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Caveat lector

ALAN MURRAY SEES NO EVIL! Bush is in charge in Woodward’s book? Which book was Murray reading?

FRIDAY, APRIL 30, 2004

A PAIR OF DISORDERED ELITES: We agree with one of our readers—because he agrees with us. He wrote us about yesterday’s HOWLER, in which we warned of the mortal danger created by our press elite.

E-MAIL: I never forward e-mails, articles, etc. on to my relatives…After reading today's Howler (April 29, 2004), I changed my mind. I have often read your column and have appreciated your insight into our national media and get a laugh out of your observations regarding those “Millionaire Pundit Values.” I never really considered the consequences until today’s column sucker punched me in the stomach and, quite literally, sent shivers down my spine.
Our reader did forward yesterday’s HOWLER to his relatives, he incomparably said. But is it true? Will Osama’s men come with a bomb and destroy an American city? They’re hoping to do so—but our national “press corps” won’t stop writing about peanut butter sandwiches. The day that bomb goes off in this country, will Maureen Dowd have a column on that?

Yes, we have a disordered press elite. But our political elite is disordered too. This is off our usual beat, but since no one else will tell you to do so, we strongly suggest that you read Dana Priest’s front-page report from Tuesday’s Post. According to Priest, even after 9/11, you couldn’t get the House or the Senate to pay attention to intelligence matters. How many senators actually read that October 2002 NIE on Iraq? Hint: You can count the number on your two hands. Americans should be deeply troubled.

Why won’t senators do their job? Jay Rockefeller’s embarrassing explanations forced us to avert our gaze. Americans should be deeply frightened. Your political elite refuses to work. Your press elite loves peanut butter.

ALAN MURRAY SEES NO EVIL: We’ve promised you Dick-and-Jane tales from Woodward’s book, and don’t worry, Woodward provides them. On pages 255-56, for example, he pens a strange but uplifting tale as we see George rise above politics. Later, the author struggles amazingly hard to help us see Colin be honest. Often, his book seems written for seven-year-olds. In the following passage, Woodward records some deathless advice Bush supposedly got on Iraq:

WOODWARD (pages 251-252): Other than Rice, Bush said he didn’t need to ask the principals whether they thought he should go to war. He knew what Cheney thought, and he decided not to ask Powell or Rumsfeld…

One person not around [in early 2003] was Karen Hughes, one of his top advisers and longtime communications director. Hughes, who had resigned the previous summer to return to Texas, probably knew how Bush thought and talked as much as anyone. “I asked Karen,” the president recalled. “She said if you go to war, exhaust all possibilities to achieve regime change peacefully. And she was right. She actually captured my own sentiments.”

That’s the end of chapter 23. It would make a sterling passage—in a third-grade biography of Bush. But can this passage possibly reflect the type of counsel that guided Bush as he moved toward war with Iraq? Sorry—we find that hard to believe. This passage reads like something else—like a dumbed-down, crafted White House version of The Advice Our Wise Leader Was Given. Did Hughes really capture Bush’s “own sentiments” in these remarks—or did she capture Karl Rove’s PR strategy? Because we assume that Bush conducted some sort of adult discussion, we assume the latter is more likely true. But Woodward puts this passage right in his book, and pretends that he thinks it did happen.

We may get to those more significant Dick-and-Jane tales next week. But today, we ask you to consider the way the press is reading this puzzling book. In particular, we direct you to Allan Murray’s remarkable piece in this Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal—a column which shows the Deliberate Group Blindness informing reviews of this book.

Murray starts with a simple question: “So why is the White House giving [Plan of Attack] such a warm embrace?” After all, Murray notes, Rush Limbaugh has called the book “an anti-Bush screed,” and Bill Press has said that Kerry will “win by a landslide” if it is widely read. Why, then, has the White House expressed satisfaction with Woodward’s text? Murray finally gives his answer—the book makes Bush’s aides look bad, but it makes Bush look like that Strong Leader:

MURRAY: If there is any bias in the Woodward book, it is the standard tendency of Washington journalism to lean toward their best sources. In this case, Woodward’s best source was the U.S. president. All else aside, the book depicts the president as strong and in charge of his own administration. Those around him appear in less flattering light.
Murray notes the way other figures get dissed. “Secretary of State Colin Powell is Hamlet on the Potomac,” he says. “Vice President Cheney has ‘the fever’ for war and refers to Mr. Bush as ‘the Man.’” With regrets, one must ask the obvious question: Has Murray even read Woodward’s book?

