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22 February 2000

Our current howler (part II): Ch-ch-ch-changes

Synopsis: McCain, answering Bush, issued three separate stories. The press didn’t much seem to care.

Bush and McCain Collide Over Negative References
David Firestone and Alison Mitchell, The New York Times, 2/16/00

Bush and McCain Scurry Toward Showdown
Frank Bruni and Alison Mitchell, The New York Times, 2/18/00

GOP Choice: Two Kinds Of Reformer
Paul Gigot, The Wall Street Journal, 2/18/00

Calling for a Positive Race, McCain Is Called Negative
Alison Mitchell, The New York Times, 1/6/00

Questions Over Veracity Have Long Dogged Gore
Katharine Seelye and John Broder, The New York Times, 2/17/00

By the time of the South Carolina debate (2/15), the Manners Police were in command; Bush and McCain argued about who had been "negative," and about who had been "negative" first. At one point during their extended dispute, Bush pulled out a campaign flier; he told the world that McCain's campaign was still pushing the negative stuff. As Bush held up the offending handbill, the following exchange occurred:

MCCAIN: That is not by my campaign.

BUSH: Well, it says, "Paid for by John McCain." [Laughter]

MCCAIN: That is not by my campaign.

BUSH: "McCain 2000." John, well then somebody's putting them out.

That's the way the matter was left for somebody watching on television. But after the debate, McCain changed his mind. David Firestone and Alison Mitchell described it:

FIRESTONE AND MITCHELL (2/16): Mr. McCain explained after the debate that the flier was printed a few weeks ago, before his no-negative-ad-pledge, and was apparently distributed by a campaign worker without his knowledge.

Oops! The flier had come from McCain's camp after all. And two days later, a third story emerged. Bush charged that McCain's campaign was still passing out the disputed flier. McCain agreed with that charge, too! Bruni and Mitchell explain it:

BRUNI AND MITCHELL (2/18): Mr. McCain said the flier did not constitute a negative attack because it told the truth. "The flier is accurate," he said. "It's totally accurate."

He also tried to explain why he had disavowed involvement with the flier during the debate. "I obviously mistakenly took his word for it that it was a negative piece of information," Mr. McCain said.

McCain's second and third explanations don't jibe with each other; if "negative" is the same as "false" (Story III), why was "negative" permitted until McCain's recent edict (Story II)? But never mind that in this niggling affair; we do point out that this kind of story-changing has been cited, in certain others, to indicate a vile lack of character. In this instance, some did say that McCain had fibbed. Here's Paul Gigot, for example:

GIGOT (2/18): [McCain] did fib this week when he denied, during Tuesday night's debate, that a flier demagoguing Mr. Bush on Social Security was his. Mr. McCain finally admitted authorship, but with the Clintonian caveat that it must have been passed out before he gave the cease-and-desist order. Mr. McCain is lucky this episode didn't fit into the silly media consensus that Mr. Bush is the only negative campaigner.

Gigot didn't seem to have heard the third story—that the flier in question wasn't "negative" at all, because the flier was actually true.

Sorry, folks. The fact is, we wouldn't call McCain's statement a "fib;" we don't know what was in his mind when he made his initial, false statement. But one other hopeful has routinely been charged with possessing vile character in this dimwit campaign, sometimes for statements that make perfect sense but are too confusing for scribes to follow. (Example: Gore on Bradley ending Medicaid "like the Clinton plan did." See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/16/00). But except for a few Bush-leaning conservatives like Gigot, no one said a word last week about McCain's wandering stories, and it wasn't the first time the corps looked away as Saint John wandered all over town.

Take the subject of this flier, the Bush budget plan's treatment of Social Security. Gigot, in his column, said McCain's flier had "demagogued" Bush on the subject. Again, that isn't a term which we would use. But this subject had been kicking around since the start of the year, first complained about by the Bush campaign on January 5 in New Hampshire. The way the press corps handled this matter reflects the way they often have treated McCain—that straight-shooting authentic whose pure heart and soul have starred in the story they like.

The original complaint had been reported by Mitchell, back on January 6. McCain had issued a "backgrounder" report which had the Bush camp crying "Foul:"

MITCHELL: Mr. Bush's aides promptly went on the offensive and criticized the entire flier as a "woeful misrepresentation" of Mr. Bush's positions...Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for Mr. Bush, point[ed] to the flier's contention that Mr. Bush's tax cut plan would use the entire budget surplus and leave "Social Security in danger."

It was perfectly clear from Mitchell's piece that she understood the Bush camp's complaint:

MITCHELL: Mr. Bush has said that he would not dip into the part of the surplus generated by Social Security revenue—about $2 trillion overt the next decade—for tax cuts. He would then use a large part of the non-Social Security surplus to pay for his plan to cut taxes by $483 billion over five years.

Nothing hard about that at all. Mitchell also did a good job of explaining the McCain position:

MITCHELL: But Mr. McCain has argued that if the economy does not perform according to projections, the surplus could shrink and Mr. Bush's tax cut could eat into the Social Security surplus or require an increase in the Social Security payroll tax. "If the projections for the next 10 or 20 years don't hold true—and you don't get the surplus, and we've already cut taxes—then you have to raid the Social Security trust fund and have to raise payroll taxes," Mr. McCain said.

All of that is perfectly true (it's also a more detailed discussion of these budget issues than we have seen in the mainstream press since). But what the flier had said—what doesn't seem to be true—is that Bush's tax cut plan would use the entire federal surplus. A month later, that shaky claim would provoke the ad wars once the hopefuls hit South Carolina. And even then—a full month after the first Bush complaint—puzzled scribes at the New York Times just couldn't seem to understand it. They just couldn't seem to explain or describe what Bush was griping about.

Bush had complained on January 5. The dispute was very easy to state. McCain did seem to be fudging the truth. And Frank Bruni? Try and try as Bruni might, he couldn't seem to explain this simple issue. (To be continued.)


Tomorrow: Reporters—wed to a story they like—wouldn't say that Saint John may be fudging.

Verdict first: In all our years of chasing down claims that Vile Gore has lied about Saint Bill, we've never seen it expressed in this manner. Katharine Seelye was busy 'splainin' what was wrong with the things Gore has said:

SEELYE: Mr. Gore has also misrepresented Mr. Bradley's health care plan, charging in various appearances that it would provide a voucher worth only $150 a month for a family to purchase medical insurance on the private market.

In fact, the Bradley plan would grant each individual $150 a month and provides other mechanisms for poor families to receive health care.

That was a serious misstatement," [Kathleen Hall] Jamieson said. "At least he's stopped doing it."

We'll say he has. Do you really want the analysts to transcribe all the times Gore has raised this point in debates, to see if we can find any time when he has said that Bradley provides $150-a-month per family? As is so often the case with claims of this type, Seelye doesn't name any specific time when Gore has allegedly made this statement—and we've never seen this charge made before, including by Senator Bradley.

We have discussed, again and again, the charge that Gore has distorted the Bradley health plan. Just last week, we critiqued a different, contradictory claim—the claim that Gore just never mentions Bradley's replacement plan! Go figure! As the charges just keep moving around, we're reminded of the old Wonderland Diktat. You remember how it goes: Verdict first, evidence (much) later.