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Daily Howler: Kopp told Rose some pleasing tales. But were the pleasing tales accurate?
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TELL ME A STORY! Kopp told Rose some pleasing tales. But were the pleasing tales accurate? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JULY 11, 2008

THE REAGAN RULES CONQUER THE TIMES: Those “Reagan Rules” are amazingly potent. Consider the gruesome report in today’s New York Times, written by fearful Larry Rohter.

Quick review: On Monday, during a town hall meeting, John McCain made an astounding presentation regarding Social Security (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/8/08). He uttered howler after howler, misinforming a roomful of voters about the way the system works—and about its future prospects. Most strikingly, he suggested the day was coming when there would be “no money left” in the system. This came in response to a question from an investment professional who endorsed the belief that Social Security “will not be there” when her cohort retires.

McCain’s presentation was massively bungled. Three days later, the Washington Post finally stirred itself to comment; in the process, it quoted McCain suggesting, two or three times, that current workers are “pay[ing] into a system that they won't receive benefits from” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/10/08). Given the long-term projections of the SS trustees, such statements come straight from a fever swamp—but the Post betrayed no sign of knowing. But then, you know the terms of those “Reagan Rules!” Republicans can say any damn thing they want about budget issues. (If we lower tax rates, we receive extra revenue!) Big news orgs—and liberal elites—politely agree not to notice.

Today, on Day Four, the Times reacts. And Rohter’s piece is an instant classic.

How powerful are those “Reagan Rules?” Rohter’s piece is twenty paragraphs long. But before he spends his last eight grafs skimming over the things McCain said, he devotes his first twelve grafs to something Obama recently said. Yes, that’s right—the Times wouldn’t discuss McCain’s wild statements without first spending much more time discussing something a Democrat said. In this case, though, the Democrat’s statement isn’t remotely comparable to McCain’s wild howlers. As early as paragraph 5, Rohter makes it clear; Obama didn’t say something crazy. His statement (about bilingualism) was “misrepresent[ed],” by conservative groups, Rohter plainly says.

This shows us the power of those famous old “rules.” McCain said a bunch of crazy things. But before the Times would discuss this fact, it decided to spend a chunk of time discussing something Obama said—something that wasn’t crazy. Yes: If you read this report with care, you will see that McCain’s remarks were problematic—and that Obama’s were not. But the optics of this piece are clear. “McCain and Obama Speak Off the Cuff, And Issues Arise,” the headline says. One spoke crazily—the other didn’t. But Rohter smoothes this distinction quite well in this strange report.

By the way: Once Rohter finally gets to McCain, his report is vastly bowdlerized. You don’t learn about the craziest things the candidate said—his repeated suggestion that Social Security will soon be going “bankrupt.” Again and again, McCain said and suggested that people paying into the system “won’t receive benefits from” it. (There will be “no money left!”) In a word, such claims are nutty—insane. Therefore, Rohter knew he must skip past them. Or maybe his editor said.

The pattern here is really quite clear. Here’s how the Reagan Rules operate:

On Monday, McCain made his first batch of crazy remarks. The Post and the Times ignored them.

On Wednesday, a career liberal leader, Reed Hundt, penned a tiny, weak reaction. Politely, he skipped the craziest thing McCain said—the suggestion that SS would be “bankrupt” by the time current workers retire.

Hundt’s reaction was so weak that the Washington Post agreed to pursue it. As they interviewed McCain, he uttered new howlers—wild statements the Post just ignored.

Finally, the Times got into the act. The paper buried McCain’s bizarre statements behind a blizzard about Obama. And it ignored his wilder statements—the wilder statements he voiced on Monday, the wild statements he made to the Post.

The Reagan Rules are very powerful. The polite career world has long accepted them. This week, McCain said and implied, again and again, that SS won’t be there for current workers. This claim is straight from a fever swamp. But Hundt and the press corps know the rules. The rules say they mustn’t care.

CALUMNY WATCH: We were saddened by Danielle Allen’s op-ed in Thursday’s Washington Post. Let’s be fair—the professor is well-intentioned. But good God! Here’s her view of the role played by calumny in recent White House elections. She’s still boo-hooing about poor McCain—and someone else seems to be missing:

ALLEN (7/10/08): How important is calumny today? In 2000, calumny effectively led to John McCain's defeat in South Carolina. That smear campaign against him used robo-calls and fliers, and e-mail also played an important role, as the New York Times reported in February 2000. Arguably, calumny defeated John Kerry in 2004, and the infamous Swift boat television ads of that summer were, importantly, preceded by an aggressive Internet campaign begun that January that included perhaps the first viral campaign e-mail: a computer-generated image of Kerry and Jane Fonda beside each other on a podium at an antiwar rally. The image originally emerged at the Web site, and Fonda had not in fact been at the event. But the damage was done. Today we are seeing viral anti-Obama e-mails, some of which I have traced to some of the same origin points for the 2000 and 2004 smear campaigns.

