YES, WE WILL: Return to Kinsley, that is. But today, we take ourselves elsewhere.
COME LET US EMBELLISH TOGETHER: This is such classic New York Timesism that we thought we should give it a whirl.
In this mornings Times, Sewell Chan offers a seven-paragraph piece concerning Hillary Clintons convention address. Specifically, Chan discusses Clintons citation of Harriet Tubman. Because the Times is defiantly inept, the actual text of Chans report cant be found on-line. But today, when we opened our hard-copy Times, we found Chan discussing the possibility that Clinton had offered an embellishment of what Tubman said. Here are the first three paragraphs of the report which appeared in our hard-copy paper:
CHAN (8/28/08): About Those Words...
In her speech Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton quoted the abolitionist Harriett Tubman as offering this advice: If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If theres shouting after you, keep going. Dont ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
But in interviews on Wednesday, two scholars say there is no evidence that Tubman, right, the organizer of the Underground Railroad, who died in Auburn, N.Y., in 1913, ever said such words. Instead, the passage appears to be a paraphrase ofand perhaps an embellishment upona popular expression that has been attributed to Tubman for decades, perhaps starting with childrens books in the mid-20th century.
And neither scholar could recall ever seeing references to dogs or torches in any of the previous versions of the keep going passage.
Poor Chan! Deeply troubled by the matter, he quoted one of the scholars. Once again, this is the version of Chans report which appears in our hard-copy Times:
CHAN (continuing directly): Milton C. Sernett, a retired professor of history at Syracuse University, and an authority on African-American history, said he found it a bit odd when he heard Mrs. Clintons Tubman citation in her speech.
If she meant it as a paraphrase of something that has been attributed to Harriet Tubman, that might be understandable, he said. But if she was meaning to quote Harriet Tubman directly, that puzzled me.
Sernett was puzzledbut then, before long, the Times had us puzzled too! As we continued with Chans report, we wondered why he had quoted Sernett. Chan now quoted a second scholar, who seemed to know the quotation:
CHAN (continuing directly): Kate Clifford Larsen, who teaches history at Simmons College and Wheelock College in Boston, said in an e-mail message that her research determined that the quotation came from a juvenile account of Tubmans life sometime in the 1950s.
From that, you might think the quotation in Clintons speech came from a 1950s childrens book. But that may not be what Larsen meant in her e-mail, to judge from this longer report by Chan which the Times posted on-line. As best we can tell, the account which appears in the hard-copy Times may misstate what Larsen meantbut the matter is unclear even in Chans longer, on-line post. But then, whens the last time the New York Times explained anything, no matter how painfully simple?
Long story short: For at least fifty years, a statement, which is perhaps apocryphal, has been attributed to Tubman. In it, Tubman exhorts brave people escaping bondage to keep going in various circumstances. Sernett has never seen a version of this (perhaps apocryphal) statement in which Tubman mentions torches or dogs. As best we can tell, Larsen hasnt seen any such version eitheralthough this matter remains unclear in Chans two presentations.
We dont mention this because of the bungling and lack of clarity, which are assumed at the Times. We mention this because the Times, like other news orgs, has driven this embellishment theme for a very long timeas long as Big Dems are involved. (You might say they just keep going.) During the twenty months of Campaign 2000, for example, Candidate Gore was endlessly accused of embellishing, in a long string of matters the corps had invented. (Al Gore said he invented the Internet!) But in fact, has anyone ever embellished more statementscreated a longer string of bogus quotationsthan the Times itself?
Campaign 04: In 2004, Maureen Dowd somehow invented a statement by Kerrythat non-statement statement about loving NASCAR. No, Kerry hadnt actually said itbut Dowd somehow decided he had. In the Times, Kerry was mocked five times for the statement he hadnt made. So who was embellishing then?
Campaign 2000: In November 1999, Katherine Kit Seelye accidentally misquoted Gore, vastly affecting Campaign 2000. Completely accidentally, Seelye thought she heard Gore say the following, about the investigation of Love Canal: I was the one that started it all. We know, we knowthe statement she heard wasnt even grammatical! And in fact, as became clear, it wasnt what Gore had said. But so what? Although Seelyes error was immediately obvious, the Times refused to correct for nine daysand the hapless scribe kept insisting that her error hadnt changed Gores meaning. Meanwhile, the papers completely accidental misquotation made its way around the world. It started the month-long Love Canal flapa devastating blow to Gores candidacy. So who was embellishing then?
Campaign 2000: In December 1997, Melinda Henneberger accidentally buried what shed been told by Love Storys Eric Segaland her editor accidentally wrote a headline which misrepresented what Segal had said. Presto! Toss in two inane columns by Dowd and one by Frank Rich and you had the ludicrous Love Story flapa punishing episode used throughout Campaign 2000 to savage Gores character. Yup! The Times created that episode too! Who was embellishing then?
