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REID DEBUNKS FIVE MYTHS—AND ED SCHULTZ! Reid’s new book appears today. Long live Reid’s new book! // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, AUGUST 24, 2009

Starting tomorrow: Why does crackpot conservative messaging win? Our series starts tomorrow.

Frankly, all thumbs: “No, no!” said Lewis Carroll’s queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards!”

We thought of that famous literary moment on Sunday, when we read Frank Rich’s new column.

Does anyone put more thumbs on more scales than Rich does in the course of a column? His most ludicrous moment in yesterday’s piece concerned the new book by Ronald Kessler. (Details below. Get ready to gape in wonder.) But the problems started much earlier. In the following passage, Rich’s sense of chronology resembles that of Carroll’s queen. Rich is discussing William Kostric, the armed “protester” who showed up outside Obama’s town hall meeting in New Hampshire:

RICH (8/23/09): The protester was a nut. America has never had a shortage of them. But what's Tom Coburn's excuse? Coburn is a Republican senator from Oklahoma, where 168 people were murdered by right-wing psychopaths who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Their leader, Timothy McVeigh, had the Jefferson quote on his T-shirt when he committed this act of mass murder. Yet last Sunday, when asked by David Gregory on ''Meet the Press'' if he was troubled by current threats of ''violence against the government,'' Coburn blamed not the nuts but the government.

“Well, I'm troubled any time when we stop having confidence in our government,'' the senator said, ''but we've earned it.”

In fact, that question by Gregory followed that statement by Coburn. Coburn wasn’t answering that question when he gave that reply. (You can read the full exchange yourself; just click here.) For ourselves, we weren’t bothered by what Coburn said in that full exchange; your reaction may differ. (This occurred before the Arizona event where a larger number of armed “protesters” appeared.) But as usual, Rich seemed to put his thumb on the scale to make his novelized column read better.

“Answer first—and question afterwards!” So Carroll’s queen might have declared.

But then, Rich does this sort of thing quite incessantly. Yesterday’s column spilled with short-cuts, distortions and logical leaps, as his pieces constantly do, all in service to the cause of pleasing his shrieking readers. Most often (as in yesterday’s column), Rich is upset with guns and southern whites; he rarely misses a chance to put his thumb on some scale in pursuit of these favorite twinned demons. How idiotic is he willing to be in this quest? In 2006, he said the newly-released film, An Inconvenient Truth, was “at the high end of those good-for-you movies that you used to have to watch in high school.” Why did Rich say such a strange thing to his brilliant friend, Imus? In part, he was upset that Al Gore had dared to mention the fact that he owned a rifle on his family’s farm when he was a boy.

No, we’re not making that up. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/9/06.

Yesterday’s column was all thumbs, as usual. But the analysts fell right out of their chairs when Rich explained the raging success of Kessler’s new book about the Secret Service. Has Rich ever been more clueless? This is what he said:

RICH: Those on the right who defend the reckless radicals inevitably argue ''The left does it too!'' It's certainly true that both the left and the right traffic in bogus, Holocaust-trivializing Hitler analogies, and, yes, the protesters of the antiwar group Code Pink have disrupted Congressional hearings. But this is a false equivalence. Code Pink doesn't show up on Capitol Hill with firearms. And, as the 1960s historian Rick Perlstein pointed out on the Washington Post Web site last week, not a single Democratic politician endorsed the Weathermen in the Vietnam era.

This week the journalist Ronald Kessler's new behind-the-scenes account of presidential security, ''In the President's Secret Service,'' rose to No. 3 on The Times nonfiction best-seller list. No wonder there's a lot of interest in the subject. We have no reason to believe that these hugely dedicated agents will fail us this time, even as threats against Obama, according to Kessler, are up 400 percent from those against his White House predecessor.

But as we learned in Oklahoma City 14 years ago—or at the well-protected Holocaust museum just over two months ago—this kind of irrational radicalism has a myriad of targets. And it is impervious to reason.

Ignore the insinuations which litter this piece. (Which Republican politician has “endorsed” a group like the Weathermen, who engaged in ongoing terrorist violence? At one point, Rich seems to assert that “major [Republican] politicians, from a vice-presidential candidate down,” have “either enable[d] or endorse[d] a radical and armed fringe.” Which politicians have offered such endorsements? We don’t know, and Rich didn’t say.)

