HARRIS REPORT: Half of Americans now say Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded the country in 2003—up from 36 percent last year....In addition, 64 percent say Saddam had "strong links" with al Qaeda....Fifty-five percent said that "history will give the U.S. credit for bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq."....American confidence in the Iraqis has improved: 37 percent said Iraq would succeed in creating a stable democracy, up five points since November.Kevin says the following, and we dont think hes wrong: Even if complaints from us shrill liberal bloggers are dismissed, surely poll results like this should get the media pondering the question of whether they're doing a very good job of reporting what's really going on.
We dont have a problem with what Kevin says; we think the press corps should ponder those numbers. But it shouldnt be surprising to see the public give a weird account of basic facts. Although the media dont like to discuss it, the public is almost always misinformed, about almost all issues, no matter how major. It really shouldnt be surprising if the public is misinformed about this. Nor does it necessarily mean that the press is to blame for the problem.
How clueless is the American public? Press and pols both hate to discuss it, but the public is deeply, defiantly clueless. For us, the 1993 Clinton budget plan was the issue that nailed this point (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/12/02). It was the biggest issue of the day—and from the time he took office right through that first summer, Clinton didnt clear his throat without first remembering to tell the people that his income tax increases would only affect the top two percent of earners. But when the plan finally passed in August, the public was almost totally clueless. On August 4, 1993, USA Todays Bill Montague summarized the state of play, right out on page one:
MONTAGUE (8/4/93): Taxing the rich is apparently back in style...Clinton had explained this again and again. At the time, he was president of all fifty states. But its virtually impossible to get the public to process even the simplest info. Montague noted the problem in this case, using a nickname the public adores:
The budget deal, which must be approved by the House and Senate, would extract $241.2 billion from taxpayers over five years. But 81% of that—about $195 billion—would be paid by families making more than $200,000 a year. Most middle-class families hardly would be nicked. Theyll pay the lions share of a 4.3-cents increase in the federal gasoline tax. But the increase would cost the average family less than $5 a month.
MONTAGUE: Joe Sixpack apparently hasnt gotten the word. Polls show most taxpayers expect to pay higher income taxes as a result of any budget deal. Yet higher tax rates would hit only singles who make $115,001 or more in taxable income, and couples who make $140,001 or more.That was in 1993 dollars. On the same day, Richard Benedetto discussed the same matter, also on USA Todays front page. A key problem for Clinton, he pithily wrote. Despite claims the wealthy pay most new taxes, 68% believe the middle-class is hit most.
Whatever the merits of Clintons plan, why were so many voters so misinformed about its workings? It would take a crystal ball to say. But during this same six-month period, Rush Limbaugh had hammered the Clinton plan hard, inaccurately tagging it the largest tax increase in American history. When Bob Dole made the same bogus claim, a few newspapers even noted the fact that the solons colorful claim was just wrong. But most newspapers—failing again—never challenged this key spin-point. (Eventually, Dole got so carried away that he called it the largest tax increase in the history of the world.) But trust us: The voters can get weird ideas in their heads on their own. It helps when big public figures mislead them. But the human mind misfires without prompting, even in this modern time.
How clueless is the American public? If memory serves, one year into the first Bush Admin, twenty-five percent of American adults couldnt name the U.S. vice president. In case youve forgotten, his name was Quayle. His name was in the news many days—and was mentioned by Leno each evening.
The American public is deeply clueless—but press and pols both hate to discuss it. So yes, the press should think hard about those new data—but that doesnt mean that the press corps caused them. We will say this, to be provocative: A number of Kevins commenters railed against this latest display of public ignorance. But uh-oh! When we voice surprise at the publics cluelessness about basic facts, we showcase some ignorance of our own.
Final note: The Harris poll does have its flaws. Other results may differ.
Special report: How we let Big Dems get done!