Campaign 92: In early 1992, William Safire and Maureen Dowd somehow dreamed a colorful version of something President Bush had supposedly said, thus creating the splash of coffee flap. (This was back in the days when such things were still done to Republicans.) For the record, the famous supermarket scanner flap also may have been bogus. And wouldnt you know it? That got started at the New York Times too!
In short, no one embellishes more than the Times. But so what? In the past decade, the Time has just luvved the embellishment narrativeas long as it applies to Big Dems. Here are some headlines from Campaign 2000, concerning Big Fat Liar Gore:
October 15, 2000: Tall Tales: Is What Weve Got Here a Compulsion to Exaggerate? (Melinda Henneberger)
October 11, 2000: His Lyin, Sighin Heart (Maureen Dowd)
October 8, 2000: Gore Admits Being Mistaken But Denies He Exaggerates (Kevin Sack)
October 6, 2000: Tendency to Embellish Fact Snags Gore (Richard Berke)
February 17, 2000: Questions of Veracity Have Long Dogged Gore (Katherine Seelye)
The October pounding sent Bush to the White House. But you have to admire the shamelessness of that February report. Two months earlier, Seelye herself had created a monster flap through her misquotation of Gorea misquotation she wouldnt acknowledge. But so what? Two months later, she wrote her latest fact-challenged piece, asking if Gore tells the truth! The concern about Mr. Gore's truthfulness dates back to the earliest days of his political career, she thoughtfully mused. (Prepare to groan: Some are familiar and fairly trivial examples, like Mr. Gore's taking credit for inventing the Internet or being the model for Erich Segal's Love Story.) But then, brand-new errors abounded this dayerrors committed by Seelye, not Gore. And uh-oh! In the course of all this embellishment by the Times, the key to this treasured narrative appeared: Questions about Mr. Gore's veracity are compounded by his service to a president whose own honesty has been assailed. Thats what this narrative has always been about, through all its inane permutations.
Today, the Times nit-picks its way through an historical matter, reviving a familiar old theme in the process. But then, this mighty paper tends to pick-and-choose when it comes to embellishments. Gigantic errors of fact get ignoredif they deal with serious policy matters. (Have you seen the Times call scholars to fact-check claims about off-shore drilling?) By way of contrast, writers like Chan are asked to expound when it comes to trivial matters like thismatters involving vile Clinton. Darlings! It was Seelye who started the Cubs-Yankees bull-roar, back in June 1999! Apparently, Seelye was deeply disturbed by the apparent embellishment!
Its hard to tell from Chans report(s) what Tubman did and didnt say. But you can pretty much count on one thing: The Times will worry about embellishmentsas long as the subject is relatively trivial, and as long as the alleged embellishment involves someone named Clinton or Gore.
FACT-CHECKING THE GODS OF THE CARPET: Now that Bill Clinton has given his speech, we thought you might want to recall Maureen Dowds prophesies about it. The prophesies were offered two weeks ago. Dowd, a face-down-on-the-living-room-carpet nut, was spreading her standard brand of hysteria about what this wild man would say.
The column in question was called, Yes, She Can. Two weeks after it appeared, it still bears this synopsis:
NEW YORK TIMES SYNOPSIS (8/13/08): Hillary Clinton feels no guilt about encouraging her supporters to mess up Barack Obamas big moment.
Now that Hillary Clinton has spoken, you can see how clairvoyant Dowd was.
What would happen when the Clintons gave their convention addresses? Below, we recall what the voices-in-the-carpet told Dowd about that. Needless to say, she mentioned Hamlet, giving her column a touch of real class. And Obama, of course, was Barry again. When Dowd is face-down on the floor, she just cant stop doing that:
DOWD (8/13/08): Yes, She Can
While Obama was spending three hours watching The Dark Knight five time zones away, and going to a fund-raiser featuring Aloha attire and Hawaiian pupus, Hillary was busy planning her convention.
You can almost hear her mind whirring: Shes amazed at how easy it was to snatch Denver away from the Obama saps. Like taking candy from a baby, except Beanpole Guy doesnt eat candy. In just a couple of weeks, Bill and Hill were able to drag No Drama Obama into a swamp of Clinton drama.
Now theyve made Barrys convention all about themtheir dissatisfaction and revisionism and barely disguised desire to see him fail. Whatever insincere words of support the Clintons muster, their primal scream gets louder: He cant win! He cant close the deal! We told you so!
Hillarys orchestrating a play within the play in Denver. Just as Hamlet used the device to show that his stepfather murdered his father, Hillary will try to show the Democrats they chose the wrong savior.