Ignore the insinuations. Instead, gape at Rich’s apparent explanation for the success of Kessler’s new book.

In Rich’s apparent telling, Kessler’s book is on the best-seller list because people are worried about possible attacks on President Obama. (We know—we’re interpreting a bit. In Rich’s novels, fleeting insinuation tends to replace clear assertion.) In fact, Kessler’s book is on the best-seller list because Kessler is a re-purposed right-wing hack who has presented the latest pile of gossip about Bill Clinton and other Democratic presidents. Kessler has had a long journalistic career—but he’s now chief Washington correspondent for Newsmax, a major kooky-con site. Books by such people race up the charts for reasons which are well understood—except in novels by Rich.

Why is Kessler’s book such a hit? Duh. James Bamford reviewed the book in yesterday’s Washington Post. Here are a few basic excerpts:

BAMFORD (8/23/09): [S]cores of current and former [Secret Service] agents—Kessler claims more than 100—agreed to talk to him. But rather than use that wealth of information to write a serious book examining the inner workings of the long-veiled agency or the new challenges of protecting the first black president, the author simply milked the agents for the juiciest gossip he could get and mixed it with a rambling list of their complaints.

Trashing their motto, these agents seem to relish throwing dirt on their former protectees, especially Democrats. But it is all boring and familiar. Agents Chuck Taylor and Larry Newman, like tattling schoolboys, breathlessly rant about JFK's escapades more than 40 years ago, in particular one with secretaries nicknamed Fiddle and Faddle wearing T-shirts in the White House pool. "You could see their nipples," snickers Taylor.

[...]

The busy, self-important agents also disliked tardiness, which is one reason they couldn't stand Bill Clinton or Al Gore. Former agent Dave Saleeba waited impatiently for Vice President Gore one day, only to discover him "eating a muffin at the pool." The book's inane and endless anecdotes never rise much higher.

A conservative lot, the agents found President Ronald Reagan "a down-to-earth individual;" his successor, George H.W. Bush, "a great man, just an all around nice person"; and George W. Bush "down to earth, caring.”

Duh. As anyone with sense or savvy would know, Kessler’s book is a best-seller because it offers the standard denigrations of Clinton/Gore/ Kennedy/Johnson—and because it has been pimped by a major kooky-con web site. But so what? Rich put one of his many thumbs on the scale. In the process, the book became useful in his weekly shrieking attempt to fashion the perfect novel.

Bamford’s review highlights an actual problem with the recent history of the Secret Service. During the early Clinton years, oath-violating leaks from some agents (“a conservative lot”) created embarrassing, politically harmful gossip. Later, a crackpot former agent (Gary Aldrich) wrote a crackpot book about the Clintons. It became a major best-seller. [Correction: Aldrich was a former FBI agent. Earlier embarrassing claims had been sourced to Secret Service agents.] This shouldn’t tarnish the service of all Secret Service agents, of course. But the conduct of some agents has been a problem for years. Except in the latest novel by Rich, who doesn’t seem to have heard.

Some “busy, self-important agents...couldn't stand Bill Clinton or Al Gore?” In fact, a certain self-important New York Times columnist couldn’t stand those two fellows either! In 1997, Rich invented one of the central bogus claims about Gore which sent the “down to earth, caring” George W. Bush to the White House! In November 20002, Rich was still lying about Gore; he baldly misstated what happened when Gore went on the Today show to argue against going to war with Iraq (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/25/02). But then, as noted above, Rich was still offering inane criticisms of Gore as late as May 2006, even after his Oscar-winning film had emerged. A political movement which tolerates leaders this dumb is a movement that’s destined to fail.

Rich was all thumbs in yesterday’s column. But that passage about Kessler’s book was a pip! Should the analysts laugh or cry? We didn’t know what to tell them.

The actual potential problem: Do the “guns of August” (Rich’s headline) represent an actual problem? Potentially, yes. And some Republican politicians really have played the fool in refusing to condemn the practice of bringing guns to the protest zones outside Obama’s events. Rep. Phil Gingrey doggedly did so on last Monday’s Hardball (under persistent, skilled questioning by Chris Matthews). But Rich only mentions Gingrey in passing. He prefers to go after Coburn, inverting the order of Q-and-A to make his statement sufficiently gruesome.

