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KINSLEY FLIPS! It’s hard to find sufficient contempt for a flip-flopper like Michael Kinsley: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2008

WE’RE ALL SEAN HANNITY NOW: Josh Marshall’s descent into Hannity Land has been a dizzying ride. But even by Josh’s declining standards, this gruesome post by Kate Klonick represents a new low in rube-running. (David Kurtz linked to the piece, on page one.) Do you enjoy being treated like fools? If so, you’ll love Klonick’s opening:

KLONICK (9/15/08): On the campaign trail, Sarah Palin likes to brag about how she put the Alaska state jet on eBay and fired the governor's personal chef. One item that doesn't appear in her stump speech, however, is the personal tanning bed Palin had installed in the governor's mansion.

Since Palin bought this item herself (see paragraph 2), it’s hard to see how it relates to the paring of those state assets. But then, our dwindling intelligence gets insulted again as Klonick ends her groaner:

KLONICK: The news of Palin's luxurious purchase—beds can cost as much as $35,000—presents a sharp contrast to the blue-collar persona she projects on the campaign trail.

Readers, journalists can be paid as much as $10 million. Why does Marshall pay Kate Klonick such a ridiculous salary?

Truly, we’re all Sean Hannity now. Sorry, no—we’re Hannity’s viewers. Do you like it when your leaders treat you like the world’s biggest rubes? By the way: As a matter of simple politics, it’s amazingly stupid to write this about Palin even as you attack Palin’s misstatements.

CHARLIE AND GEORGE, UNSKILLED LABOR: George Stephanopoulos rolled over and died, feet extending into the air. His demise began when Carly Fiorina made this baldly inaccurate statement on Sunday’s This Week:

FIORINA (9/14/08): The facts are that Sarah Palin rejected the money for the Bridge to Nowhere. The facts are that Barack Obama has asked for more earmarks in his short tenure than Sarah Palin ever has. And if we want to have an argument about the facts of reform, let's ask whether Barack Obama has ever stood up against his party, has ever took a tough position...

The highlighted statement is baldly inaccurate; by any reasonable standard, Fiorina’s claim (about “the facts”) was blatantly false. Stephanopoulos knew this, of course. And so, he pretended to act:

STEPHANOPOULOS: On point on the Bridge to Nowhere: It's true that she stopped the Bridge to Nowhere project—

FIORINA: Yes, she did stop it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But she did keep the money.

FIORINA: Sarah Palin has made significant reforms and significant progress in the amount of earmark money that Alaska takes. She stood up as governor and said, We must reform this corrupting process. It is true that as mayor she worked within the system that she was a part of but it is also true that she stepped forward against her own party and said, enough is enough.

Sad. From that exchange, would a previously uninformed viewer know if Palin “rejected the money?” Fiorina’s initial claim was absurd. But when Stephanopoulos challenged her statement, he let her blather on in reply. At this point, he moved to another topic. He let her misstatement stand.

But so it goes as slick music men—slick players like Palin—sell fake “hero tales” to the public.

Stephanopoulos rolled over and died when Fiorina pimped her fake tale. With this, we return to Charlie Gibson, trying to clarify this matter in his interview with Palin herself.

What is Gibson’s annual salary? After a cursory search, we have no idea. According to Howard Kurtz, Gibson was being paid $3 million ten years ago, long before the major promotion which made him ABC’s evening anchor. (Gibson replaced the late Peter Jennings, whose estimated swag was $10 million, in 2002.) In 2002, Kurtz reported that Stephanopoulos was being paid “more than $1 million” per year.

For swag like that, you’d almost think you could hire a person with real skill. But Gibson was no match for Palin when it came to the Bridge to Nowhere tale. Do you mind if we tell you a dirty secret? Charlie Gibson is highly unskilled. His salary is high—but his skill set is low. This became clear when he chatted with Palin that bridge—when he held his discussion from nowhere.

(To read the full transcript of this exchange, you know what to do: Just click here.)

Sadly, Charlie started out well, doing what colleagues often don’t; he semi-quoted the actual “hero tale” Palin has been pimping to the public. The analysts cheered when they saw poor Charlie get off to this promising start:

GIBSON (9/12/08): You have said continually, since he chose you as his vice presidential nominee, that, “I said to Congress, thanks but not thanks. If we're going to build that bridge, we'll build it ourselves.”
PALIN: Right.

Sadly, that isn’t Palin’s actual quote. (Can these people do anything right?) But so what? Cheers rang out in our vast halls, just because Charlie tried and came close! But predictably, things went downhill from there. Charlie ran straight to a worthless construction—and Palin began to blowing smoke:

GIBSON (continuing directly): But it's now pretty clearly documented. You supported that bridge before you opposed it. You were wearing a T-shirt in the 2006 campaign, showed your support for the Bridge to Nowhere.