PART 2—SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE: Good God! Yesterday morning, an excitable talker spoke with Don Imus about George Bushs manifest failings. Our analysts almost came out of their chairs when the talker—Chris Matthews—said this:
MATTHEWS (7/25/06): It's all ideology with this crowd. All they care about is ideology. The President bought it, hook, line and sinker, he had—but you know, it was just put into his head, sometime after 9/11, and his philosophy is what he has given it. He didn't have to have any philosophy when he went in, and they handed it to him. These guys—the guys—you know, the guys that you used to make fun of at school, pencil necks, the intellectuals, the guys you never trusted—all of the sudden he trusts the intellectuals, the guys you knew at school. Yeah, they're a bunch of pencil necks, and now he buys, completely, their ideology, because he didn't have one of his own coming in. That was his problem. I don't know what Bush stood for, except I'm a cool guy and Gore isn't, and that was our problem. We elected the guy because he was a little cooler than the other guy, and I hope, the next election, it isn't a problem of who goes to bed with their wife at 9:30 at night, or who knows how to tell a joke on a stage. But it's who had the sense of strength that comes from having read books, most of their life, tried to understand history. Every mistake we're making in the Middle East right now, was made years and years ago.Good God! Moments later, these twinned empty vessels returned to this theme. How they long for the chance to elect a well-read and intelligent chief executive! How they long for the chance to elect a person who has read a few books!
Does Matthews really long for a president who has read books, most of his life, tried to understand history? Uh-oh! In that 2000 Bush-Gore race, we had the chance to vote for that person—and Imus and Matthews spent two years deriding him in every way possible. Like the rest of their vacuous cohort, they spent two years deriding that candidate as the smartest guy in the room. Indeed, as with Ceci Connolly, so with Matthews; his coverage of Gore in 1999 and 2000 would have gotten him drummed out of any real profession. According to Matthews, that guy who had read books most of his life was willing to lick the bathroom floor to be president—and he was Bill Clintons bathtub ring. In September 2000, with Gore now ahead and pulling away in the polls, Matthews semi-apologized for two years of rude, nasty language (his endless dissembling didnt get mentioned), but he soon returned to nasty derision—and shortly after the attacks of September 11, he would return to the Imus show to make a truly repulsive assessment. He doesnt look like one of us, Matthews told Imus, speaking of Gore. He doesnt seem very American, even. Now, these talkers dream of the chance to elect a well-read, mature thinker. And, of course, the endless deep-six: Neither man mentioned the things they said in the past, during the two years of Campaign 2K, when the public had been given that chance. Two years of nasty misstatements and slurs were miraculously forgotten.
But then, this is the portrait of our modern press elite—a group whose dysfunction often reaches the point where one wonders if it isnt just sociopathic. (More on this matter in Fridays Part 4, when we look in on John Deans new book.) Today, Matthews laments the idea that we elected a cool guy—but during the two years of Campaign 2K, he endlessly pimped that very same man as the guy youd like to have a beer with. Yesterday morning, all these memories got swept away as Chris and Don play their viewers for fools. Hey, you big dumb f*cking rubes, they said to MSNBC viewers.
But then, some things simply never change—because we libs have been so weak and accepting. Yes, many reporters now say what Michael Grunwald said in Sundays Post; they feel free to mention the fact that Al Gore never claimed he invented the Internet (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/06). But they never seem to let us know why they told us the opposite for two solid years—and they keep repeating other classic Gore Lore, the kind of lore that has made all Major Dems seem feckless and foolish for these many years. For example, in that Sunday companion piece about Gore—the piece which accompanied his admirable report about global warming—Grunwald offered this familiar account of one of Gores most pleasing follies:
GRUNWALD (7/23/06): [Cheneys pledge not to run for president is] a perfect model for Gore, a distinguished public servant with limited political skills. His most noted stumbles while in office were political stumbles —fundraising follies such as collecting campaign cash at a Buddhist temple...This is a pleasing and time-honored story. But uh-oh—it just isnt accurate! There was no campaign cash collected at the Buddhist temple, as everyone has known for a very long time—except for the people who write our newspapers, and the unfortunate voters who read them. (Maria Hsia was prosecuted for collecting money from the temple master the next day—and her prosecutors said, in open court, that Gore knew nothing about it.) And omigod! In Grunwalds next paragraph, another time-honored bit of Gore Lore was recited:
GRUNWALD: The inconvenient truth is that as a politician, Gore has always been more successful in a supporting role. In the Senate, he was a visionary on environmental issues, nuclear proliferation and, yes, the Internet, which he never did claim he invented. And people forget that his addition to the ticket in 1992 helped jump-start the Clinton campaign. But Gore never seemed comfortable as a presidential candidate; he surrounded himself with consultants who deluged him with bad (Don't mention Clinton!), frivolous (Wear earth tones!) and conflicting advice. He ended up bringing three different demeanors to his three debates. He never talked about the environment and other issues close to his heart, and he never sounded as genuine as he did in his movie.There they are again—the famous earth tones, making their latest guest-starring appearance! But did some unnamed campaign consultant offer Gore this frivolous advice? As weve long noted, the unnamed adviser flatly denied it—and no one came forward to contradict her denial. But the story was pleasing—the press corps adored it—so much so that they soon began lying, pretending that it had been reported by Time when it was really just a speculation by the unreliable Dick Morris, passed on by the egregious Connolly. But in the mainstream press, these tales never die. Seven years later, we are now allowed to hear that Gore never said he invented the Net—without any explanation for the two crucial years in which we were mockingly told just the opposite. But other stories never die. They get dragged out at every big public occasion—and they help paint a portrait of all Major Dems. Big Major Dems are feckless, fools, frivolous, these tall tales keep telling the public.