Rich does this all the time.

We liberals! We love it when Rich does this to Republicans. But for years, he did the same thing to Clinton, then Gore, in deeply consequential ways. Here at THE HOWLER, we think Rich is a journalistic criminal. The dead of Iraq stare up from the ground—and read this fool’s inexcusable, dishonest columns.

When Rich links: What did Coburn do in 1996? Frankly, we have no idea. But this is the “1996 speech” to which Rich links in another part of his column. In this five-paragraph “speech,” Coburn says, “Terrorism in this country obviously poses a serious threat to us as a free society.” But he also says, “We can ill afford to pass legislation in the name of antiterrorism that is seen by many law-abiding citizens of this country as a threat to their freedoms.” That is precisely the stance many liberals took in the wake of 9/11. But so what? In Rich’s novel, we are supposed to shriek and recoil as the vile Coburn says it.

What did Coburn support in 1996? Did his position make any sense? We don’t have the slightest idea. You see, we read about this in Rich’s column. Who would ever take something on faith from such a thumb-laden source?

REID DEBUNKS FIVE MYTHS—AND ED SCHULTZ: T. R. Reid’s new book is being published today. Long live T. R. Reid’s book!

Last year, Reid was chief correspondent for Sick Around the World, a PBS study of health care in five nations. (For the web site, click here.) His new book is called, The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care.

In the Outlook section of yesterday’s Post, Reid wrote a piece headlined, “5 Myths About Health Care Around the World.” We strongly recommend the whole piece—every single word. (It represents the sort of reporting and analysis which has been conspicuous by its absence in the major press over the past fifteen years.) But gaze on the passage below—and consider the stunning, decades-long failure of liberal/progressive politics. Yes, this is partly anecdotal:

REID (8/23/09): As for those notorious waiting lists, some countries are indeed plagued by them. Canada makes patients wait weeks or months for nonemergency care, as a way to keep costs down. But studies by the Commonwealth Fund and others report that many nations—Germany, Britain, Austria—outperform the United States on measures such as waiting times for appointments and for elective surgeries.

In Japan, waiting times are so short that most patients don't bother to make an appointment. One Thursday morning in Tokyo, I called the prestigious orthopedic clinic at Keio University Hospital to schedule a consultation about my aching shoulder. "Why don't you just drop by?" the receptionist said. That same afternoon, I was in the surgeon's office. Dr. Nakamichi recommended an operation. "When could we do it?" I asked. The doctor checked his computer and said, "Tomorrow would be pretty difficult. Perhaps some day next week?”

According to Reid, Great Britain outperforms the United States on waiting times for elective surgeries! In Japan, you pretty much just show up. Why is that information so startling? Because of these OECD data, which are now being widely used:

Total spending on health care, per person, 2007:
United States: $7290
Great Britain: $2992
Japan: $2581 (for the year 2006)

As we’ve told you: When a nation can’t see how stunning those data are, that nation is in the grip of a virtual mental illness. Such a nation has ceased to have an intellectual or journalistic life.

In Japan, there are no waiting lists—you just show up, Reid writes. And the Japanese spend way less than half as much on health care as we do! But the career liberal world has utterly failed, in the past fifteen years, to help American citizens understand—and analyze—the enormity of such facts.

The “liberal” establishment has failed you badly. To all intents and purposes, you live in a country which has no progressive politics.

If you doubt that, just recall the gruesome exchange we recorded at the start of July. On The Ed Show, MSNBC’s Ed Schultz was debating Nancy Barto, a minor Republican state legislator from Arizona. More specifically, the pair were debating health care reform, Schultz’s specialty—his topic-of-preference.

Before long, Barto was reciting the most familiar talking-point in the history of life on the planet. Conservatives recite this claim in their sleep; it has dogged our health care debate for decades. In a rational world, liberal intellectual leaders would have learned how to handle this familiar claim many years ago. But Schultz was stopped dead in his tracks by Barto’s claim—by a standard claim which involves waiting lists. If you have the stomach for it, let’s recall Schultz’s response:

SCHULTZ (7/1/09): What’s so dangerous about a public option? What’s so dangerous about offering up something that people don’t have right now?