PALIN: I was wearing a T-shirt with the zip code of the community that was asking for that bridge. Not all the people in that community even were asking for a $400 million or $300 million bridge.

Sad. The fact that Palin “supported that bridge before she opposed it” doesn’t mean that her claim is inaccurate; it could mean that she told the Congress to take their bridge and shove it once she heroically came to her senses. And Palin used the t-shirt distraction to offer a largely irrelevant point about the community’s views. (Why did Charlie mention the t-shirt? He wanted to use a visual!)

Charlie should have avoided that pointless construction—and his questions should have been simple. He should have stuck with Palin’s precise hero tale. He should have started with this:

HOW CHARLIE SHOULD HAVE STARTED: But when did you tell the Congress “thanks by no thanks” when it came to that bridge? When you finally abandoned the project last fall, didn’t you say you were dropping the project because Congress wouldn’t give you more money to complete it?

The whole point of Palin’s claim is this: I heroically stood up to Congress. Charlie should have made her explain when she did that. His follow-up, after her blather, should have been this:

HOW CHARLIE SHOULD HAVE CONTINUED: But doesn’t your story give the impression that you told the Congress to keep their money? And that impression is totally false! Can’t we at least establish one fact tonight: You kept all the federal money? And since you did that, how does any of this make you a “maverick,” as your ads now claim?

This would have forced the dissembling pol to define her heroic conduct. Instead, Charlie wandered all about, with Palin creating endless confusion. This murky, confusing discussion ensued, thanks to Gibson’s lack of skill. We’ll highlight Charlie’s best attempt at a point:

GIBSON: But you were for it before you were against it. You were solidly for it for quite some period of time, until Congress pulled the plug.

PALIN: I was—I was for infrastructure being built in the state. And it's not inappropriate for a mayor or for a governor to request and to work with their Congress and their congressmen, their congresswomen, to plug into the federal budget along with every other state a share of the federal budget for infrastructure.

GIBSON: Right.

PALIN: What I supported was the link between a community and its airport. And we have found that link now.

GIBSON: But you didn't say no to Congress, we’ll build it ourselves until after they pulled the plug. Correct?

PALIN: No, because Congress still allowed those dollars to come into Alaska. They did.

GIBSON: Well, but—

PALIN: Transportation fund dollars still came into Alaska. It was our choice, Charlie, whether we were going to spend it on a bridge or not. And I said, “Thanks, but no thanks. We're not going to spend it on the bridge.” And now obviously, Charlie, with the federal government saying, “No, the rest of the nation does not want to fund that project,” you have a choice. You either read the writing on the wall and understand okay, yes, that, that project's going nowhere. And the state isn't willing to fund that project. So what good does it do to continue to support something that circumstances have so drastically changed? You call an audible, and you deal in reality, and you move on. And, Charlie, we killed the Bridge to Nowhere and that's the bottom line.

At this point, Charlie gave up. Given his inordinate lack of skill, we’ll have to say we don’t blame him.

Palin’s explanation is jumbled, and it seems self-contradictory at major points. At its best, it seems to be this: “Sure, I accepted the federal money—but I didn’t spend it on Congress’ flunky old project. I could have spent it on that bridge—but I spent it on more worthwhile projects. In the meantime, we’ve found a better ‘link’ between that community and its airport.” At the same time, though, she seems to imply that she would have built the bridge if the federal government hadn’t said, “No, the rest of the nation doesn’t want to fund that project.” But the whole discussion was massively jumbled, due to Gibson’s lack of skill. We’d have to guess that very few viewers came away with a clear understanding.

Palin seemed to be contradicting herself in that long-winded declamation. She still claimed that she said “Thanks, but no thanks,” even as she plainly said that “the federal government” said “no” to her! But a slippery pol can escape with jumbled tales—if her host can’t keep her on task. Gibson let Palin escape Friday night. Stephanopoulos extended the favor to Carly two days later.

Bottom line: In September 2007, Palin’s press release said she was killing this project because the Congress wouldn’t give her more money. Her whole hero tale falls apart on that fact. But so what? In the course of this rambling exchange, Charlie failed to cite it.

But then, skilled labor is hard to find these days. Millions of dollars won’t do it.

What Robinson heard: In today’s Post, Gene Robinson writes that Palin “fessed up” to telling a “lie” in this session with Gibson. He marvels at the way she went right back to telling that lie—the lie to which she’d confessed. But in fact, Palin wasn’t confessing to a lie when she spoke with Gibson that night; she was defending her original story. We think her defense was impossibly weak, but that’s because we know the fuller story. In fact, many viewers will come away with different ideas of what was said. That’s because the interview was conducted by a man with a very large salary—and little discernible skill.