In fact, Murray’s account is hard to square with what occurs in this book. Does Plan of Attack “depict the president as strong and in charge of his own administration?” As we have noted, the book shows something hugely different in the summer and fall of 2002, as the White House moves toward war. In August 2002, Cheney proposes a major address about Iraq—and if you believe Woodward’s book (we don’t), Bush doesn’t bother asking Cheney what he plans to say in it! And what did Cheney plan to say? “Trouble is what Cheney had in mind,” Woodward says. In Woodward’s account, Cheney gives a speech in which he “issued his own National Intelligence Estimate of Saddam,” an assessment of Saddam’s WMD that went beyond anything the CIA had said. Cheney also said that these WMD were “as great a threat as can be imagined.” According to Woodward, “Powell was astonished” by this, and rightly so, because “[t]hese remarks, just short of a declaration of war, were widely viewed as administration policy.” Remember—Woodward says that Bush didn’t even know what Cheney was going to say in this speech. Two weeks later, Woodward shows Bush following Cheney’s lead—now Bush starts overstating the intelligence, just the way Cheney has done.

If you believe this account (and again, we find it hard to do so), a virtual coup has now occurred. The vice president, not the president, has gone out, given a major speech, and recast U.S. war policy. According to Woodward, three more months go by that fall before Bush gets briefed about WMD. Cheney, not Bush, has revamped U.S policy. Again: “Powell was astonished,” the book says.

But don’t bother waking up Alan Murray as he limns Plan of Attack. Like every other establishment pundit, Murray chooses to ignore this “astonishing” episode as he describes Woodward’s book. Plan of Attack “depicts the president as strong and in charge of his own administration,” he politely agrees to say. Cheney “refers to Mr. Bush as ‘the Man,’” Murray says—when he wasn’t taking over the United States government, we’d guess.

Again, we find Woodward’s account very hard to believe; we find this story absurdly implausible. But if it actually did occur, it’s a major scandal. So why does the White House promote Woodward’s book? Easy—it has taken the measure of pundits like Murray! The White House knows what you know now: Every pundit, Woodward included, will agree to ignore what this book really says. How fake, how phony is American news? First, read Woodward’s Plan of Attack. Then, read Tuesday’s Journal.

WOODWARD’S SUMMATION: Here’s how Woodward summarizes this episode in his epilogue:

WOODWARD (page 442): [G]iven her closeness and status with Bush, if anyone could have warned the president to moderate his own categorical statements about WMD, it was Rice.

But Cheney had effectively preempted that issue on August 26, 2002, when he declared that there was “no doubt” Iraq had WMD. And the president had soon followed with his own assessment of certainty even before the CIA’s October NIE was issued.

If true, that is an astonishing story. Murray—a good boy—ignores the tale. Woodward says that Bush was in charge, he knows he has to pretend.

SHOULD-HAVE-SEEN TV: Last night, Frontline went where most pundits won’t with a show about Bush’s religion. Why is Bush’s religion an issue? In recent weeks, the president has made a number of statements about spreading freedom around the world. These statements seem to contradict the “humble foreign policy” on which he ran. And the statements have seemed to contain a religious dimension—a dimension which has rarely been explored by the nation’s press. Americans need to understand the basis of the president’s thinking. But then, how many of our timorous pundits will dare to raise such naughty questions? After all, Murray won’t even acknowledge the contents of Woodward’s book; does anyone think that such good boys will dare ask Bush about his new views? It’s much more fun to go back thirty years in time and lament John Kerry’s troubling comments. Your half-witted pundits know their scripts. Let them eat peanut butter, they have said.

TIMES GETS TOOK: How inept (or corrupt) is the New York Times? Yesterday, the paper published an inexcusable letter about Kerry—a letter which played Times readers for fools (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/29/04). The letter said that Kerry had “only fingernail scrapes to show for his three Purple Hearts,” a statement which is blatantly false. Plainly, this letter should never have been published.

Yes, this bogus letter should have been deep-sixed. The “facts” it proclaimed were blatantly false, as any editor should have known. But how big a mark is the New York Times? Yesterday, a reader wrote us about Cook Barela of Riverside, California, the man who wrote this bogus letter. No, he isn’t just the “consummate rube” we incomparably took him to be:

E-MAIL: Cook Barela—it’s even worse. He’s a Republican hack who ran for Congress from Riverside. It smelled like a bullshit letter so I googled him. Took me all of 3 seconds to find, but that was apparently too difficult for the NYT.
To see Barela listed as a candidate, click here. Ironically, the gentleman is a “retired police chaplain”—just the type to be sending nasty, bogus facts to be published in the hapless New York Times.

Now, let’s clarify something our e-mailer says. Former candidates should of course be free to have their letters published. This letter should have been dumped because its “facts” were fake, not because of who sent it. But Barela played the Times for fools, and the Times got took real good.

