is very foolish—unless we have a deep psychic need to tell ourselves that we alone are good.

A TALE OF TWO STORIES: We were struck by two reports in this morning’s papers—one in the New York Times, one in the Washington Post. We think these reports help us see the way the nation’s runners of rubes have driven the nation’s discourse over the past twenty years.

One report sheds light on the “supply side;” it helps us recall who sold us the frameworks which helped elect George W. Bush. The other report concerns the “demand side;” the way we make ourselves available for this type of comprehension abuse.

How did liberals (and others) get conned in the 1990s? How do we keep getting played today? First, let’s consider the people who sell you the blather. Then, let’s ask why we’re willing buyers of same:

How we got conned in the 1990s: That first report in today’s New York Times appears on page one of the sports section. Uh-oh! “Errors Cast Doubt on a Baseball Memoir,” the page-topping headline says.

Long story short: A former minor league baseball player has written a high-profile memoir—and the memoir appears to be full of fake facts. Here we go again, dear readers! Benjamin Hill fact-checked a whole bunch of claims:

HILL (3/3/09): Matt McCarthy, a graduate of Yale and of Harvard Medical School now working as an intern in the residency program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital in New York, has gained national attention in recent weeks for “Odd Man Out,” his salacious memoir of his summer as an obscure minor league pitcher. He writes about playing with racist, steroids-taking teammates, pitching for a profane, unbalanced manager and observing obscene behavior and speech that in some ways reinforce the popular image of wild professional ballplayers.

But statistics from that season, transaction listings and interviews with his former teammates indicate that many portions of the book are incorrect, embellished or impossible. It comes during a difficult period for the publishing industry, which has recently had three major memoirs—James Frey’s infamous “A Million Little Pieces” and the recollections of a Holocaust survivor and of an inner-city foster child — exposed as mostly fabricated. The authors of those books have acknowledged their fraud.

When presented with evidence of his book’s wide-ranging errors and misquotations in an interview Monday morning, McCarthy said that he stood by the contents of “Odd Man Out.”

You can judge Hill’s piece for yourselves. In it, he details a blizzard of claims from McCarthy’s book—claims about various incidents which couldn’t have happened. he says. And he quotes the low-profile people who are the subjects of McCarthy’s unflattering stories. They explain how badly they could be harmed by the author’s claims.

What’s the truth about Hill’s accusation? That’s hard for us to say. But we couldn’t help thinking of the most significant bungled memoir of the 1990s—a bungled memoir with a high-profile victim. We refer, of course, to Gennifer Flowers’ 1992 articles in The Star—articles which claimed a torrid, twelve-year love affair with then-candidate Clinton.

As with McCarthy, so with Flowers: Instantly, evidence suggested that many of her most thrilling claims simply couldn’t be accurate. Within a few weeks, Jonathan Alter did the honors in Newsweek. Note the embarrassing claim by Flowers about that fancy hotel—and her embarrassing claim about Miss Teen Age America:

ALTER (2/3/92): Gennifer Flowers also has credibility problems. Among them:

[...]

* Flowers claims she met Clinton at the Excelsior Hotel in 1979 or 1980. The hotel didn't open until late 1982.

[...]

* Flowers claims to have been part of an opening act for Roy Clark's band and to have joined the band's U.S. and European tours. But her own booking agent says she exaggerated her role.

[...]

* Flowers claims to have taken 50 hours of classes at the University of Arkansas. There is no record of her having attended the school.

* Flowers claims to have been Miss Teen Age America, 1967. She wasn't—that year, or any other.

Six years later, as impeachment loomed, Gene Lyons recalled this episode for Salon: “In Little Rock, she was widely disbelieved...Among other things, Flowers’ resumé claimed degrees from colleges she’d barely attended, membership in a sorority she’d never joined and jobs she’d never held. Her claim to have won the Miss Teenage America crown proved false. Much was made locally of her claim to The Star that she and Clinton had many torrid assignations during 1979 and 1980 at the Excelsior, Little Rock’s fanciest hotel. The Excelsior didn’t exist until November 1982.” In their subsequent book, The Hunting of the President, Lyons and Joe Conason sifted the carnage again, not forgetting to include the case of the imagined twin sister:

CONASON/LYONS (page 25): Musicians and club owners who had worked with Flowers described her as manipulative and dishonest. Her resume falsely proclaimed her a graduate of a fashionable Dallas prep school she’d never attended. It also listed a University of Arkansas nursing degree she’d never earned and membership in a sorority that had never heard of her. Her agent told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that contrary to her claims, Flowers had never opened for comedian Rich Little. A brief gig on the Hee Haw television program had come to a bad end, the agent would later confirm, when Flowers simply vanished for a couple of weeks with a man she’d met in a Las Vegas casino—and then concocted a tale about having been kidnapped. She had never been Miss Teenage America. Even her “twin sister Genevieve” turned out to be purely a figment of Flowers’ imagination.

In part due to Alter’s report, the press corps didn’t push Flowers’ claims real hard during the 1992 campaign. The reasons for doubting her claims—the reasons for doubting her credibility—were abundant and obvious.