Since 2000, then, Internet- and e-mail-based slanders have had significant effects on national elections and have clearly shifted the balance between reasonable and calumnious discourse in a negative direction.

We give up. There are no words.

Again, the professor means well. But her understanding of the past eight years tells her that McCain was mistreated in 2000—and Kerry in 2004. Calumny defeated McCain in South Carolina, she says—and it may have defeated Kerry in the general election. These, of course, are standard narratives—which doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong. But the professor doesn’t seem to have heard of a larger set of calumnies which presented during Campaign 2000. You see, that war of calumny was waged by the press. And the press has covered it up to this day—has kept it from Allen’s head.

We give up. There are no words to explain how easily the Allens can be programmed.

But then, we had similar thoughts on Wednesday, when we read the first four parts of a six-part discussion of Candidate McCain at TPM (links follow). The discussion began with this post by Josh Marshall. “Today we're trying to put together a unified theory of John McCain's speech-making crappiness,” Josh said, using the robust language of men. In this passage, Josh raised a basic question: Why did McCain seem so much better as a candidate during Campaign 2000? Why does he “seem to suck so much” during the current campaign?

MARSHALL (7/10/08): This brings us back to the question of why McCain seems to suck so much this cycle whereas many people—even political opponents—thought he was solid as a candidate in 2000. And when I say “solid,” I mean a candidate whose public presentation was a big part of his attraction.

Inevitably, one part of the explanation is age. A lot happens between 63 and 72 [sic]. But we also forget that much of the punch of McCain's candidacy was his anger at key segments of the conservative establishment that attacked him for not toeing the line on issues important to the religious right and on tax policy. That was his punch. That got his goat up. But most of his snark lines this season are meant to kow-tow to those same folks. And in any case, his manner seems to say, why am I up here having to do this anyway? I'm John McCain. Who's Barack Obama? Just make me president!

In any case, we're still looking for the grand unified theory. So your thoughts are most welcome.

Quick aside: What ever became of the former Josh Marshall? At any rate, Josh had posed a (slightly vague) question: Why did McCain seem so much better back then—apparently as a speech-maker?

Two responses were posted here. A third reaction appeared a bit later. We thought it was intriguing:

E-MAIL TO TPM (7/9/08): My thoughts on the gauntlet that Josh just threw down. I say this as someone who would be classified as a grudgingly McCain admirer back in 2000 (as a combination of Clinton fatigue and a visceral distaste for Bush before it was cool):

The way McCain looks on the stump now reminds me of how my older relatives looked after I came back from college. Before I left, they were the people I always knew. When I got back, the changes that age produces were glaringly clear. As Josh says, a lot happens between 64 [sic] and 71. Furthermore, let's compare McCain and Reagan—the last national politician running for office at an advanced age. McCain's charisma has been based on energy and pugnaciousness. Reagan was always avuncular. McCain doesn't do avuncular. And, of course, Reagan in '80 was younger than McCain is now. The Reagan of '84 was given a huge benefit of the doubt with regards to age because of incumbency.

Also, clearly, McCain is being over-handled in the way that reminds me of the Gore of 2000. In general, the more times people give you advice about your personal mannerisms, the less you come across as natural. That's what people mean by WJC and Obama (and GWB, alas) being natural politicians.

By now, we had four presentations. All seemed to assume Josh’s premise—the notion that McCain’s “public presentation/speech-making” seemed better during Campaign 2000. Vague questions rarely create good discussions, and this confab never got off the ground. In fact, we now see that this discussion’s starting-point was so vague that it makes the discussion quite hard to evaluate.

But is it true that McCain made a better “public presentation” in 2000? That he now has a form of “speech-making crappiness” that didn’t exist back then? Please. Simply put, McCain was a lousy speaker back then, as he is today; he was reasonably good at town hall meetings, as he is today (ignoring fact-checks of content). If that’s what Josh was talking about, it’s unlikely that a lot has changed—except Josh’s subjective impressions. But the thing that struck us, reading these posts, was their failure to consider an obvious point: McCain may have seemed better in 2000 because he was being pimped by the mainstream press in a way he isn’t being treated today—and because he’s now being thrashed by the liberal web, which didn’t exist in 2000.

