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Caveat lector

IT IS AS IT WAS! A bungled “quote” from a troubling hopeful returns us to Campaign 2000:


IT IS AS IT WAS: It’s all quite familiar. A “controversy” based on an off-handed quote—a “quote” which turns out to be inaccurate. We refer, of course, to the hot pseudo-flap over Kerry’s remark about “foreign leaders”—in which, of course, as it now turns out, Kerry didn’t say “foreign leaders” at all! On Monday night, the Boston Globe’s Patrick Healy acknowledged that he’d made a mistake in transcribing Kerry’s comment (Healy was the only scribe present when Kerry spoke at a Florida fund-raiser). What did Kerry actually say? Here’s the current state-of-the-art transcript. Kerry followed on remarks by his Florida finance chairman, Milton Ferrell:

FERRELL: This is more than just the 50 states. You travel around outside the states, the people are still [inaudible] Europeans and elsewhere, they're counting on the American people. They hate Bush, but they know we're going to get rid of him. They're counting on us. [inaudible] It's a lot more than just [inaudible]

KERRY: I've been hearing it, I'll tell ya. The news, the coverage in other countries, the news in other places. I've met more leaders who can't go out and say it all publicly, but boy they look at you and say, you gotta win this, you gotta beat this guy, we need a new policy, things like that. So there is enormous energy out there. Tell them, whereever they can find an American abroad, they can contribute

As you can see, much of what Ferrell said was “inaudible,” making it somewhat hard to parse Kerry’s remark. And of course, everyone knows that the gist of Kerry’s remark is accurate, even in the original misquoted version; rightly or wrongly, many foreign leaders do oppose Bush’s re-election. On Monday night’s Special Report, even Morton Kondracke noted that this point is obvious, while trashing Kerry’s inexcusable insolence in daring to make his remark. For the record, Kondracke, like the rest of the press, was working off Healy’s misquotation.

So here we go again, dear readers! Campaign 2000 redux! In November 1999, Ceci Connolly and Katharine “Kit” Seelye “misquoted” Al Gore about Love Canal, creating an utterly bogus flap which badly damaged the Dem hopeful’s campaign. In September 2000, something somewhat similar occurred; the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson said that Gore had made bogus statements about the price of doggy pills. Needless to say, Robinson knew what such comments meant—Al Gore was a troubling liar. But wouldn’t you know it? Robinson didn’t have a transcript of what Gore had said, and no such transcript was ever produced. No matter! Robinson—and the rest of the “press corps”— ran with what they wished Gore had said, as they had done many times in the past. Coupled with a bogus flap about that old union lullaby, the deeply disturbing doggy-pill controversy turned Campaign 2000 around, at a time when Gore was pulling away from Bush. (As it turned out, Gore had used numbers from a year-old House study—numbers which many major Dems had used. We’ll guess that you have never read that. The “press” didn’t want you to know.)

In the current matter, at least Healy admitted his “quote” was mistaken. In 1999, the Post and the Times both battled hard to avoid correcting their Love Canal fraud. Laughably, the papers said they would stand by the “quote” because their scribes only had one word wrong! Of course, a jury foreman only has one word wrong if he says “Guilty” instead of “Not guilty;” in fact, the “misquotation” about Love Canal completely changed what Gore had said. Did Healy’s blunder shift Kerry’s meaning? Again, because of the haze surrounding Ferrell’s comments, it’s a bit hard to tell. (One last query: Can someone explain why our “journalists” can’t perform simple functions, like transcribing a short simple quote?)

But note one more thing about this flap; note how easily the RNC can still gin up a trivial scandal. After all, think—just think—of the many odd things John Kerry’s opponent has said! One small example: Bush has twice said that we invaded Iraq because Saddam kicked out the inspectors. Rumsfeld said the same thing just last Sunday. This bizarre claim is patently false, and involves a point of major substance. But your “press corps” glides over this puzzling claim the way toboggans move over snow. On the other hand, when the RNC pretends to fret, a major “scandal” is instantly born. Worried pundits ask if Kerry has engaged in a troubling falsehood.

American democracy is in deep trouble when its “press corps” is so inane and compliant. But your mainstream “press corps” is deeply inane. In 1999 and 2000, they proved it all election long. And now, as they fret about a new flap, your “press corps” is starting to go there again. Democracy simply cannot survive in the hands of such unfaithful stewards.

SPEAKING OF SOCIAL PROMOTIONS: In this morning’s New York Times, Michael Winerip discusses the political machinations behind Mayor Bloomberg’s recent decision on “social promotion.” Meanwhile, the Times editorial is so uncomprehending that we find ourselves forced to opine.

Generally speaking, the Times opposes Bloomberg’s decision “to stop social promotion.” We agree. But the rag’s plummy accent starts to show when it offers this unsourced assessment:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: The strict new promotion standard could cause as many as 15,000 children each year to repeat third grade—four times the number usually held back.
Here at the DAILY HOWLER, we don’t even know how many third-graders attend New York City’s schools. But trust us—if New York imposed a “strict promotion standard,” more than 15,000 third-graders would fail, and retention rates would more than quadruple. In the nation’s urban schools, vast percentages of children are far below traditional “grade level,” even by the end of third grade. But press and educational elites are pleasingly ignorant of this fact; this explains why plans to “outlaw special promotion” have been foolishly adopted, then abandoned, in one jurisdiction after another. Trust us: If New York imposed a “strict promotion standard,” a vast percentage of the student population would be (unwisely) held back.