These stories exist because we libs have allowed it. For years now, weve kept our traps shut, like good boys and girls. Especially at our big liberal journals, weve been more than happy, down through the years, to let our Dem leaders get burlesqued in this manner. At those liberal journals, our good boys and girls sat around and stared while these tales about Gore turned into Hard Lore. And four years later, what occurred? We paid the price as the public—un-warned, unaware—purchased new tales about Kerry.
TOMORROW—PART 3: Boehlert returns to the Swift Boats.
FRIDAY—PART 4: John Dean starts to suggest the shape of an alternate narrative.
ITS EASY TO BE A TOP PUNDIT: Was dont mention Clinton (as much as some might suggest) an example of bad advice? Its easy to say so—but hard to prove. (We think this question is far from clear.) But the press corps loves to ridicule Gores utterly hapless work as a candidate, even as they tell us that, oh by the way, his new film helps us see that Gore is the brightest man living on earth.
Boy, its easy to be a top pundit! As weve said, Grunwald deserves a lot of credit for his major Sunday piece, in which he discussed a string of issues about warming. But just for fun, review this part of his companion piece about Al Gore, hapless king of the earth tones and receiver of campaign cash at the Temple:
GRUNWALD: The inconvenient truth is that as a politician, Gore has always been more successful in a supporting role. In the Senate, he was a visionary on environmental issues, nuclear proliferation and, yes, the Internet, which he never did claim he invented. And people forget that his addition to the ticket in 1992 helped jump-start the Clinton campaign. But Gore never seemed comfortable as a presidential candidate; he surrounded himself with consultants who deluged him with bad (Don't mention Clinton!), frivolous (Wear earth tones!) and conflicting advice. He ended up bringing three different demeanors to his three debates. He never talked about the environment and other issues close to his heart, and he never sounded as genuine as he did in his movie.How easy is it to be a Big Pundit? In paragraph 8, Grunwald complains (falsely) that Gore never talked about global warming during Campaign 2000. What a blunder! But then, in the very next paragraph, he tells us that—even now, with all the new scientific consensus behind it—global warming wouldnt constitute a central issue for a race in 2008! Is any other job this easy? Are any other standards this low?
The reaction to Gore's movie has been impressive, but it doesn't change the fact that he misplayed a winning hand in 2000. He gives great lecture, but mediocre stump speech. And global warming isn't yet a central issue to build a presidential campaign around. On the other hand, it's ideal for a vice presidential candidate, suggesting a ticket ready to grapple with the challenges of the future.
Gore was a visionary in the Senate, were told—but the dumbest person on earth while campaigning. Anywhere else, can you write such claptrap? Oh yes! We forgot! You can write childrens books—though many chapters in the Standard Gore Lore would end up on the shelf marked fiction.
MATH PROBLEMS TOO: It has become a standard claim, pre-keyed into pundit computers: He ended up bringing three different demeanors to his three debates. Its a New Essential for the scribe who wants to say how badly Gore ran. But can anyone tell us how Gores demeanor differed in Debates 1 and 3? Answer: They didnt differ at all! But so what? This is one of roughly three million Standard Exaggerations which pundits present about Campaign 2K. Ah yes, exaggeration! Its the thing they loved to imagine in Gore—and the trait they most love in themselves.
Reminder: These stories exist because weve allowed it. And they help make all Dems seem like fools.