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Couric v. Coulter: The facts


COULTER V. COURIC—THE FACTS: No doubt about it, the topic is stupid. And the background to the tale is complex. But Ann Coulter’s attacks on Katie Couric have been getting big play on TV and talk radio. Coulter is steam-rolling unprepared hosts, telling them tales of how Katie Couric went on TV and called Ronald Reagan an airhead. If Coulter’s host knows that isn’t true, she then amends her bogus tale, saying that Katie Couric falsely claimed that Edmund Morris called Reagan an airhead. One way or another, readers and viewers are led to believe that Couric went out and trashed Reagan. And our pundits are simply too lazy and careless to see this tale properly told.

Here’s what actually happened:

Back in September 1999, Morris’ new biography, Dutch, was being closely guarded as publication drew near. And uh-oh! The Washington Post—one of the only outlets to get an advance copy—ran an inaccurate quote. On September 22, the book was reviewed by Linton Weeks; few other pundits had seen the real text. Here’s the passage from Weeks’ review that led to the current confusion:

WEEKS: At points in the book, however, Morris is more dismissive of Reagan’s intellect. He writes that he could not believe how shallow Reagan’s “hidden depths” appeared to be. He refers to Reagan’s frequent use of cue cards, to his deference to aides on matters of substance, and to the often rambling answers the president gave to interviewers.

After following him around for seven months, making friends with Reagan insiders such as Michael Deaver, Donald Regan, George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, Morris writes that he was stumped. “Dutch remained a mystery to me, and worse still—dare I entertain such a heresy, in the hushed and reverent precincts of his office?—an airhead.”

Weeks slightly misquoted the book; it actually said “an apparent airhead” at the end of the passage he quoted. But no one else had seen the book, and the story spread throughout the press. In his long-awaited bio, pundits said, Edmund Morris calls Reagan an airhead!

It wasn’t just Couric who thought this was true. The Weeks misquote gained wide circulation; pundits began to criticize Morris for having called Reagan an “airhead.” For example, Tim Russert used the one-word quote on the September 26 Meet the Press; on the program, Ed Meese, Marlin Fitzwater and Mike Deaver all insisted that Ronald Reagan clearly wasn’t an “airhead.” Later that day, the AP ran a story on the Meet the Press session, also using the single word “airhead.” When Couric went on the air the next day, at least six major papers were running stories in which Reagan’s friends pummeled Morris because he’d called Reagan an airhead. Although the Post had corrected its error on September 24, it had done so in standard, buried format. Almost no one in the press—and none of Reagan’s friends and associates—seemed to know that the quote wasn’t right.

But make no mistake—though Morris hadn’t exactly called Reagan an “airhead,” he had come pretty close in some interviews. Newsweek had an early exclusive; it hit the wire on September 26. “After three or four meetings [with Reagan], I realized that culturally he was a yahoo and extremely unresponsive in conversation,” Morris said. “When you asked him a question about himself, it was like dropping a stone into a well and not hearing a splash. I never got anywhere in interviews, except for odd moments of strangeness, like the time I showed him a leaf and he began talking about his boyhood.” The boisterous biographer had more to say as he batted his subject around: “The surface reality of Reagan was boring. His everyday conversation was boring. His documents were boring. He was a mystery that had to be plumbed.” Indeed, Morris told Newsweek that Reagan had seemed “shatteringly banal” when they lunched in 1982. The political world was flogging these statements as Couric went on the air. Indeed, Morris was still talking the talk in a Meet the Press session on October 3. “I have no doubt whatsoever that Reagan was a great man and a great president,” he said. “But some of his conversation, as you may possibly have noticed yourself, in private was quite astonishingly banal.” It was in this context—armed with the Post’s faulty quote—that Couric said Morris called Reagan an “airhead.” In fact, he hadn’t called Reagan an “airhead” at all. He had called him a “yahoo” and “banal.”

Why did Couric say what she did? Because everyone thought it was true. Indeed, despite the picture painted in Slander, many conservatives were slamming Morris for what he had said about Ron. The result? When Morris did the Today show on September 29, Couric gave him a difficult time, challenging him for his rough rap on Ronnie. When Couric and Coulter did battle last month, Couric described the session:

COURIC (6/26/02): I really conducted an extremely challenging interview with [Morris] because he did eviscerate Ronald Reagan in his book. It was a very, very unflattering portrayal. The Reagans were very unhappy with it. Conservatives were very unhappy with it. Afterwards, Edmund Morris was unhappy with the interview, and Nancy Reagan called to thank me for my line of questioning. So I’m just wondering how that jives with your contention that somehow I’m a Ronald Reagan basher?
In response, Coulter dissembled, as always. “Well, I didn’t call you a Ronald Reagan basher,” she said—although that was the obvious meaning of every word that she wrote on the subject. At any rate, Couric said that Nancy Reagan thanked her for her approach to Morris. If you’ve read the text of the Morris interview, there’s no reason to doubt this is true.

How dishonest can Coulter be? “Stunningly” might be a start. Everyone thought that Edmund Morris had called Ronald Reagan an “airhead.” (Given what he said to Newsweek, it isn’t real clear that he hadn’t.) Many pundits, not just Couric, made such statements on the air. As we saw last Friday, Sean Hannity said it two times on Fox (September 27 and 30).

But Coulter had a tale to tell, in which “the left” was trashing Reagan. So she said that Couric was calling him “airhead,” and didn’t mention anyone else. At Slate, Mickey Kaus swore that she had it just right. Why do such oddball things happen?

FACTS AREN’T STUBBORN THINGS AFTER ALL: Why should readers be careful with Harken stories? Because pundits are frequently wrong on the facts. Here is Michael Kelly in this morning’s Post. According to Kelly, this is “[t]he story, as told reasonably fairly from the Democratic point of view:”

KELLY: In June 1990, Bush sells 212,000 shares of Harken stock at $4 each, shortly before revelations of a sham transaction force a restatement of profits and drive the stock down. He uses the proceeds to pay off his Texas Rangers loan. Bush’s partners in the Rangers later make him a gift of an increased share of the profits. His insider-status investment of $500,000, which derived from his insider-Harken stock, which derived from his insider status as a Bush son, eventually nets him a decent-sized fortune of $14 million.
But that isn’t the story at all; Kelly has two different situations mixed up. In June 1990, Bush sold his 212,000 shares of stock shortly before Harken announced surprisingly large second-quarter losses. This wasn’t a “restatement of profits,” forced or otherwise. And it wasn’t due to a “sham transaction.” But it isn’t surprising that Kelly has these facts wrong; this confused presentation has been common. For example, David Broder made this same mistake in his column last Sunday. On July 10, Spencer Ackerman bungled the same facts for the New Republic on-line. “At issue is Bush’s conduct during 1990, when he served on the board of the Harken Energy Corporation,” Ackerman wrote. “Bush sold about $850,000 in Harken stock just two months before the company, under orders from the SEC, announced that it was restating its balance sheet, revealing a $23 million loss.” But Harken didn’t “restate its balance sheet” in August 1990, it simply announced its 2Q losses. And it didn’t do so “under orders from the SEC.” Like Kelly, Ackerman seems to be thinking of the restatement of earnings regarding Aloha, which occurred in 1991.

There is no sign that these scribes are trying to gimmick the facts; they simply don’t seem to understand them. But you should never assume that pundits know even the simplest facts of a high-profile case. In the past, Kelly has boasted about how little time he spends on his weekly column. Last week, he chided Bush for making “easy money.” “Look who’s talking,” we mordantly said.