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Daily Howler: Kristof pretended to march off to war. But he failed to confront those rough Swifties
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KRISTOF DODGES THE DRAFT! Kristof pretended to march off to war. But he failed to confront those rough Swifties: // link // print //

THE NEWEST FAKE FACT: Your society is incapable of serious discourse. Yesterday, President Bush went to the UN—and on cable, the ants came spilling out of the anthills, roiled by Dan Rather’s troubling report. Make no mistake: When a nuclear device goes off in New York, we’ll be discussing the latest such “scandal.” We’ll be pretending that big news orgs only blow stories about big Republicans. As the ants race around in circles, a decade of hoaxes about Clinton and Gore will have gone down the memory hole.

And as they savage the liberal press, the ants will be making up fake facts themselves. On last night’s Hardball, pundits shook their fists and muttered imprecations about that CBS bungling. Indeed, Chris Matthews was so disturbed by the network’s fake documents that he decided to answer in kind, stealing a fake fact from his pal, Pat Buchanan! Emulating those he attacks, Matthews uttered the very howler we discussed yesterday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/21/04). How pathetic is Hardball’s host? The gentleman bore false witness against Ben Barnes, his own Nantucket neighbor:

MATTHEWS (9/21/04): You believe particularly that the role of the former lieutenant governor, Ben Barnes, who says now that he helped put together that sweet billet for the president back in the Guard back all those years ago, having said the opposite before. And, of course, his daughter is questioning that and challenging that. You believe he was part of the package.
“Having said the opposite before?” As we noted yesterday, Buchanan keeps insisting that Barnes’ recent statement on 60 Minutes II contradicted what he has said in the past. Now Matthews recited the pleasing claim too. Too bad that the claim is so bogus.

What’s the history here? Barnes’ first public statement about Bush-and-the-Guard occurred in 1999—back in a time when the national press was avoiding this topic for all it was worth. Barnes was forced to testify in a court case about his role in this matter. George Lardner reported the story for the Washington Post:

LARDNER (9/28/99): Former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Ben Barnes said under oath today that he recommended George W. Bush for a pilot's slot in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War at the behest of a Houston businessman close to the Bush family.

Testifying in a deposition for a lawsuit that has stirred up allegations of preferential treatment for Bush, now the governor of Texas seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Barnes said he relayed that information to a top Bush campaign official, Don Evans, more than a year ago.

In a statement issued after his deposition, Barnes said he assured Evans that neither Bush's father, former president George Bush, who was a Republican congressman from Houston when George W. entered the Guard in 1968, "nor any other member of the Bush family" asked Barnes for help.

But of course, that’s exactly what Barnes told Rather. As Lardner continued, he filled in the details.
LARDNER: [Barnes] said he was contacted by Sid Adger, a wealthy Houston businessman and a good friend of the senior Bush. Barnes said Adger asked him to "recommend George W. Bush for a pilot position with the Air National Guard" and Barnes did so in a call to Brig. Gen. James M. Rose, the top official in the Air Guard.
Again, that’s just what Barnes told Rather. But in the wake of that naughty TV appearance, the RNC decided to pretend that Barnes was contradicting past statements. And Pat Buchanan, a willing dissembler, has been peddling the fake, phony “fact” every night. Last night, the egregious Matthews finally succumbed. Matthews began to spread the phony fact all over America too.

Of course, such conduct is nothing new for Matthews, the weak, self-dealing multimillionaire who has made a sick joke of your lives for years. But we hope that you emit harsh, mordant chuckles as you see the corps’ fallen culture grow. On Hardball, worried pundits shook their fists, troubled by CBS’ blunders. As they did so, phony “facts” like this one were spread—peddled around by the same fake men who pretended to be so disturbed.

Your press corps displays a fallen culture. Matthews has been a key player for years. Why do you read that here, but nowhere else? Why do you seldom read about Matthews? Because other “journalists,” weak little boys, want to get on Hardball too! Matthews had played you for fools, for years. But pundits shake their fists about Rather. Somehow, Chris Matthews is spared.