For the record, Barela sports a colorful recent history. In 2003, a school district in southern California threatened legal action against him for maintaining a “look-alike” Web site. According to the Riverside Press Enterprise, the district “also accuse[d] Barela of trying to force the district to buy the Web site.” But by that time, such disputes were old hat for the New York Times’ newest war correspondent. Three years earlier, a local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter threatened to sue him over a similar matter, eventually paying Barela an undisclosed fee to relinquish a look-alike site. Also in 2003, a local school board member resigned his post, complaining of harassment by a Barela-led group. “A group like this is just evil,” the board member told a local newspaper. Why was Barela upset with the board? According to the paper, Barela had “launched a loosely organized campaign against the board after the panel’s vote to name Glen Avon High School.” (Barela said they should have allowed more time for public comment.) Most intriguingly, Barela organized a petition drive in 2000 against Virginia senator Chuck Robb, who was running for re-election (he lost). Barela served under Robb in Vietnam; the petition claimed that Robb was lying about two wartime incidents, although Barela acknowledged that he hadn’t been present to witness either event. Barela’s way with the facts was already clear; according to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, “[a]nother of Robb’s oft-told war stories…is mischaracterized in the petition’s text.” But so what? According to the Norfolk paper, Barela “readily admits that he ‘has no respect for Robb, as a captain and as a U.S. senator.’”

None of this would make any difference if Barela had sent the Times an accurate letter. Sadly, he sent a baldly inaccurate letter—but the Times ran to publish it anyway, trashing Kerry and exposing readers to more of the ugly disinformation which is fouling this White House campaign. Our crackpots are now spreading tales about Kerry, just as they did for two years about Gore. Question: How in the world did the New York Times fail to see that the “facts” here were false?

From the annals of toughened school standards

DUMBING DOWN OUR NEWSPAPERS: As we’ve told you, our major papers never tire of fairy tales about urban schools. The Post published such a column on Tuesday. Headline: “Dumbing Down Our Schools.” The piece was written by Ruth Mitchell, an educational consultant.

As such consultants often do, Mitchell shocks us with the things she has seen in the nation’s classrooms:

MITCHELL: I’m not alone in trying to focus attention on the low level of teaching. A West Coast group called DataWorks has been analyzing the work given to students since the late 1990s. In one California elementary school, DataWorks found that 2 percent of the work in the fifth grade was on grade. That’s not a misprint: 98 percent of the work that students were doing was at the level of the fourth, third, second and even first grades. In South Carolina, DataWorks looked at work assigned in 14 high schools and found that most of the 12th-grade work was just below 10th grade level.
Where are these atrocities occurring? Mitchell seems to be citing schools which serve minority kids. “Students in the schools we visit are not turned on,” she laments. “Black, brown, speaking broken or accented English, with cultural values clashing with those of the white middle class, they are seen as needing elementary instruction in secondary school.” But why would someone “see” them this way? Since the 60s, the answer has been traditional: racism. Mitchell suggests another reason, even as she rejects it:
MITCHELL: Teachers say they have to teach the students where they are, which means at sixth-grade level in high school if they can’t read well. Their attitude may be compassionate, but it is misguided. There’s ample evidence that accelerating instruction works better than retarding it in the name of remediation. Observations made in the Dallas Unified School District show that students who score well have teachers who cover the curriculum appropriate to the grade level.
Kids should be taught on grade level, she says, insisting that we should reject “the teaching profession’s excuses.” This feel-good prescription always plays well—in the nation’s newspapers, if not in its classrooms.

Mitchell’s column takes us back to an earlier discussion. How should schools deal with kids whose reading skills are years below traditional grade level? Let’s state the obvious: If a high school student is reading on sixth-grade level—the example Mitchell cites in her column—you simply can’t hand him a standard twelfth-grade book! Duh—he won’t be able to understand it! (That, dear readers, is what it means when we say he’s reading “on sixth-grade level!”) Unless you’re writing fairy tales, you really can’t wave a magic wand and make these students perform a task for which they’re completely unprepared. That’s why we don’t ask average twelfth-grade kids to do the work of MIT grad students.

How should such students be instructed? The answer has been clear for decades, but major newspapers—and educational consultants—insist on muddying waters. Suppose a tenth-grader reads on fifth-grade level; what should be do in a history class? To the extent possible, he should be asked to study tenth-grade material—but his textbooks should be written at a level he can read and understand. Yes—you can produce a tenth-grade text written at fifth-grade reading level. It’s called “high-content, low-readability.” The concept was already dog-eared when we started teaching Baltimore fifth-graders in 1969.

Of course, such books are hard to find. Textbook companies don’t like to publish them, because urban systems don’t like to buy them. Urban systems like to pretend that their students are doing better than they are. And consultants like to wander about talking up magic solutions.

What really happens in urban schools when kids are far below grade level? Teachers know the kids can’t read standard texts—so they often don’t give them a textbook at all! The “failure to thrive” proceeds from there, as the educationally poor get poorer.

Mitchell’s ideas sound really great—unless you’re actually in a classroom. Or unless you have a magic wand, which consultants use to help them zip in and out of our troubled urban schools.

POSTSCRIPT: In that California fifth grade, why was 98 percent of the work being done at third or fourth grade level? We weren’t there, but we can guess. Frequently, no one in an urban fifth grade is working at traditional grade level! Every urban teacher knows this. Consultants, though, are suitably shocked, and so are the nation’s concerned editors.