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7 February 2000

Our current howler (part II): The right to pick and choose

Synopsis: Talk about the right to choose! Pundits apply a sliding scale in judging the hopefuls’ honesty.

A Victory With a Price
Al Hunt, The Wall Street Journal, 2/3/00

Commentary by John McCain
The NewsHour, PBS, 2/2/00

Tobacco Ally Takes On McCain
Peter Marks, The New York Times, 2/5/00

Commentary by Sam Donaldson, John McCain
This Week, ABC, 2/6/00

Bradley's Doctors Say He Is in Excellent Shape
Lawrence Altman, The New York Times, 1/30/00

Commentary by Franklin Foer
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 2/6/00

Last Thursday, Al Hunt came up with a roundabout way to offer high praise to THE HOWLER. In a column penned from Bedford, New Hampshire, the affable pundit said this:

HUNT: These [Gore campaign] tactics have produced a cynicism toward Mr. Gore in the national press that may be more intense than at any time since Richard Nixon.

Finally! We've been reporting that animus toward Gore since election coverage kicked off in March, with the truth-loving press corps eagerly typing Jim Nicholson's "farm chores" howlers. (The "farm chores" reporting was a press corps disgrace. For full links on farm chores, see postscript).

But according to Hunt, Gore caused the press cynicism, with inappropriate campaign conduct. Hunt became the latest scribe to score Gore for his campaign:

HUNT: [T]he way Al Gore won [in New Hampshire] may come back to haunt him. He waged a relentlessly negative campaign, engaging in distortions and misrepresentations. What makes this so troubling is that Mr. Gore, a decent man, knows better.

It is because of this conduct, Hunt asserts, that the press corps is cynical towards Gore. How cynical are they? Read on:

HUNT: When Democratic Congressional leaders Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt last weekend put out a statement assailing Bill Bradley for initiating a negative campaign, it was treated like a joke.

More praise from Hunt for THE HOWLER! We long have chronicled the corps' inclination to treat its important duties as a joke.

None of this is meant as a criticism of Hunt or his current column. Unlike many other pundits, Hunt offers three specific examples of "distortions and misrepresentations" allegedly committed by Gore. He says that Gore has misrepresented his early stance on abortion; has misrepresented his role in the development and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit; and has misrepresented Bradley's past role in efforts at campaign finance reform. Hunt offers accounts of Gore's alleged distortions in these three areas; the accounts are short, but Hunt goes beyond other scribes, who have sometimes criticized Gore as a "demagogue" without bothering to offer examples (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/26/00).

We were, however, struck by an omission in Hunt's current bill of fare. When asked in debates about Gore's alleged distortions, Bradley has said that Gore's worst distortions concern the Bradley health plan. Hunt says nothing about this principal complaint, on this seminal topic. Instead, we read about a comment Gore made on the EITC, an issue which played absolutely no role in the Iowa or New Hampshire campaigns. Hunt's account of Gore's alleged offense in this area is virtually impossible to decipher, and involves a single comment by Gore, reported in a single magazine (Time).

Talk about the right to choose! When pundits critique the hopefuls' honesty, they employ a remarkable sliding scale. On the one hand, they scour through miniscule comments, "proving" their case against disfavored hopefuls. Meanwhile, they completely ignore big howling statements made by the hopefuls they love. Before we go on to critique the claims that Hunt has brought against Candidate Gore, it might be worth taking a look at the press corps' sliding scale of judgment.

Here, for example, was Candidate McCain, speaking to Jim Lehrer on Wednesday night's NewsHour:

MCCAIN: Governor Bush wants to give 38% of his tax cuts to the wealthiest one percent. I want to give it to working families. But I want to give it also to pay into Social Security to make it solvent, Medicare, and to pay down the debt...He has not one penny for Social Security, not one penny for Medicare, not one penny for paying down the debt. It's conservative to pay for our obligations

The highlighted statement is one of the most obvious distortions of the New Hampshire campaign, repeated again and again by McCain, in person and in TV ads. (Over the next ten years, Bush's budget plan uses the projected $2 trillion Social Security surplus to pay down the national debt.) At best, the statement to Lehrer is grossly misleading; at worst, it's baldly false. But Lehrer didn't question McCain's statement. Three minutes later, he didn't question this:

MCCAIN: I've never voted for a pay increase—excuse me, never voted for a pay increase, but more importantly I've never voted for a tax increase, whether it was proposed by a Republican or a Democrat [sic] administration. I'm proud of my voting record...

Never voted for a tax increase? In 1998, McCain proposed a large tax increase, for which he "never voted" only because it was killed before reaching a vote. (The proposal would have added $1.10 to the price of a pack of cigarettes.) How hard will scribes work to wish that away? Peter Marks, in the New York Times:

MARKS: Mr. McCain and the White House, which supported the measure, estimated the 25-year cost of the bill at $516 billion. The senator has, indeed, asserted that he has never voted to raise taxes, and some supporters of the bill said the fees did not constitute a tax.