Liberals, of course, are supposed to believe that McCain is getting outrageously favorable treatment in the current campaign. A bit of reality should be injected: His current coverage doesn’t even begin to compare to the fawning of Campaign 2000. And yes, our perceptions of these people are shaped by the treatment they get in the press. Look at the e-mailer we’ve cited above. In his post, he cites and reflects a familiar array of press motifs from Campaign 2000. He was a “grudging admirer” of McCain, he says. In part, this was due to his “Clinton fatigue.” He feels that Gore was “over-handled”—and that Bush was “a natural politician.” Whatever else one may think of these views, they all reflect the Accepted Group Judgments aggressively pimped by the press at that time. And simply put, McCain was a sun-god to the press during Campaign 2000, in a way he just isn’t today.

We’ve presented the fawning again and again—the fawning which defined McCain’s 2000 coverage. An excerpt from Richard Cohen, in November 1999, gives us its flavor—but can’t begin to convey its ubiquity. Cohen was describing a marvelous trip on McCain’s truly wonderful bus:

COHEN (11/16/99): A few times at some campaign stop, we would hear McCain described as a hero. Yes of course—but not in the sense of someone who had a surge of courage, a moment of virtual insanity, and won a medal as a result. No, McCain's heroism was a day-to-day affair, a marathon of agony, terror and despair over a matter of principle. That says something. That says everything.

McCain’s heroism as a POW “says everything,” we were told—and yes, these idiots really seemed to believe it. By the way, an excerpt from Jonathan Alter helps provide the gruesome historical context clanking around in these McCain-lovin’ heads. For the record, Jonathan Alter, like many of his colleagues, is not a McCain-lover now:

ALTER (2/14): More important, McCain's life story can be told to their children, an important selling point for women voters too. The whole "straight talk" campaign is predicated on McCain's being the ultimate anti-Clinton. Instead of the blue dress, there's the tattered wash rag that for years was prisoner McCain's only possession.

McCain was “the ultimate anti-Clinton,” Alter wrote. He had a wash rag from prison camp—and Clinton had that blue dress. That anti-Clinton framework—obscene in its sheer stupidity—is absent from the coverage today. Today, McCain runs in the context of Bush. To many in the mainstream press (including Alter), that is not a good context.

Was McCain a better candidate in Campaign 2000? A better speech-maker? In part, he may have seemed like a better candidate because he was being pimped so hard. Professor Allen has heard, many times, about the calumnies aimed at McCain. She hasn’t heard that McCain had a bunch of “race men” running his South Carolina campaign—because the press corps kept that hidden (even as they pimped nasty calumnies against Naomi Wolf). She hasn’t heard that he ran secret phone banks against Bush in Michigan, then lied about it to the press corps—because the press corps largely covered it up. She doesn’t know that he was baldly misstating Bush’s budget plan—that he kept telling that fake, bogus joke about Gore. She doesn’t know how grotesquely incompetent he was; when he had to withdraw his health plan after one day (hopelessly bungled), the press corps kept her from hearing.

And of course, she doesn’t seem to know about the endless calumnies aimed at that other candidate. She has heard the things the press corps has told her. Go ahead—reread that excerpt. It’s stunning to see how easy it is to program this nation’s elites.

But then, most liberals didn’t hear about those things during Campaign 2000 either. Instead, they were hearing the press corps pimp McCain to the wall; to state the obvious, that helps explain why many liberals were “grudging admirers” of the great man. They weren’t hearing the liberal web mock him down, because, at the time, there was no such critter. Perhaps as a result, that third e-mailer was an admirer (due to his Clinton fatigue). And Josh apparently thinks McCain was a half-decent speaker. He wasn’t!

Sorry. The solon’s speech-making was “crappy” then too. It’s just that no one was mocking him on it. And the press corps was oohing and aahing in ways which simply aren’t occurring today. Meanwhile, somewhere in the clouds, our professors were hearing boo-hoo tales about the calumnies aimed at McCain. To this day, one professor hasn’t heard about what happened to Gore.

We’re rational animals, the classic Greeks said. Sorry. We exist to be programmed.

Special report: Worst ever?

