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WHERE ARE STANDARDS (PART 1)? Are hopefuls judged by a single standard? When Russert battled Dean, we weren’t sure:

FRIDAY, JUNE 27, 2003

RUSSERT’S INDICTMENT: Let’s face it—when a White House hopeful does Meet the Press, we expect top-flight preparation. With so much at stake for the nation we love, a guy can’t show up on the program and start making careless blunders! But last Sunday, Howard Dean did Meet the Press, and the factual errors began almost instantly. In fact, in the very first Dean-Russert exchange, this unforced error occurred:

RUSSERT: You said that your son got in a scrap. He was arrested for driving a car in which some of his friends broke into a beer cooler and stole some beer—

DEAN: Right.

RUSSERT: —and was indicted. How are you—

DEAN: He hasn’t been indicted, but he—


DEAN: He’s been cited, right.

That’s right, people. Almost before Dean could open his mouth, Russert made an unforced error (at a teen-ager’s expense), telling the nation that Dean’s son had been “indicted” in a recent incident. It’s hard to know how such instant errors could occur in such an important session, but two things should be crystal clear. First: No pundit will ever say a word about Tim Russert’s unfortunate error. And second: Rightly or wrongly, a number of Dems have stopped believing that these “errors” are really mistakes.

But the pundit corps has a Standard Story whenever Dem hopefuls do Meet the Press. They say how brilliant Russert was—and they lament the Dem’s gruesome performance. Since Sunday, Dean has been battered for his performance. But there’s nothing new about this, of course. When Candidate Gore did Meet the Press on July 16, 2000, Russert made a string of errors—and Gore was hammered for a grisly outing. “Liberal” pundit Margaret Carlson raced to express the Standard Outlook. “Russert chopped [Gore] up in little pieces,” she colorfully said. “It looked like he was a candidate who was bolted together by the people at the robot factory.” But so it goes when your “liberal” pundits express their Conventional Wisdom.

In this morning’s New York Times, Jake Tapper says that Dean’s performance wasn’t as bad as portrayed. We agree with that general assessment. But Standard Pundits raced into print, eager to type Standard Stories. As always, Katharine Seelye was the most foolish. Here was part of her next-day assessment, offered as a “news report” in the New York Times:

SEELYE: Under questioning, [Dean] said he did not know how many American military personnel were on active duty around the world, guessing there were one million to two million. According to the Pentagon’s Web site, there were 1.4 million as of March.

Dr. Dean estimated that there were 135,000 American troops in Iraq and said there should be more. The actual number is 146,000.

Ah, the familiar Seelye trademarks! Dean “guessed” at the number of personnel, we’re told. Meanwhile, students of SeelyeThink can surely translate the passage she offered on Iraq. Dean said there were 135,000 troops in Iraq; the “actual number” is 146,000, Seelye said. And trust us: Readers are supposed to think that this shows that Dean doesn’t know his stuff. Dean said we need more troops—and he didn’t know that we already have them! Trust us—weird as it sounds, that was Seelye’s message. (Later in the interview, Dean suggested that we need over 200,000 troops in Iraq.)

Yes, the presidential race is picking up steam, and familiar presentations are appearing. Gore bombed on Meet the Press, we were told; now we learn that Dean bombed too. (Edwards bombed on the program last May.) As readers know, we always urge caution about “double standard” assertions; it’s the easiest claim of all to make, and the hardest claim of all to prove. It’s rare that two cases are perfectly comparable. But as the press corps starts to have its way with another White House race, we’ll at least suggest that Dems should ask if Double Standards aren’t sometimes lurking.

HE TOO DIDN’T KNOW: Dean has been widely battered for his “guess” about the size of the military. Troubled pundits have asked themselves if he’s ready to be a real candidate. As usual, Russert was willing to lecture the hopeful, helping Dean better comprehend his grave responsibilities:

DEAN: For me to have to know right now, participating in the Democratic Party, how many troops are actively on duty in the United States military when that is actually a number that’s composed both of people on duty today and people who are National Guard people who are on duty today, it’s silly. That’s like asking me who the ambassador to Rwanda is.

RUSSERT: Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. Not if you want to be commander in chief.

Russert continued his helpful instruction:
RUSSERT: If somebody wants to be president of the United States, have a sense of the military—

DEAN: I do have a sense of the military.

RUSSERT: —of how many people roughly—

DEAN: I know there are roughly between a million and two million people active duty. I know that we don’t have enough people in Iraq.

Russert will always lecture the hopefuls. Or will he? On November 21, 1999, Candidate Bush did Meet the Press, and it’s hard to avoid the sneaky feeling that he got a different ride. We’ll examine that in more detail next week, but let’s start with what these candidates said about knowledge of military affairs.