It all depends on what the meaning of "tax" is! Marks continues on:

MARKS (continuing directly): Still, a levy imposed on a commodity like cigarettes, sometimes referred to as a "sin tax," is intended less as a means of filling government coffers than as a way of enforcing a social mandate.

Sometimes referred to as a "sin tax?" It's always referred to as a sin tax, except when spinners try to spin it away. Let's state the obvious: McCain's proposal was referred to as a "sin tax" because it's a tax, although Marks puts it down as a "levy." (This from the truth-loving Washington press corps, which hates Clinton's slick way with words.) Meanwhile, Marks notes that this "levy" was well intentioned. Marks isn't sure that this was a real tax, and if it was one, John had a good motive.

So it goes when the Washington press corps evaluates hopefuls it likes. The truth is, as remarkable as McCain's campaign has been, there is no one in the present campaign who has done more instant 180s. McCain has turned on a dime on the Confederate flag; has turned on a dime on abortion (at least twice); and says his tax cut helps the "have nots," although its rate cuts affect only the top quarter of earners. And listen to the "straight talk" that followed yesterday when Sam Donaldson—responding to belated complaints from the Bush campaign—finally did challenge McCain on his ads about the Bush budget plan:

TAPE OF MCCAIN AD: There's one big difference between me and the others. I won't take every last dime of the surplus and spend it on tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy. I'll use the bulk of the surplus to secure Social Security far into the future.

DONALDSON: Now Governor Bush says that's unfair because he takes $2 trillion that's going into Social Security and sequesters it just as you do. Is it fair to say that he would then use every dime of the surplus?

The answer to that is pretty plainly "No." Let's parse this straight-talking answer:

MCCAIN: Sam, Social Security—there's two streams that go in. One is the regular surplus, the other is, that goes into Social Security in the form of payroll taxes. What I said is accurate. The surplus that we're talking about, in my plan, goes, 62% of it, into the Social Security system. The surplus that is non-Social Security in Governor Bush's plan goes all entirely to tax cuts

See? McCain's statement is perfectly accurate if you just know what surplus he's talking about—"the surplus that is non-Social Security." He doesn't mean that other surplus—the one that Bush does use to pay debt. And how were people watching his ad were supposed to know that that's what he meant? Yesterday, that was left to the viewer's imagination—Donaldson didn't follow up on McCain's odd statement. The truth is, this ad was baldly deceptive, as McCain's own construction makes perfectly plain. And note that McCain's statement to Lehrer wasn't qualified at all—he merely said that Bush doesn't spend a penny on paying down debt. That statement was unambiguously false. Lehrer didn't remark on it.

Nor has the press corps broken its backs examining statements by Bradley. In Bradley's appearance yesterday on Meet the Press, the following question was posed:

TIM RUSSERT: [Gore] says, in a debate with Governor Dukakis back in '88, he raised the issue of prison furloughs but never mentioned the name "Willie Horton," and you should not be injecting that name into this campaign.

As readers will recall, Gore had criticized the furlough policy one time only (in the course of 45 Dem debates); hadn't mentioned Horton by name; hadn't mentioned anyone's race; and never ran an ad on the topic (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/22/99). This was Bradley's reply to Russert:

BRADLEY: Look. If Al Gore wasn't in politics, nobody would have heard of Willie Horton. Let's leave it at that.

If Bradley's reply is meant in good faith, his judgment surely is faulty. The Horton incident had been widely reported, and would surely have been picked up by Republican opposition research. But in truth, it's hard to assume Bradley's good faith, because in his 1997 book, Time Present, Time Past, Bradley described this matter quite differently. His account in the book went like this:

BRADLEY (1997): In 1988, the race card was played more subtly. The Bush presidential campaign skillfully linked the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, with a black man named Willie Horton, who had raped a woman and stabbed a man while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison where he had been serving time for murder. Oddly, the first politician to mention Horton (but without racializing it) was not Bush but Senator Al Gore. In the New York Democratic primary that year, he attacked Dukakis for his prison-furlough program. The Republicans, though, emphasized Horton's blackness.

In his book, Bradley explicitly says that Gore didn't "racialize" Horton. His account explicitly contradicts what he and his campaign have now said for two months. And how does Bradley explain this puzzle? He hasn't—because no one in the press corps ever asks him. We have never seen this contradiction discussed in print, and we have seen it raised on the air only once—by Morton Kondracke, on Special Report (1/20). Here was Russert's unhelpful follow-up:

RUSSERT: You believe he did inject the name.

BRADLEY: Well, the fact of the matter is if he had not been in politics this would not have been raised. So whether he injected the name or not...Politics is not simply what you say but the lines that connect the dots.

I can imagine it, therefore it is. Did Russert know about the book? If not, he certainly ought to. But it's absurd to think that the press as a whole doesn't know about this matter; Kondracke raised it on the air, in a panel of major pundits. Why, in a press corps obsessed with "authenticity," has the obvious question never been asked? Please—we've seen this pattern many times before. How many times do we have to tell you—the press tells the stories it likes.

