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5 October 2000

Our current howler (part III): Extreme example

Synopsis: When Fallows said Gore was stretching the truth, it was a good person saying odd things.

Commentary by Brian Williams, James Fallows
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 10/2/00

Journalists used to know enough not to call politicians "evil." Peggy Noonan broke out of the mold two weeks back (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/22/00). Monday night, Debate I looming, Brian Williams decided to follow:

WILLIAMS: James Fallows, it is said that the stuffed shark that is in the rehearsal room where Gore is training for this debate is in a harness, the notion here supposed to be holding back his evil side that can go on the attack. How formidable is that side of Al Gore's character?

Welcome to Dallas '63. Grover Norquist also used the word "evil" (describing Democrats in general) on C-SPAN's Washington Journal this week. The Bad Judgment Brigade has been getting stirred up, swept along by their nonsense about "inventing the Internet," deep sighs and, of course, treasured Love Story.

What makes good people say oddball things? We don't know, but Fallows went that route on Monday with Williams. To state the obvious, Fallows has been one of our most accomplished writers. But on Monday, Williams was wondering about Al Gore's "relationship with the truth." We think you know what that code lingo means. Fallows pitched in with this offering:

FALLOWS: There have been two categories where Al Gore has gotten into trouble with the facts over time. One is embroidering his own personal biography, of exaggerating things he's achieved. The other is in characterizing his opponents' positions right up to the point of being provably untrue.

Apparently, Gore has been slick. He hasn't said things that were "provably untrue," but he's craftily taken it "right up to [that] point." The analysts settled in for the example to follow. Their anger began to rise:

FALLOWS (continuing directly): For example, he was saying that Bill Bradley was going to give everybody on Medicaid $150 to go buy health insurance when that was the most extreme case. So he can say with a good conscience that he hasn't sort of provably lied, but it's been right up to that edge.

And all of the analysts were shaking their fists at the perfidy of slick, vulgar Gore. But then, one analyst began looking back through the records. Had $150 per month really been "the most extreme case?" They found Bradley himself—the victim in this—speaking at last Dem debate in New Hampshire:

BRADLEY (1/26): (Addressing Gore) What you're wrong about, and how you've mischaracterized this, is saying New Hampshire would have $150. That's where you're wrong. New Hampshire will have more. I'm not going to do a health care program that doesn't give people who are on Medicaid now, largely adults, access to several plans in every state. The legislation will be written, that's what will happen. The figure of $150 does not apply to New Hampshire, it applies to other states.

Ohmigod! Fallows was right! People in other states would get the $150, but in the state Bradley was in any given occasion, people would actually get more. The analysts' passions were now being stirred. But one tribune scrolled his way down in the transcript. The analysts' fists fell from the air:

GORE: But if New Hampshire is going to get more than $150 a month, you're changing your plan. Name me three states where the people would get less than $150 a month.

BRADLEY: There are any number of them.

GORE: Can you name me one?

BRADLEY: Tennessee is one. There are any number of them. There are 24 states that have a waiver from the national government in order to do Medicaid, and that is under $150.

As Bradley explained over and over through the primaries, his monthly figure of $150-per-person was a "weighted average." That meant that in roughly half of the states, people would get subsidies of less than $150. This was explained again and again. Whatever the merits or demerits of Bradley's plan, this part was universally known.

Why then had Fallows said that the $150 figure represented "the most extreme case?" Fallows replied to an e-mail:

FALLOWS (e-mail): You know that $150 was the "base" level, which would differ for larger families and in various states. If the VP were describing one of his own programs, he would never have used a comparable number as "the" level of benefits, because he would have realized that was inaccurately low-balling the description. But he said over and over and over again that this was "the" level of benefits under Bradley's plan. Now, I will agree that the fault here is fundamentally Bradley's. There's no excuse for his not coming back the next day and saying, "A hundred and fifty? Let me tell you, Mr. VP, how this will really work." The members of the actual campaign staffwhom I interviewed said they expect all along that Bradley would respond this way. If he had, they'd be ready with different comebacks. But he never did, so they kept saying it.

But $150 was not the "base" level, as Bradley's comments make clear. $150 was the average, not the base, as Bradley explained again and again all through the primary season. Too bad Williams wasn't better informed, or he could have challenged what Fallows said on his show. But then, when handsome hosts talk sharks and "evil" sides of pols, we sometimes wonder if they're fully prepared to put news like that on the air.

Williams' viewers were told a satisfying tale—Gore had "characterized Bradley's position right up to the point of being provably untrue." Gore had "gotten into trouble with the facts." But $150-per-month was the average case in Bradley's plan, not "the most extreme." But "the most extreme" are out there, friends. We've heard them now on three separate occasions, saying a pol is "evil." Their judgment? We think it's extremely bad. So was James Fallows' presentation.


Visit our incomparable archives: In our view, Fallows has been bungling this matter ever since his piece in the July Atlantic. For a detailed look at that striking piece, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00.