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Daily Howler: John McCain made another mistake. But then, he always has
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MCCAIN’S ENDLESS ERRORS! John McCain made another mistake. But then, he always has: // link // print // previous // next //

MCCAIN’S ENDLESS ERRORS: In today’s Times, Elisabeth Bumiller writes this report about the Petraeus/Crocker hearings. Before we note the peculiar way she softens her report of McCain’s latest error, let’s examine her piece just as a matter of style.

We’ve had few complaints about Bumiller’s work since the Times ended her weekly “Washington Letter,” presented throughout Campaign 04. (The series was egregiously Bush-friendly. There was no Kerry-friendly counterpart.) But in today’s report, Bumiller crams her own peculiar frameworks onto yesterday’s events. For example, note the various puzzling ways she spices this exchange:

BUMILLER (4/9/08): ''What conditions would have to exist for you to recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working?'' Mrs. Clinton asked General Petraeus, with only a slight edge of exasperation in her voice. The conditions, she added, ''are unclear, they lack specificity.''

General Petraeus, who at that point was more than three hours into the hearing, responded that ''there has indeed been progress in the political arena,'' and then said, in an elaborate answer that might not have satisfied Mrs. Clinton, ''there's even sort of a political-military calculus that you have to consider, again, in establishing where the conditions are met to make further reductions.''

Splendid enjoyment! Petraeus’ answer “might not have satisfied Mrs. Clinton,” she wrote—thereby leaving open the possibility that it actually had! And of course, Bumiller’s ear is so finely-tuned, she can distinguish “a slight edge of exasperation” from a regular, full-blown such edge. Meanwhile, does anyone know why it matters that the hearing was three hours old when the exchange in question occurred? We’d have to say that this irrelevant fact tilts this passage against Clinton, in favor of Petraeus. But since the fact is completely irrelevant without further explanation, why did the Times put it in?

But then, such frameworks litter this piece. Sitting in the bagel joint, we especially wondered at this one:

BUMILLER: Mrs. Clinton never raised her voice or showed the passion she did at General Petraeus's last Washington hearing, in September, when she told him that his Iraq report required ''the willing suspension of disbelief.'' The remark has since been hurled at her by her opponents.

Really? Had Clinton “showed passion” at September’s hearing, when she made that quoted remark? The claim helps create a nice framework here, with a slight suggestion that Clinton has toned herself down in response to all that hurling. But uh-oh! As it turns out, Bumiller reported Clinton’s comment back in September—and she didn’t describe any passion. Back then, Bumiller reported that Obama asked one question “angrily.” But in her only description of Clinton’s affect, the solon spoke to Petraeus and Crocker “in an even, sad tone.”

In today’s piece, Bumiller’s frameworks fill the air, tilting almost all her accounts of what happened. (For another example, note the silly framework she builds around Clinton’s personal greeting for Petraeus.) But one of her frameworks was especially striking. At the end of her piece, Bumiller reports McCain’s latest error about Sunni and Shia. Question: Why did she offer this strange framework before she described his mistake?

BUMILLER: Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain did not appear to make any major mistakes in the hearing, although Mr. McCain did seem to get momentarily tangled over Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia...

Bumiller goes on to give a full and fair account of McCain’s error in yesterday’s hearing—and of his blunders last month on the same topic. But why in the world did she preface this passage with that odd, highlighted framework? Clinton and McCain didn’t make any major mistakes? Why is Obama omitted here? And why is Clinton dragged in here at all? It’s hard to avoid an obvious thought: Bumiller wanted to downplay McCain’s mistake, and she wasn’t comfortable starting like this: “McCain didn’t seem to make any major mistakes in the hearing, but he did seem to get momentarily tangled over Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia...”

In Bumiller’s report, there is no indication that Clinton made any “mistakes,” of any kind, in yesterday’s hearing. So what is she doing in this framework, as Bumiller adds a “softening agent” to McCain’s latest gaffe?
By the way: Groaning error is nothing new when this famous straight-talker heads out on the trail. During Campaign 2000, McCain made an endless string of policy errors—errors which his pals on the bus tended to gaze away from. You name it, the hopeful seemed to bungle it: Tax cuts, prescription drug prices, health care, school voucher plans. But reporters tended to downplay his blunders, focusing instead on his highly authentic straight-shooting maverick straight-talk. He seemed to be comfortable in his own skin as he authored his string of mistakes.

When McCain made his foolish remarks in that Baghdad market last year, we ran through some of these previous episodes. As McCain keeps bungling Sunni and Shia, some have asked if he’s showing his age. But McCain has always bungled big-time. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/4/07, for a run-down from earlier days.

We asked a question in last year’s post, as we did during Campaign 2000: When a senate veteran knows so little about a string of policy matters, is it possible that his serial ignorance betrays some sort of a character problem?

