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TAKING THE KINSLEY CHALLENGE! The GOP plays the game better, he said. Reviewing his work, we saw why: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, AUGUST 25, 2008

THE EXCITEMENT STARTS TONIGHT: Not in Denver—here in Baltimore, where we’ll help broadcast the Democratic convention each night from 8-11 on WEAA, 88.9, “The Voice of the Community”—Morgan State University’s NPR affiliate. Each night, we’ll be in the studio with anchor Anthony McCarthy and other exciting guests. Live from Denver, co-anchoring hearty: Marc Steiner and Lea Gilmore.

Some of you may make the mistake of watching the convention, on TVs. But if you want to listen each night, you know what to do: Just click here. Then hit “Listen live,” right at the top of the page.

Right away, of course, this raises questions about our past connection to one of Morgan’s most famous alumni—Marvin Webster, “The Human Eraser.” Didn’t you play with Webster in the 1971 Baltimore summer league, readers will inevitably ask.

As a matter of fact, we did—and after “Marvelous” conquered his sense of awe at the chance to play with someone of our ability, he settled in for a nice campaign, the inaugural season in the summer program run by hands-on commissioner Wes Unseld. Along with Webster, we featured 6-6 Leon Love, on his way to Tennessee after having set the Baltimore schoolboy single-game rebounding record at Carver. (If memory serves—and we think it does.) How tough was that first summer league? Even with Webster and Love, we finished 8-8. And it certainly wasn’t anything we did that kept us from championship hardware!

Morgan State—great then, great today! We’ve never blamed Marvin for those defeats, and we don’t plan to start now.

From the early days: A nice piece from Sports Illustrated, in the early days, about a very decent guy. And another piece, a few decades later.

Special report: Taking the Kinsley challenge!

PART 1—EASY TO PLAY THE GAME HARD: Can the Democratic Party make its way into the White House? To all intents and purposes, that question starts getting answered tonight.

By way of warning, we’ll caution against over-reliance on that “year of the Democrat” theory. In this, the new Washington Post/ABC poll, 36 percent of registered voters self-identified as Democrats, versus only 26 percent who self-identified as Republicans. (With leaners, the Democratic Party’s advantage was 52-41.) But only 23 percent of registered voters self-identified as liberals, versus 33 percent who said they were conservatives; this conveys a bit of an advantage in the other direction—although, presumably, most of those people are in the “Republican” camp. (In July’s survey, the liberal/conservative split was 19-35.) And then too, there’s the ongoing problem Michael Kinsley discussed, or seemed to discuss, in Saturday’s Washington Post.

Kinsley, the brightest man of the 1980s, is still a major American journalist—a major voice of the career liberal world. At one point in Saturday’s column, he offered a familiar old claim about one way our politics works:

KINSLEY (8/23/08): With so much going their way in this election, the biggest challenge the Democrats face is simple: The Republicans just play the game of presidential politics so much better. They play it with genius, courage, creativity and utter ruthlessness.

“Liberal” journalists like Kinsley have peddled this framework roughly forever—even as their own journalistic conduct makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, it isn’t hard to “play the game better” when a lazy, indolent mainstream press corps is willing to peddle your twaddle for you, no matter how foolish your twaddle may be. Have Republicans played the game hard? It’s quite easy to be hard—with journos like Kinsley around.

How easy has it been, in recent elections, for Republicans to “play the game better?” By way of illustration, consider the high-minded observation Jonathan Alter has just made in Newsweek.

Like Kinlsey, Alter is a major “liberal” journalist. In the current edition of Newsweek, he offers the following high-minded insights. He’s discussing recent “name-calling” aimed at McCain and Obama:

ALTER (9/1/08): There's nothing fair about the process. McCain can be excused for not knowing exactly how many rental properties his wife owns. Al Gore never actually said, "I invented the Internet." (He was talking about his role as a legislator in providing the government funding that allowed it to grow.) In 1988, Michael Dukakis took a ride in a tank. It wasn't his fault that the picture made him look like Snoopy. To his dying day, George H.W. Bush will insist that in 1992 he knew perfectly well what a supermarket scanner was; he was just commenting about some new technology. But the image helped sink him.

Al Gore never said it, Alter now says. But back in real time, when it actually mattered, it was easy for Republicans to drive the campaign which sent George Bush to the White House. You see, here’s what Alter was saying back then, back in real time, when it actually mattered. His column appeared on October 9, 2000, six days after Bush and Gore’s first debate. Much of what Alter wrote in this passage is astounding. In the second paragraph, we’ll highlight the point that’s directly relevant to his new column:

ALTER (10/16/00): Which brings us to Velcro Al, whose every misstatement sticks to him. Several of the reports of his lies have themselves been exaggerated. Take last week. After dozens of trips with FEMA chief James Lee Witt to other disaster sites, it's understandable how he might confuse them, and say he had accompanied Witt to the Texas fires. (In fact, Gore was briefed in Texas by one of Witt's deputies.) And the embellished story about the Sarasota, Fla., student who had to stand in class in her overcrowded school was the result of bad staff work; no one double-checked the original story. If these slips had been made by any other politician, they would have caused barely a peep.