Another interesting statement by Bradley went unremarked at the last Dem debate (1/26). Judy Woodruff asked Bradley why he hasn't released his "complete medical records." Bradley gave this reply:

BRADLEY: In terms of my medical records, I have done the same thing that Al Gore has done, which is to lay out the latest doctor's report, put it out there so the people can see and that is precisely what I have done.

The statement is plainly false, as Gore immediately noted. Readers will recall that Bradley has refused to release his full medical records, although some scribes somehow obscured that point the first time the point was raised (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/16/99). Here was Gore's rejoinder at the debate:

GORE: Well, he can do what he wants with the medical records. I'm not criticizing on that, but I don't want to be put in the same boat because I've released mine fully. Each person should make that decision for himself.

Why didn't Bradley release his records, even when the Washington Post asked? An obvious possible explanation surfaced soon after this last Dem debate. In a lengthy article on Bradley's minor heart condition, Lawrence Altman wrote this in the Times:

ALTMAN: Three times after attacks of fibrillation, Mr. Bradley has needed a procedure known as cardioversion, in which the heart is jolted with electricity to snap it back into normal rhythm. His heart beats normally at about 50 times a minute. Mr. Bradley has not had a cardioversion in the last 19 months but might need one in the future.

Presumably, Bradley's records would have revealed these procedures, at a time when he had not discussed his heart condition at all. Did Bradley withhold his records for this reason? Don't worry, folks—no one has asked him. In a campaign built around "authenticity," in which yellowed records are parsed to "prove" Gore a liar, no one in the celebrity press corps has thought to ask this obvious question. Woodruff asked no follow-up question (her question came at the end of the debate), and no one has said a word about it since. Meanwhile, this outrageous passage did appear in Altman's lengthy article:

ALTMAN: In the debate in Manchester on Wednesday night [1/26], after a reporter asked Mr. Bradley why he had not yet provided access to his full medical records, the former senator said he had done the same thing Mr. Gore had done in "laying out the latest doctor's report."

That statement was false, as Gore immediately noted. But—incredibly—Altman didn't mention that in his article. Leaving his readers misinformed, he penned this cheerful passage instead:

ALTMAN (continuing directly): In [our] interview, Mr. Bradley said that he now regretted not having disclosed his ailment earlier. "But, you know, you are in a campaign and you let things drift."

"You let things drift?" Bradley had "let things drift" by refusing to release his medical records when directly asked by the Post. And Altman—who repeats Bradley's false account at the debate—doesn't ask him the obvious questions. So it goes—again and again—when the press corps decides who is "authentic." Helpful newspapers pass on claims that are plainly and howlingly false.

Are we calling Bradley or McCain naughty names? We aren't doing it, and we don't think that. We think both hopefuls are fully qualified for the office they seek. But the corps' headlong pursuit of Gore-on-lying coexists strangely a striking lassitude—a strange indifference that seizes the corps when other hopefuls speak falsely. Given Bradley's 1997 book, his current statement on Horton is simply amazing. Why won't the press corps tell you that? We don't know, but again and again, we've seen the press tell the stories it likes.


Tomorrow: The analysts love their Uncle Walter. But we were struck by one column last week.

Straight talk distress: The press corps has shown its buffoonist tendencies with accounts of life on McCain's thrilling bus, where he rides them around, tells them they're smart, and shares jokes about stripper ex-girl friends. (All these descriptions come straight from the press corps' accounts of their life on the bus.) And the pundits can't wait to repeat its name—they ride on the "Straight Talk Express." Every time they repeat that name, they hand the hopeful a free campaign ad. But then, back when Bush was the campaign's hot act, scribes made a point of saying "George W" or even "W" when other hopefuls were called by last names. There seems to be no journalistic etiquette so plain or so simple that it triggers the corps' sense of discretion. (Unless there's a point to their comment, scribes should say "the McCain campaign bus," not "The Straight Talk Express." Can you say "Duh," boys and girls?)

At any rate, we had to chuckle, on Sunday morning, when Franklin Foer described life on the bus. We happen to like the fresh-faced U.S. News scribe, but he offered a comical rendering:

FOER: The McCain bus is kind of—you have this amazing amount of access to the candidate when you're riding across New Hampshire or South Carolina with him, and in fact it sometimes is too much access. You're sitting with him for hours on end and you run out of questions to ask the guy. He's that available.

Somehow, in all the awkward silence, no one seems to have asked a question about that misleading ad. Why did that question not come to mind? Foer's account continued:

FOER (continuing directly): And the other component of it is he's just incredibly funny. He's having a lot of fun on the trail. And I think that explains to a certain extent why the media has such incredible fondness for the guy.

We'd also guess that may explain why the media doesn't ask certain questions. Accounts like this—offered again and again—are self-decriptions of extreme co-optation. We think McCain has run a remarkable campaign. We think the press corps has embarrassed itself with the way that campaign has been covered.