Postscript: Later last night, Buchanan appeared for the nightly insanity that takes place in Scarborough Country. The inmates truly run the asylum in that sad, benighted land. So, amid a welter of shouted complaints, Buchanan advanced his favorite fake statement. Does the RNC wants this fake fact spread? Endlessly calling for CBS firings, Buchanan lied in your faces:

BUCHANAN (9/21/04): There are ties everywhere! Ben Barnes, 30-year friend of Dan Rather’s, suddenly flips and says, “Yes, I did use influence.” Who is Barnes? Fund-raiser for Kerry, Nantucket neighbor of Kerry! Look, I can’t prove that anything happened here. But there is smoke all over the place here, Joe!
Remember: In Scarborough Country, the louder you say it, the more true it is. But surely no one was blowing more smoke than the fake, phony man who repeats that fake fact every night. Ben Barnes had “suddenly flipped?” Sorry. That fact is just bogus. But it made a pleasing way to beat up on CBS.

In Scarborough Country, the corps’ fallen culture is on full display. Laughter echoes off Zeus’ walls as the gods watch these fallen men peddle their tales. By the way, Rick Kaplan is the fallen man who lets this clowning proceed each night. You know the deal here. The rubes are handed fake, pleasing facts—and Kaplan is pleased with the ratings.

Our current series—Smear Boat veterans!

IT’S THE SMEAR BOAT: For Parts 1-4 of this endless series, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/17/04. Now, for our stirring Part 5:

PART 5—KRISTOF DODGES THE DRAFT: We return this week to our endless report on the O’Neill/Corsi book, Unfit for Command. But as we do so, let’s look at Nicholas Kristof’s critique of the Swift Boat Vets in Saturday’s New York Times. (Kristof also writes today about related matters.)

Some of you wrote us to praise Kristof’s Saturday column, but we had a different reaction. Yes, Kristof delivers a solid kiss-off to some of O’Neill’s basic charges. But he does so in a blatantly dishonest way—by refusing to acknowledge the task that confronts him. Here is one example:

KRISTOF (9/18/04):Did Mr. Kerry deserve his Bronze Star? Yes. The Swift Boat Veterans claim that he was not facing enemy fire when he rescued a Green Beret, Jim Rassmann, but that is contradicted by those were there, like William Rood and Mr. Rassmann (a Republican). In fact, Mr. Rassmann recommended Mr. Kerry for a Silver Star.
Readers enjoyed Kristof’s pleasing conclusion, but his reasoning here is utterly bogus. According to Kristof, the Swift Boat Vets “claim that Kerry was not facing enemy fire.” But so what, the pundit says; the claim “is contradicted by those who were there.” It’s hard to imagine a more facile answer. In fact, the claim is contradicted by some who were there—and the claim is supported by others who were present. It’s sad to see such facile “reasoning” show up on the Times op-ed page. That “fallen culture” we discussed in yesterday’s HOWLER is reflected in this hapless effort. (Note: Rood wasn’t present at the Bronze Star event. Kristof corrects the mistake this morning.)

But then, Kristof simply ducks several Swift Boat Vet charges. Here is another example:

KRISTOF: Did Mr. Kerry get his first Purple Heart for a self-inflicted wound? That's the accusation of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who say that the injury came (unintentionally) from a grenade that Mr. Kerry himself fired at Viet Cong. In fact, nobody knows where the shrapnel came from, and it’s possible that the critics are right. It's not certain that the Viet Cong were returning fire. But the only other American on the boat in a position to see anything, Bill Zaldonis [sic] (who says he voted for Mr. Bush in 2000), told me, “He was hurt, and I don't think it was self-inflicted.”
Perhaps coincidentally, Kristof misspells Zaladonis’ name the same way O’Neill and Corsi do. But that’s his last point of deference to the Swift Boat Vets. In this passage, Kristof describes Zaladonis as “the only other American on the boat in a position to see anything.” And, of course, that’s pleasingly true—if you simply adopt Kerry’s account. But alas! The Swift Boat Vets say that Kerry’s supervisor, William Schachte, was also on the boat that night. In this puzzling passage, Kristof plays dumb about this claim. How does Kristof shoot down the Swift Vet claim? Simple. By pretending not to know what they’ve said.

