THURSDAY, OCTOBER 24, 2002
WOULD YOU BUY A USED CAR FROM THIS PUNDIT? Richard Cohen provided some comical moments during Election 2000.
In November 1999, he built an entire columnwhich ridiculed Gorearound a quote from one of Naomi Wolfs books. The only problem? The quote had never appeared anywhere in Wolfs work. It had (mistakenly) appeared in a thigh-rubbing, six-year-old Esquire piece, where Cohen had conducted his research. Wolfand Gorewere battered around for the quote which had never appeared.
In October 2000, things got better. Cohen savaged VP hopeful Joe Lieberman for something he said before Bnai Brith. I wonder what in the world hes talking about, Cohen wrote. Liebermans statement was downright smug, preposterously false, and downright repugnant, Cohen said. But there was one small problem with Cohens rant; it was actually George W. Bush, not Joseph Lieberman, who had visited Bnai Brith and made the statement in question. And yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Cohen spent an entire column trashing Lieberman for something Bush, his opponent, had said. A small note at the end of a subsequent column acknowledged the comical blunder.
Cohen wrote ridiculous columns reciting gong-show slanders against Gore. During the primaries, he wrote ridiculous columns fawning to John McCain. But on at least one occasion (8/10/00), Cohen stepped outside the Standard Scripts which the well-scripted press was reciting. George W. Bush lies, he wrote at the start of his piece. He said that the press corps was letting Bush get away with rhetorical murder, and was flogging phony lies by Gore. [U]nlike Gore, Bush and Cheney for some reason get a free ride, Cohen wrote. Note the key phrase, for some reason. Even then, Cohen pretended he didnt know why his colleagues were acting so strangely.
Today, Cohen returns to this subject. The evidence is accumulating, Cohen writes, that neither Bush nor his colleagues are particularly punctilious about the truth. Cohen raises questions that ought to be raisedquestions about the way the president has been selling the case for a war with Iraq. But he also makes this statementa statement which is deeply disingenuous:
COHEN: [W]e are beginning to realize that Bushs campaign tactics in the Republican primaries against Sen. John McCain were not an aberration. When Bushs allies and minions in New York distorted McCains position on breast cancer research and earlier attacked him in personal terms in South Carolina, we got a first peek at Bushs willingness to tolerate almost any tactic on his way to a goal.
Did Bush play a role in the Palmetto State slanders? In the aftermath of the South Carolina race, many journalists said he did, but no one ever presented much proof. But if Cohen is right in what he says todayif Bush tends to dissemble on policy matterswe hardly have to visit the sweet, sunny South to see where the habit got started. And its sheer nonsense to say, as Cohen does, that we are just beginning to realize.
Is Cohen just beginning to realize that Bush dissembles? If so, where was Cohen during Bush and Gores first debate (10/3/00), when Bush baldly misstated the outline of his own budget plan and completely misstated his own prescription drug plancalling Gore a liar in the process? (Gores statements about Bushs drug plan were perfectly accurate. Bushs statements were patently false. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/22/02.) Did anyone doubt, from that point on, that George W. Bush had a bit of a tendency to misstate major policy matters? But voters werent told what Bush had done, because the press corps was pushing a different Preferred Story. In the wake of the Bush-Gore debate, few pundits made any effort to challenge (or report) Bushs groaning misstatements. Few criticized Bush for accusing Gore of using phony numbers and fuzzy mathin a set of policy debates in which Gores numbers were plainly accurate. Instead, we focussed on whether a schoolgirl had a desk, and on how many troubling times Gore had sighed. That was rude, the pundits said. They didnt note that Gore was sighing because Bushs statements were wildly inaccurate.
Is it true, what Cohen says? Are we just now beginning to realize that Bush gilds the lily? If so, we are just beginning to realize because pundits took a total pass on the problem in real time.
Remember, Bush completely misstated his own budget plan. He grossly misstated his prescription drug plan. In the process, he kept accusing Gore of using phony numberswhen it was clear that Gores numbers were accurate. And what did Cohen write on October 5, as he reviewed this crucial debate? Each candidate had his version of the others plans, Cohen wrote. But as for me, I have not been so confused since high school geometry. Incredible, isnt it? Anyone who made the slightest effort could have known who was rightand who had been wrong. But the press corps was pushing dim anti-Gore lines, and Cohen pleaded the oldest excuse. So it went as the Washington press corps clowned its way toward the election.
Cohen is upset about Bushs ways now. But pols will lie if the press corps lets them. Cohen played the enabler in Election 2000, railing at quotes that had never appeared and attacking Joe for what George said. And he played the enabler at Bush and Gores Debate I. In todays column, Cohen raises questions that ought to be asked. But they also should have been asked back then. Too bad this scribe was too confused to perform his professional functions.
TED AND LARRYS EXCELLENT DISCOURSE: Cohen wasnt the only Big Scribe pleading complete, yowling ignorance. One night after the Bush-Gore debate, Ted Koppel appeared on Larry King Live. King ran tape of a factual dispute from the debate. Then he popped off a question:
KING (10/4/00): Okay. Were you impressed with this fuzzy [math], top 1 percent, 1.3 trillion, 1.9 trillion bit?
Try to believe that he said it! By chance, we had explained the $1.3 trillion vs. $1.9 trillion in that days column on SpeakOut.com. It took roughly 50 words to explain. But it turned Koppels brains straight to mush.
KOPPEL: You know, honestly, it turns my brains to mush. I cant pretend for a minute that Im really able to follow the argument of the debates. Parts of it, yes. Parts of it, I havent a clue what theyre talking about.
Ted! According to congressional estimates accepted by both parties since May 2000, $1.3 trillion was the amount of revenue lost in the first nine years of Bushs proposed tax cuts (2002-2010). $1.9 trillion was the amount of revenue lost in the first ten years, plus the interest costs that would accrue due to failure to pay down the debt. Bush described his proposal as a $1.3 trillion plan. Gore used the larger figure. Either figure could be defended, although it was better to include the interest costs. But it was easy explaining the difference between themunless you were Koppel, of course.
So what does it mean, when men so confused direct our discourse? Heres one thing it certainly means: It means that favored pols eventually see they can pretty much say what they like.