Special report: By dint of their narratives!

READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: John McCain is on his way to the White House by dint of his party’s narratives. Read each thrilling installment:

PART 1: Republicans say the darnedest things—by dint of their powerful narratives. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/13/08.

PART 2: Joe Klein is mad at Saint McCain—now. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/15/08.

Today, in Part 2A, we look on at Slick Kinsley flips:

PART 2A—KINSLEY FLIPS: If John McCain reaches the White House, he will have done so, in large part, because of his powerful narratives. One such narrative belongs to him alone. We reviewed that narrative yesterday:

John McCain is the world’s most honest man.

For the past dozen years, childish journalists—men like Joe Klein—have hammered this narrative into place, even praising the great Saint McCain for his lies. Within the world of halfwits like Klein, everything has proved McCain’s moral greatness over the past dozen years. If McCain ends up in the White House next year, the narrative men like Klein helped build will have carried the candidate there. Recent protestations to the side, childish chipmunks like Klein have put McCain in position to win.

But then, this narrative about McCain’s moral greatness is a sub-set of a larger narrative. Today, it’s easy for voters to trust McCain’s statements because the saintly man is a Republican—and under the laws of the past sixteen years, it’s Democrats who tell all the lies, who have all those “problems with the truth.” The press has relentlessly pimped this theme about the era’s important figures. In the Clinton/Gore/Clinton era, a great moral contrast has ruled the work of your press corps:

Bill Clinton: Derided as “Slick Willie”
Al Gore: A delusional liar, willing to do and say anything
John Kerry: A feckless flip-flopper
Hillary Clinton: Even lied about the Cubs! And about her arrival in Kosovo!

Bob Dole: War hero, despite refusal to enlist
John McCain: World’s biggest straight-talker
George W. Bush: Plain-spoken; always says what he means
Rudy Giuliani: Blunt, direct “America’s Mayor”

Bush’s reputation finally slid—once he had destroyed the known world. But in the past sixteen years, a succession of major Democrats have been said to have “problems with the truth”—and a succession of major Republicans have been known for their plain-spoken candor. John McCain is the world’s most honest man is one part of this larger narrative.

Dems are dishonest; Republicans aren’t. McCain and Palin are riding this narrative as they try to reach the White House. And who has allowed this theme to thrive over the course of the past sixteen years? Let’s consider Michael Kinsley, who posted a deeply troubled column for the Washington Post last week. “Why Do Lies Prevail?” the great pundit’s headline asked.

Poor Kinsley! In his short, six-paragraph piece, he ran through his cohort’s current theories about McCain’s deeply troubling lying. (Suddenly, the Kinsleys and Kleins can spot this problem, having been blind to it in the past.) But uh-oh! In the following passage, Kinsley asks and answers a basic question: Why do obvious liars prevail? Truth to tell, our analysts gagged when they read Kinsley’s answer:

KINSLEY (9/10/08): [I]t shouldn’t be necessary to wait for one of McCain’s conveniently delayed conversions to righteousness. In a democracy, obvious lies and obvious liars should be self-defeating. Why aren’t they?

One reason is that the media have trouble calling a lie a lie, or asserting that one side is lying more than the other—even when that is objectively the case. They lean over backwards to give liars the benefit of the doubt, even when there is no doubt. Objectivity can’t be objectively measured. What can be is balance. So if the sins of both campaigns are reported as roughly equal, the media feel they are doing their job—even if this is objectively untrue.

But the bigger reason is that no one—not the media, not the campaign professionals, not the voters—cares enough about lying. To some extent, they even respect a well-told lie as evidence of professionalism. If a candidate complains too much about an opponent’s lies, he or she starts being regarded as a bad sport, a whiner. Stoic silence doesn’t work either. People start asking why you don’t “fight back.” Pretty soon, the victim of the lies starts getting blamed. C’mon: this isn’t paddycakes; politics ain’t beanball; and so on. This happened to Al Gore in 2000 and to John Kerry in 2004. And it’s already starting to happen to Barack Obama this year.

No one cares enough about lying, Kinsley says. Pretty soon, the victim of lies starts getting blamed! And omigod! In that same paragraph, Kinsley identifies Kerry and Gore as two past victims of this syndrome. Gore and Kerry were victims of lies, Kinsley writes. They were victims of the media’s indifference to the problem of lying.

It’s hard to find sufficient contempt for a man like Kinsley.

