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19 April 2000

Our current howler (part I): It all seemed so clear at the time...

Synopsis: Katharine Seelye is "puzzled" by Gore’s decision. Back in March, she explained it quite clearly.

Gore's Puzzling Move to Take Boy's Unextended Hand
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 4/16/00

Gore Supporting Residency Status For Cuban Child
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/31/00

Boy's Case Could Sway Bush-Gore Contest
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/30/00

McCain Regrets Silence on Flag Issue
Unsigned, The New York Times, 4/19/00

Katharine Seelye was trying to understand Gore's "puzzling move" (that's how it was described in the headline). According to Seelye, things had been going along well for the hopeful. But then he had done a strange thing:

SEELYE (4/16) (paragraph 3): But on March 30, prompted by no one, Mr. Gore thrust himself into one of the most emotionally and politically charged cases in the country. After months of saying that the fate of 6-year-old Elian should be decided in family court, Mr. Gore said the boy should be granted permanent residency status.

It sounded very much like a flip-flop. After months of saying "family court," Gore had said something different. But "Kit" went on to assure her readers that she wasn't trying to say that at all:

SEELYE (4/16) (4): There was a fierce backlash, not because Mr. Gore seemed to contradict himself—he had spoken earlier in such code that it was hard to decide what he believed. The concern was rather that he had chosen a highly volatile moment in the case to break openly with the Clinton administration. And a number of Democrats simply disagreed with his position. He appeared to be saying that because of Fidel Castro's dictatorship in Cuba, the Cuban boy should not be returned to his father.

"Kit" lamented the whole daggone mess:

SEELYE (4/16) (5): Because his statement seemed so unnecessary, a number of people in his own party denounced Mr. Gore as pandering...

Welcome to the hopeless confusion and self-contradiction that typifies Seelye's writing. In paragraph 4, Seelye says that Gore had "spoken in such code" before March 30 that "it was hard to decide what he believed." But in paragraph 3, she says something different: For months, Seelye writes, with perfectly clarity, Gore had been saying that the case "should be decided in family court." It's hard to know what could be clearer than that, but one paragraph later, Seelye was flummoxed. Only in the New York Times could our democracy be tortured by such hopeless and intolerable work.

What's interesting about Seelye's current confusion is, it all seemed so clear at the time!! On March 31, Seelye reported Gore's decision to support permanent residency status. But when she reported Gore's decision that day, the story didn't seem to be "puzzling" at all. In fact, several points which baffle her now were quite clearly explained at the time.

First question: Why did Gore do it? In her April 16 report (see above), Seelye seemed perplexed by Gore's timing. Gore's decision had been "prompted by no one," she made it a point to say. But on March 31, Seelye understood the timing quite well. Here was one reason she gave:

SEELYE (3/31): In his [Thursday] statement, Mr. Gore said he was supporting legislation sponsored by Senators Bob Graham, Connie Mack, and Robert C. Smith...The legislation was introduced on Wednesday by Mr. Graham, a Florida Democrat.

Had Gore in fact been "prompted by no one," as the puzzled Seelye reported this week? At the time, she plainly reported that Gore was responding to the introduction of new legislation. And Seelye quoted Senator Graham, explaining why the legislation had been introduced:

SEELYE (3/31): Mr. Graham...added: "The purpose of this legislation is to try to be a channel to move this case from an I.N.S. asylum case to a family court."

And that was the purpose behind Mr. Gore's statement today, his aides said. "This was the only way to vindicate the principle, that this should be decided in a court that deals with custody cases," a top adviser said.

Earlier Seelye had quoted Gore. And Gore had said the same thing:

SEELYE (3/31): "From the very beginning, I have said that Elian Gonzalez's case is at heart a custody matter," Mr. Gore said in the statement. "It is a matter that should be decided by courts that have the experience and expertise to resolve custody cases...

"It now appears that our immigration laws may not be broad enough to allow for such an approach in Elian's case. That is why I am urging Congress to immediately pass that this case can be adjudicated properly."

What had Gore meant when he said, "It now appears?" Why the urgency on the part of the bill's sponsors? Seelye didn't directly explain, but she alluded to the well-known reason right at the top of her piece:

SEELYE (3/31) (paragraph 2): Mr. Gore's statement seemed to take some officials in the Clinton administration by surprise, coming as it did in the midst of negotiations between immigration officials, who want to return the boy to his father in Cuba, and relatives who have been caring for him in Miami.