BARTO: Well, Americans are too smart to accept another huge government program, because they have seen what we have already had and how it doesn’t work and how it does ration care. They have seen what other nations have been going through with their 900,000 people on a waiting list in Britain waiting for care—25,000 Swedes waiting for heart surgery.

SCHULTZ: That’s why I got to do a field trip! I got to go find out about all this stuff.

“That’s why I got to do a field trip?” Schultz was referring to a pledge he’d made earlier that evening. Incredibly, he had pledged to take a field trip to Canada to learn about that nation’s health system.

Remarkable, isn’t it? Fifteen years after the Clinton plan failed, Schultz was declaring his intention “to go find out about all this stuff.” (It was now more than two years since Obama/Clinton/ Edwards all began to campaign on health care reform.) To read Schultz’s fuller remarks that evening, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/09. We just hope your stomach is strong.

Schultz is only one person, of course. He deserves credit for featuring health care on his nightly program. But his performance that night was astoundingly hapless. Sadly, it typified the work of the career liberal world over the past fifteen years.

You live inside a remarkable political culture! Other nations spend much less than half what we spend on health care—and yet, they get equal or superior outcomes! But so what? There’s little sign that the liberal world has ever batted an eye at this deeply remarkable situation. Can you name a single “career liberal journalist” who has ever developed these remarkable facts—who has ever helped citizens understand, and analyze, this astonishing state of affairs? Can you name a liberal journal which has developed these remarkable data—and the larger frameworks they so plainly suggest? Plainly, your health care system is being looted; vast chunks of your health care spending are being stolen. But Schultz had no idea what to say when a minor state legislator offered the world’s most familiar claim. Fifteen years after the Clinton plan’s death, Ed was getting ready to go off and learn.

Reread what Reid wrote about waiting lists—and then, reread Schultz’s effort that night. Schultz was utterly clueless that night. And Schultz is one of the rare liberal leaders for whom health reform has been a leading concern!

Last week, someone asked an excellent question (see below): How is that conservatives constantly win debates by pushing “ridiculous and blatant falsehoods?”

Watching Schultz, we can’t imagine. We can’t see how it works!

Where is your money going: Again and again, we’ve noted the failure of the mainstream press to explore an obvious question: Where is our health care spending going? Who is looting our dough?

Reid offers one part of the answer in his discussion of Myth 3. In his discussion of Myth 5, he suggests another part of the answer. Again, it’s stunning to think that this obvious question hasn’t generated a series of front-page reports in every major American newspaper. But then, can you name the liberal journal which has tackled this obvious question? Which has driven the point in such a way that understanding—and anger—start to spread?

Where in the world is your money going? There is no sign—no sign at all—that your “liberal leaders” want to find out. In our corporate-drenched political culture, Serious People don’t ask such questions. People who ask such loud, shrill questions don’t get invited on Hardball.

Reid’s figures: Reid uses different per person spending figures for the U.S. and Japan. We don’t know where they come from. Meanwhile, his presentation employs a journalistic convention which always drives us crazy. We’ll blame it on his editor:

REID: The world champion at controlling medical costs is Japan, even though its aging population is a profligate consumer of medical care. On average, the Japanese go to the doctor 15 times a year, three times the U.S. rate. They have twice as many MRI scans and X-rays. Quality is high; life expectancy and recovery rates for major diseases are better than in the United States. And yet Japan spends about $3,400 per person annually on health care; the United States spends more than $7,000.

We don’t know where those data come from. But even here, Japan seems to be spending substantially less than half what the U.S. spends.

We say that seems to be the case, because of the always-annoying convention in which one figure (Japan’s) is fairly precise, while the other figure is quite vague. The United States spends “more than $7000?” That could mean we spend way more than $7000. It could mean we spend $7000, plus a few pennies. In 2007, the U.S. was already spending well more than $7000, according to the OECD. Why not use a more precise figure?

The way Reid’s piece presents those data makes it very hard to compare them. We’re always amazed when editors do this—in passages designed to compare two numbers. But alas, they do it all the time. It’s how your press corps rolls.