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A CHANGE IN THE HOWLER (PART 1)! As Robinson over-praises Bennett, we describe future change at this site: // link // print // previous // next //

“GRACEFUL AND SERENE:” We strongly recommend fortieth reunions (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/05)—but we want to think a bit more before we describe what we saw at ours. That said, we did take the chance, while we were there, to gaze on San Mateo’s superlative children and teens. And we thought the kids were looking quite good. Much more on that topic to follow.

One quick point: We got to meet Rich Spencer’s seventh-grade son—and he wants to go to Serra! “Serra beat Bellarmine in water polo,” he explained, gazing into the middle distance. And Bellarmine (Bellarmine College Prep, San Jose) may have the best water polo program in the nation. Of course, we even fact-check kids at THE HOWLER, and we have to admit that we can’t quite confirm this report about Serra’s triumph. (Knowing San Mateo’s kids as we do, we’ll only say that Spencer II may have been citing a win by Serra’s freshmen.) But we were pleased to see that San Mateo’s kids still have their priorities straight, just as we did when we were that age. We were glad that the Golden State’s mitt-pounding kids still know how much that stuff matters.

Special report—A change in the Howler!

PART 1—WHEN BENNETT WENT BAD: It’s true—we rarely get the chance to praise the analytical powers of a Post columnist. So let’s seize the moment this very day as Gene Robinson analyzes Bill Bennett’s recent, much-flogged remarks. Our new champion is right on the mark as he lays out the problem with Bennett’s statement:

ROBINSON (10/4/05): Bennett was referring to research done by Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economist and lead author of the best-selling book "Freakonomics." The iconoclastic Levitt, something of an academic rock star, argues that the steep drop in crime in the United States over the past 15 years resulted in part from the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion...

Levitt's thesis is essentially that unwanted children who grow up poor in single-parent households are more likely than other children to become criminals, and that Roe v. Wade resulted in fewer of these children being born. What he doesn't do in the book is single out black children.

Is Levitt right? Did the legalization of abortion produce the subsequent drop in crime rates? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But as Robinson says, Bennett singled out black kids in his now iconic remarks, something Levitt doesn’t do. Robinson is fair, but right on target, as he goes on to discuss why that was a bad thing to do.

But then again, it’s always somethin’! For our money, Robinson is a bit too fair in his remarks about Bennett. “I grew up in the South in the days when we had to drink at ‘colored’ water fountains and gas stations had separate ‘colored’ restrooms,” Robinson, an African-American, writes. “I know what a real racist is like, and Bennett certainly doesn't fit the description.” We don’t have any problem with that. But we do draw the line at this comment:

ROBINSON (continuing directly): But that's what's so troubling about [Bennett’s] race-specific "thought experiment"—that such a smart, well-meaning opinion maker would so casually say something that translates, to African American ears, as "blacks are criminals.”
But has Bennett really earned the right to be praised as “such a smart, well-meaning opinion maker?” We agree with some of Bennett’s policy instincts, but we think he surrendered the right to respect with an atrocious, appalling column he wrote at the end of Campaign 2000 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/03). Nasty, stupid, ugly and vile, the column exposed a third-rate mind—and an ugly, fallen moral consciousness. Robinson is on-point about Bennett’s recent remarks, but we don’t know why he continues to pander. Or do we know? Alas—we might. We’ve discussed this stuff for too many years now. We’ve seen too many scribes looking away from the major press event of our time.

Yes, change is coming at the THE HOWLER, a change we’ll discuss for the rest of the week. Bennett’s column from October 2000 takes us back to the roots of THE HOWLER, and forms a backdrop from which to explain why it’s time to adopt a new brief.

POST PATTERN: Uh-oh! We surely can’t praise the analytical powers of Post reporter Jim VandeHei! On Sunday, VandeHei described “a new theory” about Patrick Fitzgerald’s pursuit of the Valerie Plame outing case. According to this new theory, Fitzgerald may charge “a criminal conspiracy” against Bush officials:

VANDEHEI (10/2/05): [A] new theory about Fitzgerald's aim has emerged in recent weeks from two lawyers who have had extensive conversations with the prosecutor while representing witnesses in the case. They surmise that Fitzgerald is considering whether he can bring charges of a criminal conspiracy perpetrated by a group of senior Bush administration officials. Under this legal tactic, Fitzgerald would attempt to establish that at least two or more officials agreed to take affirmative steps to discredit and retaliate against Wilson and leak sensitive government information about his wife. To prove a criminal conspiracy, the actions need not have been criminal, but conspirators must have had a criminal purpose.
To us, that new theory is clear as mud. Obviously, officials were involved in attempts “to discredit and retaliate against Wilson”—but that sort of thing occurs all the time in American politics. If we prosecuted officials every time they attempted to “discredit and retaliate against” their critics, we would have to build a thousand new jails—and a string of new courtrooms. So what would be the “criminal purpose” that would make this case stand out? If their actions weren’t criminal, why was their “underlying purpose?” VandeHei continued to type—and continued to bring no enlightenment:
VANDEHEI: One source briefed on [Judith] Miller's account of conversations with [Lewis] Libby said it is doubtful her testimony would on its own lead to charges against any government officials. But, the source said, her account could establish a piece of a web of actions taken by officials that had an underlying criminal purpose.
The actions wouldn’t be criminal themselves—but they would have “an underlying criminal purpose.” Do you have any idea what that means? At THE HOWLER, we’ll admit it. We don’t.

But then, VandeHei couldn’t even describe the simplest facts of this matter. At one point, he reviewed the history of the Plame outing case. And uh-oh! There he went again! He said something that was just flat-out bogus:

VANDEHEI: Cheney's staff was looking into [Ambassador Joseph] Wilson as early as May 2003, nearly two months before columnist Robert D. Novak identified Wilson's wife as a CIA operative, according to administration sources familiar with the effort. What stirred the interest of the vice president's office was a May 6 New York Times column by Nicholas D. Kristof in which the mission to Niger was described without using Wilson's name. Kristof's column said Cheney had authorized the trip.
Yes, it’s a fairly minor point, but Kristof’s column didn’t say that Cheney authorized Joe Wilson’s trip. Here is the passage in question from that seminal column:
KRISTOF (5/6/03): I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.

The envoy reported, for example, that a Niger minister whose signature was on one of the documents had in fact been out of office for more than a decade. In addition, the Niger mining program was structured so that the uranium diversion had been impossible. The envoy's debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted—except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway.

Yes, it’s a minor point. But if you can read, you can see that Kristof’s column didn’t say that Cheney “authorized” Wilson’s trip. When Kristof’s column appeared, Cheney may have been surprised to see his name linked to Wilson’s trip at all, since he says he never knew anything about it. (Wilson no longer disputes this point.) But VandeHei spins up the facts about this part of Kristof’s column. It makes the story a bit more compelling. But his statement is plainly just wrong.

Of course, there is one part of the passage from Kristof that is very much worth noting. We now know that Wilson was Kristof’s source for this column, and it’s clear that Kristof ended up misinformed about Wilson’s trip to Niger. In particular, Wilson never saw those famous forged documents; as such, he had no way to know who had (or hadn’t) signed them. The documents were debunked as forgeries much later—well after Wilson’s trip, and by the UN, not by Wilson. But so what? Somehow, Kristof ended up with an embellished (and grandiose) tale after his sessions with Wilson—an embellished tale in which the unnamed envoy heroically debunks those famous forged documents and tells the Admin all about them. But then, to all appearances, the Post’s Walter Pincus and the New Republic’s Judis/Ackerman got the same bogus story from Wilson. Like Kristof, they wrote off-the-record accounts of Wilson’s trip before Wilson went public in July 2003. And uh-oh! They too reported the embellished, false story! They too reported that the former ambassador heroically debunked the famous forged documents—the famous forged documents which Wilson never saw, and couldn’t imaginably have debunked.

But you know how that press corps is! VandeHei couldn’t even report the simplest fact about Kristof’s column. Meanwhile, the entire press corps has ducked the interesting part of that column—the part where Kristof seemed to get played by that “person involved in the Niger caper.” To appearances, Wilson misled Kristof, Pincus and Judis/Ackerman about what he did and saw on his trip. For this and other reasons, we have long offered incomparable advice—advice our readers have refused to accept. We have said that we ought to be careful about accepting frameworks on Plame and Niger which come to us from Wilson himself. We’ve said that we’ll wait for Fitzgerald to act before we try to judge just what happened.

In fact, the press corps adopted Wilson’s framework on these matters—adopted them right from the start. Indeed, it was one of the few events in the previous decade where the press corps adopted the Dem/liberal framework on such a key story. To this day, Wilson’s apparent dissembling has gone unexplored—and many bits of conventional wisdom have been accepted, on faith, from his mouth. We chuckled as VandeHei misstated Kristof’s column, in a way that made things a bit worse for Cheney—and as he continued to ignore the interesting part of that key Kristof piece.

But let’s return to the heart of VandeHei’s Sunday report. Do you have any idea—any idea at all—what that “underlying criminal purpose” might be? It was the central point of VandeHei’s report—and we have no earthly idea what he meant. Can’t you see why we jumped at the chance to praise Robinson’s acuity this morning? At THE HOWLER, we’re generous to a fault—so we leaped at the chance to heap propers.