Should Dean know the answer to Russert’s question? The Dem offered this opinion:

DEAN: As someone who’s running in the Democratic Party primary, I know that it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two million people, but I don’t know the exact number, and I don’t think I need to know that to run in the Democratic Party primary…Tim, you have to understand, and I know you do understand, that as you run a campaign and as you acquire the nomination and as you go on to be president, you acquire military advisers who will tell you these things…
Soon, Russert was offering his helpful lecture. But no such lecture was heard in 1999, when Bush made that first Meet the Press appearance. And Candidate Bush—speaking sensibly, like Dean—said much the same thing Dean did:
RUSSERT: In your speech, you said that arms reductions are not our most pressing challenge. Right now, we have 7,200 nuclear weapons; the Russians have 6,000. What to you is an acceptable level?

BUSH: That’s going to depend upon generals helping me make that decision, Tim. That’s going to depend upon the people whose judgment I will rely upon to make sure that we have a peaceful world…

RUSSERT: What would START II bring us down to?

BUSH: I can’t remember the exact number. But I know that we’ve got to spend enough money to help them dismantle the weaponry down to the START I level. And then hopefully they’ll ratify START II, secondly …

RUSSERT: But in terms of priorities, if START II brings it down to 3,500, would you be willing to go down to 1,000 with START III?

BUSH: That depends upon my advisers and the people who know a heck of a lot more about the subject than I do.

Did Bush have an opinion about Prime Minister Putin, a possible successor to President Yeltsin? “I really don’t,” the hopeful said. “I will if I’m the president.” But Russert offered no lectures this day. Nor did he start the high-profile session “indicting” Bush’s daughters for something.

No, these Meet the Press sessions aren’t perfectly comparable. But many Dems no longer feel that Russert—or the press corps—play these things straight. By the way, one final question: Could President Bush have answered Tim’s question last Sunday? For ourselves, we wouldn’t bet the house. And guess what? It wouldn’t really matter.

The Daily update

IN PRAISE OF EXAGGERATION: As we’ve seen, one new Double Standard is comically plain—the new Double Standard on exaggeration (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/26/03). With Gore, alleged exaggeration was deeply disturbing; with Bush, it’s become A-OK. On Wednesday, the Washington Post became the latest news org to attribute “exaggeration” to the Bush Admin. And, as many others have done, they showed no great sign of concern:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL: [A] wide range of governments, agencies and individuals outside the Bush administration looked at the same or their own evidence about Iraq and drew the same fundamental conclusion—that Saddam Hussein was defying repeated U.N. disarmament orders. The Clinton administration, the governments of Britain, Germany and France, most of the senior U.N. weapons inspectors and most Democratic senators also were convinced that Iraq was hiding weapons and the means to produce them. While the Bush administration may have publicly exaggerated or distorted parts of its case, much of what it said reflected a broad international consensus. If it turns out that neither the weapons nor the programs existed, the failure will be not just that of the Bush administration but of most Western politicians and intelligence experts.
Huh! When Gore was said to have exaggerated about an old movie, it became a troubling, two-year cause celebre. Here, the Bush Admin “may have exaggerated” about going to war! But what’s the big deal, the Post seems to say. “Much” of what the Bush Admin said may not have been exaggerated.

Beyond that, this Post editorial is truly remarkable. “The debate in Washington over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the administration’s prewar intelligence about them is becoming more overheated and uninformed,” the paper begins. “The absence of facts hasn’t stopped critics of the war from rushing to the conclusion that no WMD exist, or that Mr. Bush and his top aides manufactured a case for war by strong-arming U.S. intelligence officials and distorting the evidence.” This passage is larded with foofaw. As we’ve noted, few critics have said “that no WMD exist,” but this straw-man is a favorite wherever Bush spin is now sold. But what is truly amazing is the Post’s assertion that there is an “absence of facts” and an “uninformed” debate about the question of distorted evidence. In fact, the Post has published many articles on the subject; those articles have been filled with facts. Walter Pincus has been a lead author. Can we make a helpful suggestion? Maybe the Post’s editors should put down their dog-eared copies of the Washington Times and start reading the great Post itself.

BONUS! WORLD’S GREATEST EXAGGERATIONS! Jack Kemp really bent it good on last night’s Hannity & Colmes. How bad was that University of Michigan admission procedure? Yes, this exchange did occur:

COLMES: I thought it was a great decision in that they threw out the undergraduate case where they were awarding points [for race], 20 points out of 150.

KEMP: One point for academic achievement and 20 points for race. I think that was ridiculous.

COLMES: It was good that they did that, but they did agree in a narrow definition of using race as one of a number of factors.

And yes, that is what Kemp really said. His statement was clear as a bell on the air, and it’s there in this morning’s Fox transcript.

As readers may recall, UM undergraduate admissions used a 150-point scale. The university awarded 20 points for race—and up to 110 points for academic achievement! Applicants could get 80 points for grade point average; 12 more points for their SATs; 10 points if they attended a rigorous high school; and 8 more points if they took advanced courses. As you’ll recall, many conservative pundits had great fun spinning that bogus “20/12” comparison (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/20/03). Last night, Kemp took the foolishness to a new level. That 110 points for academic achievement has now been shrunk to just one.

By the way, why do some libs think some cons are so stoopid? Suzanne Fields still can’t figure it out.