The Times again expresses its cluelessness again a bit later. If you read this passage aloud, do so in your best plummy accent:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: Obviously, if a child is not working at grade level, teachers need to intervene.
Good God! In many New York City classrooms, no child is “working at grade level!” Teachers would somehow “need to intervene” with every single child in the class! Of course, the Times’ great eds don’t know about that. They’re too busy worrying about John Kerry’s hair to get inside real New York schoolrooms.

A vacuous fake like Their Mr. Brooks worries about John Kerry’s accent. But readers, if it’s “plummy accents” he wants to explore, perhaps he should check his own ed board, which ground out today’s high-toned piece.

BOOK LEARNIN’: Indeed, we even caught the superlative Michael Winerip missing a variant of this point last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/10/04). In his “On Education” column, Winerip wrote about urban schools whose libraries teem with outdated books. At New York’s Edward Williams Elementary—a school which serves a poor black population—Winerip found library books dating back to the 1930s. As he pulled books off the library’s dusty shelves, he noted the attendant absurdity:

WINERIP: Need a technology book? Try “The First Book of Television,” by Edward Stoddard (1955). “Most families in America today have television sets,” it begins. “Yet as short a time ago as 1945…” Telephones? “Let’s Find Out About Telephones” (1967). “When you phone you usually dial the number. But on some new phones you can push buttons.”
This library needs newer books, Winerip judged. But he failed to note a related point; even if you fill urban libraries with spanking new books, many of the students won’t be able to read them. This is also true of standard textbooks, which creates vast problems for teachers. Of course, it’s possible to produce textbooks and library books designed for children reading far below grade level. But urban systems like to pretend that student skill levels are better than you think. And editorial boards tend to lack the first clue. They are good on Botox, of course.

For ourselves, we spent twelve years teaching delightful children in Baltimore’s elementary schools, so we emitted mordant chuckles when we read the Times editorial. But the people who plumbed Mayor Bloomberg’s problem don’t know from urban ed. This morning, they typed high-minded prose; they’ll be warmly praised at their next cocktail gathering. Meanwhile, addled scribes at their great newspaper will continue to make a joke of your interests, writing about John Kerry’s big yacht and the funny scarves his wife wears. Democracy simply can’t exist in the hands of such an empty elite.

IT IS AS IT WAS, VOLUME II: None of this is any big secret. For example, we wrote on this topic in the Baltimore Sun on February 9, 1982—the year ET came out the first time. (“Look what they’ve done to you,” Elliot said, making us think of the kids we were teaching.) We had spent a year studying the Baltimore system’s prescribed textbooks, using standard measures of “readability” (formulas used to determine the “grade level” on which a given book is written). Could Baltimore kids really read prescribed textbooks? We’ll report, then you can decide. This passage concerned social studies:

SOMERBY (2/9/82): [I]n grade after grade, for topic after topic, [Baltimore city teaching] guides recommend textbooks that are clearly too difficult for most city students to work from—books that are completely inappropriate for children who may be several years below traditional grade level in reading.

In the first semester of fourth grade, for example, the two most commonly cited textbooks are Daniel Chu’s “A Glorious Age in Africa”—a textbook with a measured eighth-grade reading level—and Frederick King’s “The Social Studies and Our Country”—Laidlaw’s sixth-grade textbook.

Few fourth graders anywhere will be able to profit from textbooks as difficult as these. In an urban system like Baltimore’s, this selection is particularly surprising—and dooms any attempt to teach the social studies curriculum in a rigorous, systematic way.

On and on our findings went, leading to incomparable conclusions, like this one:
SOMERBY: The results of this situation are all too predictable. Baltimore teachers find it difficult—indeed, impossible—to find readable textbooks with which social studies and science can be taught to their numerous below-level readers. The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.
Scripted readers will instantly know which talking-points to mouth in reply. They will note how objectionable such views are, and will loudly assert that urban kids can do just as well as anyone else if they’re challenged by their teachers. Such declamations bring moist-eyed applause at the finest soirees—and doom urban kids to the “failure to thrive” that is so often lamented, but so rarely explained.

Meanwhile, school boards love to fudge these facts. They love to pretend that skill levels are higher than you think (it helps stem middle-class flight from our cities). And newspapers love to praise “schools that work”—always ignoring the endless evidence about the way such schools can gimmick up test scores. Meanwhile, the public is fed underwhelming editorials, like the one in this morning’s Times. Our deserving urban kids themselves? Let them eat our noble sentiments, boards cry. After all, your “press corps” has better things to discuss: Al Gore’s earth tones; Howard Dean’s scream; John Kerry’s troubling haircuts.

YOUR OFFICIAL JOKE: By the way, here’s your official “it is as it was” joke:

“It is as it was,” the Pope may have said. Any chance the Pope had seen Kill Bill, and was comparing The Passion to that?