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Caveat lector

OLD STORY! Milbank corrects some misstatements today. Historically, they’ve been allowed:


OLD HABITS: When the incomparable HOWLER says to jump, the press corps says, “How high?” Yesterday, we noted the press corps’ general failure to follow up on Bush misstatements (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/21/02). Today, the Post’s Dana Milbank tries to make some amends. Krugman’s piece only adds to the picture.

But why do Bush and the Bushies tend to dissemble? Because they know that it’s long been allowed. The trembling boys and girls of the Washington press corps have long turned a very blind eye to this practice. Their conduct ran all through Campaign 2000. Given the narrow way that election was decided, their conduct most likely decided the race.

For example, consider the first Bush-Gore debate. This was part of Bush’s first statement. He was describing his basic budget plan:

BUSH (10/3/00): I want to take one-half of the surplus and dedicate it to Social Security, one-quarter of the surplus for important projects, and I want to send one-quarter of the surplus back to the people who pay the bills. I want everybody who pays taxes to have their tax rates cut.
This statement was baldly inaccurate. In it, Bush says that he wants to devote one-quarter of the projected federal surplus to tax cuts, and one-quarter of the surplus to “important projects.” In fact, Bush’s budget plan called for $1.3 trillion in tax cuts over ten years—and $474 billion in new spending. In fact, his tax cuts outstripped his new spending three-to-one. Nor was it any special secret that his statement was bogus. In the weeks before this debate, Paul Krugman had devoted three separate columns to this subject (Bush was routinely making this presentation in his TV appearances and on the stump). Krugman published these pieces in the New York Times, a well-known daily American newspaper. In short, every reporter in the country surely knew that Bush’s statement was false.

Why was Bush serving this disinformation? Surely, every scribe understood that point too. Gore was arguing that Bush’s tax cuts used too much of the projected surplus. The tax cuts didn’t leave enough for important new spending, Gore said. Bush’s standard budget pitch served to reassure the voters. He pretended that his new spending and his tax cuts were equal in size. There’s a word for such presentations. That word’s “lying.”

So what happened in the wake of this crucial debate? Surely, the profoundly professional Washington press corps rose up and challenged what Bush had said. After all, this was the first debate of a White House electiona time when democracy buffs its great shrine. And the corps had made it clear, all through this campaign, that they simply hated embellishing, embroidery, and exaggeration of all kinds. Surely the press corps raced to see that Bush’s misstatements were corrected—and to see that the public had a chance to ask why he would stoop to mislead them this way!

Of course, nothing like that ever happened. In fact, Bush’s performance in this debate can be described in one word—embarrassing. It was perhaps the most incompetent performance in a presidential debate since President Ford drove the Soviets out of Poland. Bush completely misstated his own budget plan; completely misstated his prescription drug plan (in a long, dramatic confrontation with Gore, in which Gore advised him to check his own web site); and he repeatedly accused Gore of using “phony numbers” when Gore’s numbers were perfectly accurate. Weirdly, Bush also said that Gore had outspent him in the campaign—a statement which went beyond fantasy. But what did the media’s pundits say, in the aftermath of the debate? The next morning, Howard Kurtz assembled the comments for his Washington Post “Media Notes:”

Bob Schieffer, CBS: “Clearly tonight, if anyone gained from this debate it was George Bush. He seemed to have as much of a grasp of the issues [as Gore].”

R. W. Apple, New York Times: “Neither man committed an obvious gaffe; Mr. Bush avoided stumbling over his own syntax or comically mispronouncing words as he had in the past.”

Larry Sabato, University of Virginia: “The surprise for many people was that Bush was perfectly competent.”

John Zogby, Zogby Research: “Mr. Bush showed he was fully in command of the facts, avoided any of the occasional flubs on which the news media has dwelled.”

Those statements were complete, total fantasy. But as readers will remember, the press corps took a massive pass on Bush’s groaning misstatements. Instead, they flogged trivial errors by—you guessed it—Al Gore! Reading from an article in a Florida newspaper, Gore said that a high school student lacked a desk in her crowded school. As it turned out, the student had received a desk since the article’s publication, although the school was still overcrowded. But to the hapless gang of losers and phonies whom we oddly agree to describe as a “press corps,” Gore’s trivial error went well past the pale. Gore’s misstatement was flogged by the press. The corps’ astounding conduct after this debate almost surely decided the election.

We can’t link you to our real-time work on this matter; that work was done for, whose links are no longer active. But why are people in the Bush Admin inclined to make statements which are—how to say this—untrue? They feel free because they’ve long been allowed. Pols will lie, if they’re permitted. In Campaign 2000, the trembling boys and girls of the “press corps” had some big “Clinton payback” to do. Bush was allowed to make gonzo misstatements. Milbank starts to clear his throat now.

It’s long since time that the boys and girls began to behave like real journalists do. Milbank performs like a real scribe today. If others follow him in this conduct, the Bush Admin will be inclined to act more like real servants do.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: How much were you spun by the Washington “press corps” in the aftermath of that debate? Frank Bruni’s book helped reveal his remarkable spinning. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/02. By the way—why is this man still employed?

Our circus clown continues his tricks. See him links Bush’s boners to Gore. Surely, someone is paying this sad little man. You know what to do. Just click here.