PART 2—TELL ME A STORY: Charlie Rose was pleased as punch to have Wendy Kopp at his table. Soon, he’d be struggling with his guest, unsuccessfully trying to get her to answer the world’s most obvious question (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/10/08). But for now, his britches were bursting with pride. He was about to conduct a session of roughly forty minutes—an interview which may have been the worst ever seen on the planet (to watch the interview, click here). But first, this introduction:

ROSE (7/1/08): We continue this evening our series on education in America. Joining me now is Wendy Kopp. She based her senior thesis at Princeton on the idea of a national corps of teachers. Modeled on the Peace Corps, it would recruit the nation’s brightest young people to teach in the neediest schools. Nearly 20 years later, Teach for America has become a household name. It is one of the nation`s leading employers of recent college graduates. In April [actually May], Time magazine named her one of the world`s most influential people. I am pleased to have her here at this table.

“Kopp’s idea is working,” Time had said in its profile—“and as a result, more kids are learning.” To help us think this claim is true, despite the studies which suggest that it isn’t, Kopp soon did a typical thing. Fairly quickly, she turned to the anecdotes.

Is Kopp’s idea really “working?” Is it true that “more kids are learning?” You’d think we’d want a real answer to that—if we care about low-income children. But anecdotes are wonderfully pleasing—and, as propaganda, they’re powerful. For forty years, our nation’s elites have offered tales about vast progress in low-income schools. And so, as Rose pursued the world’s most obvious question (“What do we need to do to make better schools?”), Kopp began offering some standard old chestnuts. You’ve heard these tales a million times. Most often, they aren’t really true. Nor are they especially relevant.

What makes TFA’s young teachers think they can succeed in low-income schools? When Rose asked that perfectly sensible question, Kopp began telling a story:

KOPP (7/1/08): I think about a woman whom I just talked with named [name withheld], who is just finishing her second year as a Teach for America corps member here in the Bronx. She taught fourth graders. And she actually—actually, she told me the story of her first couple of weeks as a teacher, as a fourth grade teacher, starting to read individually with her kids so that she could get a sense of where they were. She talked about the shock of reading with the first kid and realizing that this fourth grader was reading on a first grade level.

A common, dismaying experience. But don’t worry! Despite the studies which seem to suggest that Teach for America is working few miracles, Kopp—like music men world-wide—now told an inspiring tale:

KOPP (continuing directly): And she said, “I should have known.” You can`t get into Teach for America without knowing all the statistics, because that’s what we’re out there on college campuses sharing. Still, when you see real kids, who clearly have so much potential—once you meet them, you just know—who are so far behind—she just resolved at that moment. She tells the story of reading with all of her kids and realizing they’re so far behind, just collectively so far behind. And she tells the story of resolving that she had to change this.

She actually taught the same kids for two years. In those two years, her kids collectively made four years of progress on average in reading and math. She saw through her own personal experience—you know, her kids are now on grade level. They’re where they should be. She also did a lot to get them into very good middle schools so that they can continue on a different academic trajectory. But it’s seeing evidence that this is possible, like real hard-core evidence from working with kids, that leads to the conviction.

It’s seeing those kinds of results, that hard-core evidence—that’s what convinces her teachers, Kopp said. For people who care about what’s true, this interview had hit its first hurdle.

You see, people have always had stories like this one, over the course of the past forty years—starting in the 1960s, when mainstream society finally decided it wanted low-income urban kids to succeed in the classroom. Right from the start, there were always tales of gigantic success in the classroom—and quite a few of those pleasing tales turned out to be fake, bogus, phony. Despite that history, it’s very easy to go on TV and repeat “the story” that someone just told you—someone you “just talked with”—especially if you’re dealing with an upper-class Manhattan journalist who isn’t going to challenge a thing you tell him the whole bloomin’ night. Did a young teacher in the Bronx really produce that educational miracle? Did it really happen the way Kopp described? According to Kopp, a roomful of kids had come into fourth grade reading on the first-grade level. (By the way: By conventional parlance, that put them three years behind, not two.) But presto! Two years later, they went to middle school reading on grade level—having made four years progress in just two years’ time! (By conventional parlance, they would have to have made five years progress. By conventional parlance, a child should be reading on sixth grade level at the start of sixth grade.)

Minor quibbles to the side, Kopp was repeating an inspiring story—an inspiring story someone had told her. It’s easy to do this—but was it true? Did that progress really occur? We don’t have the slightest idea. Based on the way Kopp described her contact with this teacher, we’d guess that she doesn’t know either.

In fairness, there was no way that Rose could determine if this uplifting tale was true—though he should have mentioned the studies which suggest that, if the story is true, it is not the norm in the TFA program. But soon, Kopp was telling another fine tale. And this time, Rose should have said: Stop!