The weird thing is that Gore clearly knew he was under extra scrutiny on this score. His rise in the polls stopped in September right around the time he was lambasted for claiming to have heard a union song as a lullaby that was actually written when he was in his 40s, and for making up a story about his mother-in-law and his dog to illustrate a point about prescription-drug prices. He realized that one of the ways he could lose the first debate was to reinforce the media cliches about "Love Story," Love Canal and inventing the Internet. As Mickey Kaus wrote last week on his Web site kausfiles.com: "The question isn't whether Gore is a liar and whether that's worse than Bush being dim; it's whether Gore's lying shows that, in some respects, he's dim, too.”

This form of dimness may be hardwired into Gore's brain. His biographer, NEWSWEEK's Bill Turque, attributes it to the Washington culture of the 1950s and 1960s, when "public figures could frame their images more or less as they wanted." Gore's mother, for instance, has long claimed that she always cooked little Al's dinner and sat with him while he ate, when, in truth, she and Senator Gore Sr. were usually out.

The danger to Gore is that the fibbing will blossom into a full-blown credibility crisis, giving Bush an opening to cast doubt on everything Gore says...

On October 9, when that column appeared, world history hung in the balance. And guess what? It was easy to be a Republican hit-man—when “liberal” journalists were willing to type pure twaddle like that on your behalf.

Much of that passage is simply astounding. Alter used three potent words quite freely—“liar,” “lies” and “lying.” He even descended to the point of saying that Candidate Gore may be such a big liar because his mother was a big liar too. And of course, he cited gong-show examples of Gore’s “fibbing” and “lying.” In fact, Gore’s “union lullaby” statement was an obvious joke, as even Bob Novak had written, weeks earlier. And no, Gore didn’t “mak[e] up a story about his mother-in-law and his dog.” As best anyone ever showed, Gore’s statements were perfectly accurate. (There was no full transcript or tape of what he had actually said.) Gore’s accurate data, about prescription drug prices, had come from a widely-cited House study. And his statements about his mother-in-law and his dog were accurate too. In fact, Gore’s mother-in-law and his pet dog had been prescribed the same arthritis drug—the drug at issue in the House study. Which part of Gore’s statement was “a story?” Alter forgot to say.

By the way: Who was the source of the ballyhooed claim that Gore lied about those doggy pills? As Newsweek’s Evan Thomas reported a few weeks later, the claim had been funneled to the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson—by Bush campaign hack Dan Bartlett. For Republicans, it was easy to be “good at the game” when mainstream journalists would peddle your bull-roar for you. It was easy playing hard with these guys at your command.

But we especially mention Alter’s eight-year-old column because of that passage from his new piece. “Al Gore never actually said, ‘I invented the Internet,’” Alter writes this week—eight years after he wrote the column which threw that claim into an unholy stew about Gore’s “fibbing” and “lying.” It was easy to be a Republican then, with people like Alter playing that game. Sorry, but Republicans didn’t have to “play the game with genius, courage, creativity,” as Kinsley pretends. They just had to peddle their bull-roar—and then watch the Alters recite.

In Saturday’s column, Kinsley claims that Republicans have played the game better down through the years. We have a sardonic view of that hoary old claim, so we made an instant decision: We decided to take the Kinsley Challenge! We decided to look at Kinsley’s work in the elections he cites in his column. When we did, we saw why it has been easy for Republicans to “play the game well.”

TOMORROW—PART 2: Kinsley discusses the media

Alter’s full-blown crisis: Of course, here’s the most ludicrous sentence from that old Alter column. It was easy being hard—when “journalists” were phoning it in from Mars:

ALTER (10/16/00): The danger to Gore is that the fibbing will blossom into a full-blown credibility crisis, giving Bush an opening to cast doubt on everything Gore says...

In fact, the alleged “fibbing” had “blossom[ed] into a full-blown credibility crisis” for Gore nineteen months earlier, in March 1999. That’s when “invented the Internet” started, becoming an instant point of ridicule all through the mainstream “press.” This very week, writing bravely in Newsweek, a Kinsley type tells us that Gore never said it. We thought you should see what he said in real time—when he and his colleagues made it so easy for GOP types to play hard.