Of course, it’s always easy to reject a claim if you refuse to report what the claim really is, or if you omit contradictory evidence. You can get an easy column that way—but you won’t convince a well-informed soul who isn’t on your side to begin with. In this column, Kristof ends up bathed in glory, referring to the Swift Vet claims as “one of the ugliest smears in modern U.S. politics.” But Swift Vet supporters will see the emptiness in Kristof’s “reasoning.” They won’t be convinced by his sleight of hand. In fact, they will sink more deeply into self-pity. They will be more convinced than ever—that mainstream scribes simply aren’t prepared to confront the Swift Vets’ actual claims.

The weakness of Kristof’s approach to this matter continues in today’s column. Kristof is troubled by what has gone on. “Even though the Swift Boat Veterans' accusations are unsubstantiated, wealthy Bush supporters have turned them into campaign ads—and the press has often covered the result like a sporting event, rather than trying to find the truth,” he laments. What can we do about matters like this? How can we deal with matters like these in the future? That’s the question we will answer at the end of our endless report. But Kristof—too lazy to confront the real Swift Vet claims—plays Pollyanna when he speaks to those questions:

KRISTOF (9/22/04): The only hope for stopping the mudslinging is if well-meaning people try to police their own side.

If they're intellectually consistent, Democrats will speak out not only against the Swift Boat Veterans but also against Mr. Kerry's demagoguery on trade, like his suggestion that outsourcing is the result of Mr. Bush's economic policies. Trade demagoguery may not be as felonious as an assault on a war hero's character, but it harms America by undermining support for free trade.

I'm afraid that the dishonesty of politics has infected all of us if we're so partisan that we're willing to point out only the sins of the other side. Intellectual consistency requires a tough look first at one's own shortcomings. So Republicans should be denouncing the smear against Mr. Kerry's war record, and Democrats should be denouncing their candidate's protectionist tone on trade.

That’s the end of Kristof’s column—and what an empty solution he offers! In the future, Democrats must denounce facile Dems! And Republicans must police their own too! Who knows? Maybe Tinkerbell can be drafted to join the battle against future smears! Kristof’s solution comes from a dream world—and most tellingly, it doesn’t say a single word about the future role of the press. How should the press corps deal with future matters like this? In his stirring and silly conclusion, the uplifting scribe doesn’t tell.

Did the Swift Vets launch a flotilla of “smears?” Kristof took the easy way out in his Saturday column; to all appearances, he didn’t want to dirty his hands with the hard work of confronting their actual claims. In fact, the Swift Vet claims are hard to refute because they deal with the dim, distant past. It’s hard to know what happened on the Bay Hap River 36 long years in the past. Many liberals have happily said that the Swift Vet claims have been shown to be “lies.” That’s an exceptionally facile claim. People who take this easy way out are failing to prepare themselves for future rounds of nasty attacks which will come from well-schooled accusers.

In the future, White House hopefuls will surely confront such nasty attacks. In many cases—as in this case—the truth of the claims won’t be easy to settle. How should the press corps deal with such matters? Not in the ways they have done in the past—and not in the facile way Kristof suggests. Yes, the press corps needs to be better prepared to deal with murky attacks by accusers. But Kristof doesn’t set a standard—not in the lazy “reasoning”: of Saturday’s piece, and not in the Pollyanna proffer he lays out for us this morning.

As our report continues, we’ll show you what’s actually wrong with Unfit for Command. And oh yeah! We’ll suggest the approach the press corps must take in assessing future accusers.