Not in the modern press corps, it doesn’t. In the modern press corps, knowing your stuff means that (Warning: Script ahead!) you’re like the kid in the fifth grade class who asks the teacher for extra homework. Meanwhile, just for the record: In the eyes of many in the press, neither Clinton nor McCain appeared to make a major mistake in that Baghdad market last year.

MARSHALL & COLMES: We had planned to build a humorous post around our concern about Josh Marshall’s kid-napping. But we give up! Josh’s persistent attempts to persuade the rubes that no one has misstated what John McCain said has reached a point that takes us well beyond humor.

Sorry, but no:

McCain didn’t say that he wanted a hundred-year war. He expressly said something different.


If you claim that he said he wanted a hundred-year war, you’re misstating what he said.

Beyond that:

You may believe it’s absurd to think that Iraq could be like Japan or Germany. Have at it! But let’s be honest: Because that’s a fairly dry point, Obama and Clinton both went out and misstated what McCain really said.

There are times, when you run a web site, when you’re stunned to discover the following fact: Readers have agreed with you down through the years only because they enjoy your conclusions. They’ll yelp and howl about the vile ways the words of the shirts have been misstated. But when someone misstated the words of a skin, they’ll invent endless ways to support that.

Regarding Josh: We were initially struck by the sheer condescension in yesterday’s TPMtv piece. Josh keeps it up today with this praise for Rick Hertzberg’s rather worthless New Yorker account. (For Hertzberg’s piece, click here.) We’ve read Josh’s work from Campaign 2000, and it’s exceptionally detailed and smart. Sorry, but no—we don’t believe he’s sincere today. We think he’s out there running the rubes. No doubt, he only has the finest motives for offering these rube-running posts.

This is wonderfully foolish too. Splendid rube-running!

But then, liberal rube-running has become rather common. Have you watched Olbermann lately?

TO THE WORDS-IN-THEMSELVES: Once again, here’s Frank Rich, quoting two of the statements in question. We post this again for a reason:

RICH (4/6/08): Really, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton should be ashamed of themselves for libeling John McCain. As a growing chorus reiterates, their refrains that Mr. McCain is ''willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq'' (as Mr. Obama said) or ''willing to keep this war going for 100 years'' are flat-out wrong.

We’ll skip the part about shame and libel—but there you see two of the criticized comments. And Rich is right about those remarks: They plainly aren’t what McCain said.

What did we notice, when we watched Josh on yesterday’s TPMtv report? The gentleman spends almost five minutes defending the criticized remarks. But he never repeats the remarks he’s defending! Readers, when you see work like that, you know two things: First, you’re being viewed as a rube—and second, you’re being run.

This is how Hannity treats his viewers! Down through the years, the shirts have always lustily cheered when we’ve mentioned that.

AN INTERPRETIVE PRINCIPLE: Once again, here’s the basic Q-and-A in question. You may think McCain is dreaming of something that just cannot be. But he plainly didn’t say that he wanted a hundred-year war. When he spoke about that hundred years, he was expressly describing a peacetime situation:

QUESTION (1/3/08): President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years—

MCCAIN: Maybe a hundred. We've been in South Korea. We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That'd be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. Then it's fine with me.

You may think McCain is dreaming here. But he plainly didn’t say that he was “willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq.”

But then, Hertzberg is hardly an interpretive giant. As a matter of fact, he’s an occasional Hardball guy—the kind of well-connected camp follower who kept his big trap tightly shut while his gruesome colleagues trashed Candidate Gore during Campaign 2000. (New Yorker readers weren’t asked to confront what Hertzberg’s sick colleagues were doing.) In the piece to which Josh links, the pitiful giant draws this conclusion from McCain’s fuller exchange (which he offers): “McCain wants to stay in Iraq until no more Americans are getting killed, no matter how long it takes.” Is that accurate? Is that fair? Even if so, such statements are quite different from hyped-up claims that McCain said he’s ''willing to keep this war going for 100 years.'' But as we look at Hertzberg’s unimpressive piece, we once again offer you a basic interpretive principle:

How do you interpret the things people say—especially the things they say extemporaneously, in short exchanges? You don’t do what Hertzberg does in his piece; you don’t pore over some limited text, trying to torture out its “meaning.” If you’re a major journalist, here’s what you do: You sit your #ss down on the Straight Talk Express and you ask McCain what he meant. (Remember: You’ll be allowed to talk and talk until you run out of questions.)You ask him how long he is willing to fight; you ask him what could possibly lead him to quit. He isn’t likely to give you specific answers. But it’s better than doing what Hertzberg does here. It’s better than sitting on your giant keister, mind-reading what someone “wants.”

That was done to a candidate in Campaign 2000, and Hertzberg played the know-nothing tool at the time, keeping his trap shut for two solid years about what his colleagues were doing. Today, though, he’s playing on behalf of the shirts. And Josh—who also kept quiet, and has continued to do so—is eagerly cheering him on.

So it goes as elites dole out hay to the herd. You gulped their hay during Campaign 2K. Result? They retained their spots in the order. You ended up in Iraq.