But by 1998, things had changed. By now, the press corps had reached an Official Group Judgment about the deeply vile President Clinton, a judgment they would extend to Candidate Gore one year later. And they were eager to help you share their Official Inane Group Appraisal. Result? Gennifer Flowers was rehabilitated! For the next several years, she was dragged onto various cable shows, asked to share her insightful views about both deeply vile Clintons. For the record, this lady’s lack of taste and judgment were quite clear by this time. Example: In this passage from her clownish book, Passion and Betrayal, Flowers describes the very first time she set eyes on Hillary Clinton:

FLOWERS (1995): I was shocked. She looked like a big fat frump with her hair hanging down kind of curly and wavy. She had big, thick glasses; an ugly dress; and a big, fat butt.

But then, the book was festooned with garbage. And uh-oh! Despite her claim of a twelve-year affair, Flowers absent-mindedly forgot to name a single time and place when she and Bill Clinton were alone together. But so what? In 1998, Flowers was being pimped by the press, far and wide, as a highly reliable witness. We now know she was telling the truth, a string of consummate rube-runners said. Frankly, the most comical effort was turned in by a New York Times columnist:

RICH (3/21/98): We now know that the Clintons also got away with exceedingly disingenuous image-mongering in their famous '92 appearance on [60 Minutes], during which the soon-to-be President responded to a question about a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers by saying "That allegation is false." This year, in a sworn deposition, Mr. Clinton conceded having an affair with her, disputing only its duration.

Truly, that paragraph is a landmark. As Rich wrote those clownish words, Clinton had confessed to one romantic interaction with Flowers—not including intercourse, he later said, through an aide. By way of contrast, Flowers was still insisting she’d had a torrid twelve-year affair, with a whole lot of weeping and rutting. To humans, that would seem like a conflict—but Rich was part of the press corps brigade intent on selling its Group Appraisal. Result? In a deeply clownish effort, Rich told readers that Clinton and Flowers now agreed on the claim about an “affair.” Indeed, Clinton was “disputing only its duration,” the world’s biggest harlequin said. (That was true, of course. Clinton had pegged the “duration” at about fifteen minutes—Flowers at twelve years.) And since you asked, the answer is no—no, you can’t get dumber than that. But so it went as the mainstream “press corps” rehabilitated Flowers, pretending they now understood she’d been telling the truth all along.

How moronic—how evil—would this misconduct get? In August 1999, Flowers would be invited onto two cable “news” shows to discuss the Clintons’ string of murders. Chris Matthews gave her half the show to rattle off her ludicrous claims—telling her what a knock-out she was. (“You're a very beautiful woman,” the primal idiot said. “It's an objective statement, Gennifer. I'm not flirting.” He’s now paid $5 million per year.) Never ones to be outdone, Hannity and Colmes responded by awarding her their full hour, with the show rerun on the weekend. She rewarded them by explaining what a big giant lesbo the first lady was. But then, she had made the same point in her book.

By August 1999, of course, the people who sold you Gennifer Flowers were selling you endless tall tales about Gore. These are the people who sell you your world. But why do we liberals keep buying?

Why (some) liberals keep buying: Why do liberals keep getting conned, in a wide array of ways? We’ll recommend a short, striking news report from this morning’s Post. (As written, the report can’t be found on-line. For the Post’s blog report, just click here.) Do you believe that Barnes & Noble created that insulting display about Obama? It seems that many liberals do—though the NAACP does not. But then, The Huffington Post bought that sh*t about John Gibson last week.

As she closes, Krissah Thompson is kind to these Obama supporters. She says they’re “wary”—and “on high alert,” and we think that’s all quite fair. But she neglects to say something else—that they may be a tiny bit gullible. By the way: Hacks like Rich will run such rubes for all the days of their lives.

Today, The Kewl Kidz aren’t selling you tales about Dems. Today, they’re selling you tales about Reps—but they continue to type preferred narratives. Our story continues tomorrow. But tell us: Do you believe this pleasing tale? On Sunday, Rich explained why the GOP has put vile Jindal forward:

RICH (3/1/09): If you’re baffled why the G.O.P. would thrust Jindal into prime time, the answer is desperation. Eager to update its image without changing its antediluvian (or antebellum) substance, the party is trying to lock down its white country-club blowhards. The only other nonwhite face on tap, alas, is the unguided missile Michael Steele, its new national chairman. Steele has of late been busy promising to revive his party with an “off-the-hook” hip-hop PR campaign, presumably with the perennially tan House leader John Boehner leading the posse.

Perennially tan! Nice snark! Unless you remember the stupid snark this big nut sold you through 2006, when he was still insisting that Gore was just no goddam good. Even when Gore’s “high school” movie came out, this big dope just kept snarking—against it!

But how about it? Do you believe the thrust of that tale about Jindal’s ascension to prominence? Rich will always tell you the story which stresses bad GOP faith about race. Our question: Since he conned you so bad about Clinton and Gore, should you really believe him now? By the way: Are you sure he won’t turn against you again, if his herd turns on big-spending Obama?

Jindal made a very weak speech—a speech which offered some teachable moments. But Rich is constantly selling you cant from his store of Preferred Press Corps Narratives. Tomorrow, we’ll recall how Jindal attained prominence, at age 24. And we’ll ask a troubling question: Might this story say something good about a few southern Republicans?