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16 May 2000

Our current howler (part I): So's your father

Synopsis: These days, almost anyone can call public figures Big Liars. Peter Keating proves it in George.

Al Gore's lies—about me
Jeff Jacoby, The Boston Globe, 5/11/00

Will the biggest liar win?
Peter Keating, George, 5/00

It has become unbelievably easy to call people liars, as Jeff Jacoby proved in last Thursday's Globe (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/12/00). Gore "lies like a rug," the author said, and he listed a string of alleged misstatements that spilled over with groaners, glitches and howlers—with misstatements by Jacoby himself. For example, here's a paraphrased statement by Gore, which the author called a lie: "His father, the late Senator Albert Gore Sr. was a brave civil rights crusader." "Hogwash," Jacoby instantly replies; this remark is listed as one of Gore's "lies." But of course many others, of various stripes, have said the same thing about Gore's father for decades. This fact never gets mentioned in Jacoby's piece, which his addled editors threw into print, helping define the strange pathology now afflicting our troubled press corps.

It's amazing to think that a major public figure can be called a liar on a basis like this—for stating a wholly conventional judgment, in a column whose readers are never given even that information. It's simply amazing that the Boston Globe would put such a charge into print. But just how easy is it today, to say that public figures are liars? It's incredibly easy to call public figures Big Liars, as Peter Keating proves in George this month. Just take a look at the silly promotion for Keating's article on the magazine's cover. Adopting the juvenile tone of so much of today's press, George pictures the two presumptive nominees, Bush and Gore, standing with flames shooting up their legs. "Pants on fire! Will the biggest liar win?" the text on the cover asks. Yep—it's the well-known language of eight-year-old children. In Keating's text, things don't get too much better.

"The major political parties, with help from voters," Keating says, "this year rewarded their most persistent fabricators by nominating them to run for president" (paragraph 10). This early, garbled, pandering logic gives a taste of what is to come. The parties nominated Bush and Gore? They did it "with help from voters?" In fact, Bush and Gore were overwhelmingly selected by voters in their respective primaries; the notion that the voters only "helped" is a pleasing claim that is hard to decipher. But is it actually true, what Keating says—were Bush and Gore the "most persistent fabricators?" Keating makes no effort to support the claim (by reviewing the fibs of Bradley and McCain, let's say). Nowhere does he show any sign of having evaluated other contenders. For example, when Bradley accused Gore of raising Willie Horton in 1988—after having said exactly the opposite in his 1997 book—where exactly did that fib fit on the scale of groaners and howlers? There's not a word to defend this coronation. But then, here's the sort of thing that's apparently supposed to count as evidence in this character attack:

KEATING (paragraph 11): I won't soon forget the anger of McCain aide Mark Salter the night the Bush forces won the South Carolina primary. "There is no depth they will not sink to," he told me. And I still believe the saddest sound of the primary season was Bradley dully repeating four words over and over again in his debates with Gore: "That's not true, Al." Bradley supporter and New York Knicks teammate Dave DeBusschere does not hide his opinion of Gore. "He lied all the time."

But why should anyone give a fig about Dave DeBusschere's opinion? Surely Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe have thoughts on Gore, too—why not throw in their views for good measure? In this passage, Keating simply repeats the claims of interested parties, and seems to assume that their views are on target. In this passage, Bradley says that something's untrue, and we're supposed to accept that it is.

Just how childish can the reasoning get when scribes want to say that Naughty Pols have abused them? Listen to the oddball logic we encounter as Keating continues:

KEATING (12): Politicians lie. Always have, always will, as presidential historian Richard Reeves notes on page 54. But some recent presidents, at least, have tended to lie for what they considered the good of the country: for example, to run the nation despite their own dangerously poor health (John F. Kennedy), to burnish their images as leaders (Ronald Reagan), to take the U.S. into wars the public wasn't sure it wanted to fight (Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson). The lying of Gore and Bush during this campaign, however, has been emptier than that: They misrepresented to boost themselves by destroying their political opponents, plain and simple.

Gag us! In this strange account, Al Gore (allegedly) misrepresenting Bill Bradley on flood relief is more serious than Lyndon Johnson lying the country into a war that cost 50,000 American dead. And it was OK for President Reagan to (allegedly) lie, because he was just trying to "burnish his image!" Oh! If you can follow this crackpot logic, there's a place for you in the Hall of Mirrors Hall of Fame. It's OK to lie about your health; it's OK to lie to burnish your image. It's just not OK to (allegedly) lie to "destroy your political opponents." And surely, as almost everyone knows, no modern president has ever tried to do that.

Should people prepared to reason like this be given the task that's been handed to Keating—the task of calling public figures "liars" on the covers of major magazines Until recent years, the rules of the game were quite clear about this—American journalists were extremely careful about making such serious charges. But Keating shows a more modern sense when he starts his critique of Bush and Gore. In some parts of today's addled press corps, almost any foolishness counts as evidence when aggrieved scribes want to rail against pols they don't like. What follows, for example, is Keating's first paragraph as he predicts how Bush will campaign in the fall:

KEATING (27): George W. Bush is not, to put it mildly, as complicated as Gore. When something stands between him and a goal, he does what he must to obliterate it. Bush inherited this trait from his competitive family—in 1992, his father told David Frost he would do "whatever it takes" to win re-election.

That is the opening paragraph of Keating's attempt to predict Bush's coming behavior. Do you follow it? Bush's father once made a remark of some sort, from which we conclude that Bush "inherited a trait." This is what passes for argument today, as a major magazine calls Governor Bush a Big Liar.

Keating's article is not as significant as the work in the Globe we'll return to next week. For one thing, his piece is equally silly about both candidates, unlike a good deal of current work being aimed at Gore alone. But the article shows how careless scribes now will be in attacking the character of major public figures. "Pants on fire," the cover taunts. In our view, its author should go to his room, wipe the smile off his face, and try to restore an adult tone to our challenged discourse.


Tomorrow: How does Keating know that Bush is a liar? Because of what "surrogates" said.