With this heartfelt formulation, Kinsley arrives rather late at the scene. It’s too bad he didn’t say such things back when it might have actually mattered, back when Kerry and Gore were becoming the victims of lies. How did Kinsley in real time—when protestations might have mattered? Like so many of his colleagues, Kinsley made it perfectly clear: He didn’t seem to care very much about all that anti-Democrat lying. Gore and Kerrty could be victims all day for all that Kinsley cared.

Today, Kinsley is typing conventional wisdom about Saint McCain’s bad lying. But what did he write during Campaign 2000, when, according to his own formulation, Candidate Gore was a “victim of lies?” In the fall of 2000, Kinsley was writing a weekly column for the Post—a column which appeared each Tuesday. From September 5 through November 7, he thus wrote ten columns.

Today, Kinsley tells us that, during that period, Candidate Gore was a “victim of lies.” But he wrote nothing about this—nothing at all—when this victimization was happening. Apparently, Kinsley didn’t “care enough about lying” when this lying was going on. In part thanks to Kinsley, many voters believed the claims that were endlessly made against Gore. To this day, this shapes the way they look at Palin, McCain and Obama.

Let’s travel back: As of Labor Day 2000, Gore had been widely trashed as a liar for eighteen consecutive months. (Al Gore said he invented the Internet was invented in March 1999.) Here at THE HOWLER, we had started debunking these claims the week they started. But Kinsley never touched this problem in the ten columns he wrote in the fall of 2000. He did discuss lying on September 26, in a column headlined, “Frankly My Dear.” But ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! The gentleman’s tongue was firmly in cheek, right where men of his high station enjoyed positioning their tongues as the latest vile Dem got trashed. This is how Kinsley started:

KINSLEY (9/26/00): How can you tell when a politician is lying? Don't say, "When his mouth is open and words are coming out." That is a cheap shot, quite frankly, unworthy of readers of this column. A better clue is when he or she is using the word "frankly" or—especially—"quite frankly.”

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Kinsley’s column, an ironic laugh riot, dealt with the way politicians say “frankly” when they’re about to say something dishonest. This was a bit of good solid fiun. But it ignored what was happening at the time.

The week before, Gore had been hit with the latest twin claims about his alleged vile lying—with the ludicrous claims that he had lied about 1) those doggy pills and 2) that union lullaby. These two charges were utterly bogus; Gore’s comment about the “lullaby” was an obvious joke. But the charges had revived the punishing claim that Candidate Gore was the world’s biggest liar. Here at THE HOWLER (and at Speakout.com), we were struggling to debunk these claims—the kinds of claims which made Gore a “victim” and sent George Bush to the White House But Kinsley, who calls Gore a victim today, was yukking it up in real time.

As such, it’s hard to find sufficient contempt for a man like Michael Kinsley. As he displayed his skill at the dance, another Big Dem was branded a liar—made a “victim,” he tells us. Today.

Unfortunately, Kinsley turned to the subject of lying one more time before the election. That was in his October 10 column, headlined, “Lies the press likes.” By now, Gore was being universally trashed for a new set of alleged lies, lies he had supposedly told at his first debate with Bush. (In one of these deeply troubling “lies,” Gore was reading from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about a shortage of desks at Sarasota High School.) But even now, in the nineteenth month of this war, Kinsley wrote another meta-column—a column in which he casually referred, again and again, to Candidate Gore’s many “lies.” Cokie Roberts couldn’t have rattled her cohort’s talking-points better:

KINSLEY (10/10/00): So why is the issue Gore's lies and not Cheney's, or virtually any other politician's? After all, Gore's fabrications are also inconsequential—in fact, their distinguishing characteristic is that they derive from no calculation and serve no apparent purpose. What difference does it make, except as a test of Gore's veracity, whether he visited a disaster area with or without the head of FEMA?

One explanation is that Gore's embroideries can be objectively disproven, whereas Cheney's assertions about his own mental state are merely false on their face. Journalists are more comfortable with the former.

Also, as others have explained, there is a bizarre press convention that assigns every candidate an official flaw—Gore lies, Bush is dumb—and only plays up incidents that confirm the diagnosis. Gore can say stupid things without fear, and Bush can tell whoppers, but not the other way around.

But the main reason Gore's lies are a big issue and Cheney's are not is precisely that Gore's lies are trivial and serve no purpose. Cheney's, by contrast, are part of the official campaign kabuki. Sometimes the press exposes lies, but sometimes it virtually requires them.