You see, this second tale, which served well for years, had recently hit some embarrassments. It involves Michelle Rhee, a close associate of Kopp, the new chancellor of DC’s public schools. For years, Rhee had told an uplifting tale of her own heroics, as she moved up the non-profit ladder. And omigod! Speaking with Rose last week, Kopp offered Rhee’s story again:

KOPP: Take the Michelle Rhee, the chancellor in New York—sorry, in Washington D.C. She would be the first to say, and she’s said many times, that the reason she’s—she operates so relentlessly and with such urgency is because of her teaching experience in Baltimore, where she took a class of kids who were at the 13th percentile against the national norm—she taught the same kids for two year. They were at the 90th percentile at the end of those two years.

She knows from her own personal experience —and no one could ever shake her conviction, because she knows from working with kids and families that we don’t have these problems because the kids can’t do the work or because the families don’t care, all the reasons that most people in America think we have the problem. But clearly because we as adults haven’t given them the opportunities they deserve.

We’re sorry, but careful people should doubt that tale. As you may recall, Rhee had told this story for a decade, with all its very detailed data, using it to build her mystique until, last year, she stood in line to be the DC chancellor. And omigod! A total shock! Asked to back up her inspiring claims, she couldn’t produce the data! Needless to say, the data exist from her three years of teaching—but the Baltimore City Schools, for murky reasons, somehow just couldn’t produce them! Anyone with any sense would know what this awkward mess probably meant—but last week, Kopp was still reciting Rhee’s story, right down to that granular detail. “She took a class of kids who were at the 13th percentile,” Kopp enthused, seeming to give us precise bits of data. Such detail suggests that a story is true—that the data have been carefully studied. Sorry—that’s not the case here at all. But Kopp rattled on all the same.

Last year, Rhee couldn’t back up her claims—and she began to roll back her story in ways which frankly, didn’t make too much sense. Ideally, Rose would have known about that—and he should have asked Kopp about it. After all, very few viewers would have supposed that Kopp was still telling a broken-down tale—a story that melted just one year ago. A story that detailed just sounds like it’s true. But Rhee’s story may be pure propaganda.

Meanwhile: Did that teacher in the Bronx produce four/five years growth in two years time? Produce that kind of remarkable growth for a whole classroom of children? In reading and math? We don’t have the slightest idea, though we’re slow to believe such tales. But here’s what Rose should have done when Kopp began telling these stories:

First: He should have asked her, directly and firmly, if she can actually back up these claims. For starters, has she seen the data from this young teacher’s classroom? If Kopp’s story is true, this teacher has produced a major miracle. Has Kopp made any attempt to learn how she did it? To confirm that the growth really happened? To state the obvious, it actually matters if these claims are true—unless those low-income kids we love are mere props to justify salaries. In 2005—the most recent year for which data are available—Kopp’s salary at TFA was $250,736. Six other TFA executives received salaries ranging from $125,000 to $202,000. Data from

Second: Rose should have noted an obvious point: On the grand scale, it doesn’t matter if one or two teachers—or three or four—are able to produce magical outcomes. (Though it matters greatly to the children involved.) In most fields, there will be a handful of talented people who can out-perform the field—though not perhaps to the extent we hear described in these typical anecdotes. Even if Kopp’s “Bronx tale” is true, you can’t build a system from random brilliance. And by the way: Kopp’s organization is very large—and it’s extremely expensive. Her annual budget is $120 million; TFA has sent 3700 teachers into schools this year. To us, that overhead seems astounding. To justify that expense—and to justify Kopp’s societal influence—you have to show general results, not one or two brilliant teachers.

For these reasons, Rose he should have asked Kopp the obvious question: What do actual studies show about the success of TFA? The anecdotes are very pleasing—though we can’t be sure that they’re actually true. But how does TFA do in general? No, it doesn’t really “matter” if one or two teachers achieve great results; we’re trying to change a nationwide culture of educational under-achievement. Kopp spends a large amount of money putting TFA’s recruits in the field; if they can’t perform better than regular teachers, that money is basically being wasted. And our attention is being misdirected if we’re granting world-class “influence” to a person who can’t produce real results.

Wendy Kopp told a few pleasing tales—familiar tales we’re slow to believe. But how does her program perform on the whole? Inexcusably, Rose didn’t ask.

MONDAY—PART 3: Avoiding the studies.

TUESDAY: Worst answers ever?