(3) Today [Thursday, March 30], the government agreed to extend until at least next Tuesday the relatives' custody of the boy.

At the time, the INS seemed to be nearing a decision to return Elian Gonzalez to Cuba. All of this was well known at the time. Many Democrats are quoted in Seelye's 3/31 piece, disagreeing, sometimes vehemently, with Gore's decision. But in Seelye's real-time 3/31 piece, there is not a hint of confusion, puzzlement, bewilderment or perplexity about the timing or background of the event.

One last point about Seelye's April 16 piece. In that article, Katharine Seelye said that Gore had "spoken in such code" before March 30 that "it was hard to discern what he believed." But writing back on March 29 (for March 30 publication), Seelye quoted Gore from the previous week. And what had she quoted Gore saying then? Fight your way through this code language:

SEELYE (3/30): Mr. Gore...[said] last week: "This is a custody matter for the courts to decide on due process, with a full hearing in which all parties are heard."

Is that a statement "spoken in such code" that it is "hard to discern what [Gore] believed?" If it is, then the rest of this cycle of stories almost surely won't be to your taste or liking. But if you find Gore's statement perfectly plain—if you note the other problems with Seelye's recent piece—then you might stick around to see what happens when "news" is rearranged to fit scripts.


Tomorrow: And Ceci makes two.

Smile-a-while: Today, John McCain is going to South Carolina, to change his mind on the Confederate flag once again. In fact, his long-time campaign manager, Newsweek's Howard Fineman, was rushed to the set of Hardball last night to assure us all that today's announcement will reflect what McCain really thinks.

This morning, the New York Times—God bless them; they try—recapped Senator McCain on the issue. If you can decipher this prose, you da man. The article was mercifully unsigned:

THE NEW YORK TIMES (paragraph 7): In January, Mr. McCain said he considered [the Confederate flag] "offensive" and a "symbol of racism and slavery." The next day, in a statement distributed to South Carolina reporters, he reversed himself and called the flag "a symbol of heritage." Aides said he had misspoken in the television interview.

(8) Then the next day, in an interview in New Hampshire, which was about to hold its primary, McCain reversed himself again, saying that if he said he saw the flag as a symbol of heritage, he had misspoken.

(9) "My forefathers fought under the Confederate flag," Mr. McCain said. "I believe that they believed their service was honorable." [End of article]

Let's battle our way through the chaos. In paragraph 7, which statement was "the television interview?" Presumably the first one, but the writer doesn't say. And did McCain really reverse himself two times? We don't recall the second reversal, and the quote presented in paragraph 9 doesn't fit the paraphrase in paragraph 8. In the quote, McCain seems to be saying the flag was a symbol of heritage. The paraphrase has him saying just the opposite.

Meanwhile, to judge from the way this piece is written, McCain's final position was "the flag is not heritage." The passage we've quoted ends today's piece. And the article says this, early on:

THE NEW YORK TIMES (2): [Sources] said that in an address in the South Carolina capital, Columbia, Mr. McCain would concede that he made a mistake in January when, in courting the state's conservative voters, he said at one point that the flag was a "symbol of heritage."

"At one point?" Are we completely mixed up here? Wasn't "symbol of heritage" McCain's position all throughout the Palmetto campaign? Is Katharine Seelye now doing McCain recaps?

Anyway, did McCain really do a double flip? We don't recall that from the time. But then, if he had flipped two (or nine; or eleven) times, we wouldn't necessarily have known it. Along with the total Confederate flag reversal, McCain did several strange flips on abortion issues; grossly misrepresented Bush's budget proposal for months; misstated Gore-on-the-Buddhist-Temple at virtually every appearance; and seemed to misspeak from state to state about handbills, phone calls, and what questions he'd been asked on TV shows which were trying to make him acknowledge plain conduct. And how did the press corps respond to this? How else? By calling him an "authentic straight-shooter!" McCain, you'll recall, was feeding them doughnuts; telling them jokes; riding them around on his bus; and saying reporters are smart. We don't recall a double flip, and the writing here is completely confused. But if McCain did do a double flip, we feel sure that the press can explain it.