Those “explanations” were all perfect bunk; today, Kinsley correctly says that Gore was himself a victim of lies. But in real time, he said no such thing, casually referring, again and again, to Gore’s “lies” and “fabrications.” When this column appeared, Kinsley’s colleagues were trashing Gore as a liar all over again, and Bush had gone back ahead in the polls; they had now been saying, for nineteen months, that Al Gore said he invented the Internet. But Kinsley couldn’t bring himself to utter a peep of actual protest. That in mind, it’s hard to find sufficient contempt for the garbage he posted last week.

With Kerry, things were no better. Today, Kinsley says that Kerry was a “victim of lies,” like Candidate Gore before him. Presumably, he refers to the Swift boat campaign. But in the summer and fall of 2004, he devoted exactly one column to the topic—and he wrote it as an ironic laugh riot. The column appeared in the Washington Post and in the Los Angeles Times, for which Kinsley was now editorial page editor. We’ll show you its headline and its opening as it appeared in the Times. Ha ha ha ha ha! Kinsley was playing the fool once again, as Kerry slid back in the polls. Yes, that was the real headline:

KINSLEY (8/29/04): George Bush’s Secret War; The Stiff Drink Vets break their silence

Veterans of George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard unit charged today that the president had misrepresented his military service during the Vietnam War. The veterans allege that during a period when the future president was supposed to be serving in the National Guard, he was actually fighting in Vietnam.

"For more than 30 years we have remained silent," said the head of the group, which calls itself Stiff Drink Veterans for Vermouth. But, he added, "we want to be on Larry King just as much as those Swift boat guys."

Two members of the group claim to be eyewitnesses. "It was a typical night at the guard offices," one of them recalled at a press conference yesterday. "OK, I'd had a few. But I personally saw George parachute down from a B-52, kill a dozen Cong with his bare hands, leap into one of those Swift boat thingies and stick his tongue out at John Kerry.”

The White House yesterday strongly denied the Stiff Drink version of events. "As has been his policy throughout his entire life," a spokesman said, "the president never left the continental United States during the Vietnam era—except for a few weekends in Tijuana. These Stiff Drink fellows are nothing more than a front for the Kerry campaign which would like to convince the American people that George W. Bush is responsible for the Vietnam War."

The Stiff Drink story is not easy to confirm or refute. On one side, claiming that Bush has been lying, are two obscure drunks with close ties to the Democratic Party...

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh boy—that was good! Today, Kinsley calls Kerry a “victim of lies.” But this clownish column represents Kinsley’s only attempt to address the claims of the Swift boat campaign. Today, he says what you want to hear, the things his colleagues are widely reciting—and he even calls Kerry a victim. But in real time, he hid in the weeds, just as he’d done four years earlier.

When McCain and Palin parade about, presenting themselves as straight-talking straight-shooters, they do so in the context of sixteen years of similar conduct from cheap sluts like Michael Kinsley. (Who good career liberal still cheer.) For sixteen years, major Dems have been presented as liars, embellishers, dishonest flip-floppers; routinely, we’ve been told that a string of Big Dems have “a problem with the truth.” (Why, Hillary Clinton even lied about the Cubs and the Yankees!) During that same period, John McCain was being portrayed as the world’s most honest human—even when he was lying his ass off during Campaign 2000. (About Bush’s budget proposal, for instance. Link below.) But it wasn’t just the saintly McCain who was construed as an honest man. During this era, every Major Republican has been blunt, plain-spoken, straigh-talking. All Big Dems have been liars.

Disgraceful people like Kinsley and Klein gamboled and played all through this era. Kinsley ignored two years of lies about Gore, then repeated the rite with Kerry. Today, he pretends to be upset at the lies McCain is telling—and he’s suddenly shedding real tears about past victimizations. In short, it’s hard to find sufficient contempt for a person of Kinsley’s low character. His grisly silence in the past sixteen years explains why a saint may yet win.

Visit our incomparable archives: John McCain dissembled endlessly during Campaign 2000. Beyond that, he had “race men” running his South Carolina campaign, a point the press largely agreed to ignore. (McCain’s men were “to the right of the National Review but to the left of the Klan,” the New Republic managed to say.) In April, he said he had lied about the confederate flag—and the press corp praised him for his honesty. This clowning behavior established the narrative McCain may yet ride to the White House.

McCain was not especially honest during Campaign 2000. We routinely discussed this in real time; for one example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/23/00. Sorry. This involves McCain’s slippery claims about Bush’s budget proposal. For some weird reason, journalists could never quite decipher Bush’s complaints about McCain’s statements. McCain’s presentations were very slick—and the press corps let it go on.

In these ways, they made him a saint. Today, they call him a liar.

TOMORROW—PART 3: McCain employs the most potent narrative of the past fifty years