Some Democrats wish that Obama had told the Clintons to get in the box or get lost if they cant show more loyalty, rather than giving them back-to-back, prime-time speaking gigs at the convention on Tuesday and Wednesday. Al Gore clipped their wings in 2000, triggering their wrath by squeezing both the president and New York Senate candidate into speaking slots the first night and then ushering them out of L.A.
Wednesday will be all Bill. The networks will rerun his churlish comments from Africa about Obamas readiness to lead and his South Carolina meltdowns. TV will have more interest in a volcanic ex-president than a genteel veep choice.
In fact, Wednesday night was not all Bill. Indeed, as we suggested when this column appeared, Bill Clinton didnt even speak in the prime-time hour last night. But go ahead: Consider what you saw and heard from Clinton and Clinton the past two nights. Ask yourself how reliable Dowds sources werethe voices she heard in the carpet. In particular: Did Hillary Clinton try to show the Democrats they chose the wrong savior? Second question: Did Dowd call her shot about Bill Clintons speech in yesterdays lunatic column? Of course, she mentioned Beowulfit adds a touch of class:
DOWD (8/27/08): Bill Clinton is brooding in his hotel suite at Brown Palace Hotel, like the outcast Grendel lurking on the outskirts of the town where young Beowulf lived.
Bills pals said he was still gnawing at his many grievances against the younger version of himself he has to praise Wednesday night; the latest one being that the Obama folks, like all winners, wanted control over Bills speech, so that he did not give a paean to himself and his economic record, which is what he wanted to do, because he was insane that Obama said a couple critical things about his administration during a heated campaign.
Finally, Obama had to give in on Monday and say he would allow the ex-president to do exactly as he likes, which is what he usually does anyhow.
Obamas pacification of Bill made his supporters depressed and anxious that he was going to be a weaker candidate than they had hoped and fearful that, as in Obamas favorite movie, The Godfather, every time Democrats try to get away, the Clintons pull them back in.
People just constantly underestimate the narcissism of beyond narcissism of the Clintons, said one top Democrat. They keep thinking they can manage them. I wish Obama would tell them, Shut up. You guys have only cared about yourself for much too long. Get over it.
So what do you think? Did Bill Clintons speech last night leave Obama a weaker candidate? And heres a question about that last paragraph: Do you think that top Democrat really exists? Or was that another voice from the carpet?
Lets summarize: Dowd has been a screaming nut-case for very long time. Her Clinton-hatred has been all-surpassingbut she also spent lots of time bashing the Breck Girl and bashing Gore, who was so feminized hes practically lactating. She started the trashing of Michelle Obama last year, and she has endlessly denigrated her debutante husband, the starlet who is legally blonde. But so what? The Times doesnt care! Dowd is face-down on the carpet today, listening again to the voices.
Dowd has been a visible nut a long timeand her screaming has endlessly shaped our broken-souled national discourse. Now that youve seen the two Clintons speak, we thought it might be worth your time to revisit the ladys predictionsto appreciate the clairvoyance she gained from her time with the gods of the carpet.
More of this columnists visions: Heres how Dowd finished yesterdays column. (Were quoting from our hard-copy Times.) Good lord! This scribes never wrong!
DOWD: And Democrats have begun internalizing the criticisms of Hillary and John McCain about Obamas rock-star prowess, worrying that the Invesco Field extravaganza Thursday, with Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, will just add to the celebrity cachet that Democrats have somehow been shamed into seeing as a negative.
So that added to the weird mood at the convention, with some Democrats nitpicking Obamas appearance, after Michelles knock-out speech and the fabulously cute girls, with a reassuring white family in a town he couldnt remember at one point. They wondered why he wasnt wearing a tie, fearing he looked too young, and second-guessed Michelles green dress, wondering if it clashed with the blue stage, and fretted that there wasnt a speaker Monday night attacking McCain and yelling about gas prices.
Im telling you, man, said one top Democrat, its something about our party, the shtetl mentality.
Theres that top Democrat again! The one who might not quite exist!
In fact, the claim that Springsteen would appear never got past the rumor stage (though it could be true, of course). The idea was dismissed as an urban legend in yesterdays Los Angeles Times. (Delegates had excitedly gossiped about it, Tina Daunt wrote. No wonder Dowd took it for fact!) But as usual, Dowd had been talking to some Democrats who went unnamedperhaps because, if they exist, theyre the dumbest Democrats ever. In Dowds world, people are constantly fretting about the color of somebodys dress. Do you think those were real Democrats? Or was Dowd just hearing those voices againthe ones that rise up from the carpet?
Final note: Ignore that pandering to Michelle Obama. Last year, when it seemed Obama couldnt win, Dowd just pounded away at her.