Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

14 October 1998

Our current howler: Tryin’ to blow the House down

Synopsis: Michael Kelly got huffin’ and puffin’ on impeachment last week. Who will stand in the winds that follow?

What It Means to Be a Democrat
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 10/7/98

Bringing the dispute into focus
Tony Snow, The Washington Times, 10/9/98

The Illuminati Rally Around the President

Nat Hentoff, The Washington Post, 10/10/98

Michael Kelly really had his shorts in a wad, thinking about last Monday’s Judiciary Committee vote, and especially thinking how committee Democrats weren’t sufficiently gung-ho for impeachment. In fact, it was “the defining moment for what it means to be a Democrat now,” fulminated Furious Mike. And what exactly had the Democrats done? The Irate One explained it:

KELLY: (A)ll 16 Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee, in dereliction of their constitutional duty, voted to block an inquiry into whether a president who is of their party had committed impeachable offenses.

“In dereliction of their constitutional duty!” Of course, Kelly is a member of the Vesuvius Brigade--you know, them fellers who figure if-I-just-get-mad-enough, what-I-say-must-be-true?--so it’s no wonder he got so mightily riled, discussing the Democrats’ voting. But wouldn’t you know it? Kelly forgot to mention that, while the Democrats had voted against the GOP inquiry plan, they all had voted for an inquiry plan of their own. It’s the kind of detail that gets lost in the shuffle, when you’re fulminatin’ and confecting Big Stories. We’ve seen it before, and we see it again--Kelly was willing to misstate basic facts, because he’s so riled that Bill Clinton’s a liar!

Because while Kelly and his type are telling us this week that we’re a nation of laws and not of men, another point can get lost in the shuffle. Here it is: when we’re blessed by God and functioning well, we’re also a nation of reason. “If we permit one of (our) laws to fall,” David Schippers asked, “who will stand in the winds that follow?” At THE HOWLER, we aren’t all that certain. But it can also get breezy around Washington town when fellers like Kelly start huffin’ and blowin’. Let’s look at what happens to simple, clear thought when Michael Kelly starts blowin’ Big Smoke.

Having implied that the Democrats were against any inquiry, Kelly goes on to voice a howler that’s been all over the media this past week. He quoted Schippers, Judiciary’s majority counsel, in his statement to the committee:

KELLY: Schippers declared that it must matter if the president has broken the law because he was “the chief law enforcement officer of the United States,” a man who had taken an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the law”...

Etc. and so forth and so on. But who was saying that “it doesn’t matter” if President Clinton has broken the law? Kelly doesn’t bother to tell us. But the Democrats weren’t saying that “it doesn’t matter” if Clinton has done what has been charged--they have been saying that, if he’s done it, it doesn’t likely rise to being an impeachable offense. The notion that these propositions aren’t one and the same never enters Furious Mike’s irate head:

KELLY: The chief law enforcement officer of the United States must not be allowed to lie with impunity, [Schippers] said...

But who in the committee--or in the Congress, for that matter--was saying that Clinton should “be allowed to lie with impunity?” If Congress decides not to remove Clinton from office, he is subject to prosecution when his term ends; and other rebukes and penalties have been suggested. The notion that if it isn’t impeachable, then it just “doesn’t matter” is a notion that makes no apparent sense. What better place to find it, then, than in a column by Furious Mike?

The usual suspects raced to the scene to repeat the irate pundit’s howler:

TONY SNOW: [Schippers] lectured the House Judiciary Committee this week that “if lying under oath is tolerated...the integrity of this country’s judicial process is fatally compromised...It is the oath itself that is sacred and must be enforced.” Note the plain speech, the use of absolutes.

But it is not at all plain that, in failing to impeach for an offense, that means that the offense is “being tolerated.” It really does sound good, though:

NAT HENTOFF: As constitutional law professor Ronald Rotunda...points out: “If the president can perjure himself with no consequences, is there really a basis for saying he is covered by any law?”

To which the obvious answer is “Yes.” He is, of course, covered by all the laws, for which he can be prosecuted upon leaving office; and he can be immediately removed from office for breaking laws the Congress feels call for impeachment. Only when the Vesuvius Brigade gets to blowin’ off steam do such absurdly plain points get so hazy.

In our opinion here at THE DAILY HOWLER, President Clinton’s conduct in this matter was so reckless and strange that it is perfectly reasonable for people to argue that he should be removed from office. We would be perfectly happy for Michael Kelly to articulate and argue that viewpoint. But the fact that Michael Kelly feels that deep, deep down--more deeply than he’s ever felt anything before--well, that doesn’t permit him to misstate what Democrats in Congress have done, and it doesn’t allow him to hide behind emotional arguments that misstate the plain situation. Those who favor impeachment can surely just say so, without putting silly outlooks in other folks’ mouths.

Here’s Schippers, as quoted by Kelly:

KELLY: “The laws of this country are the great barriers that protect the citizens from the winds of evil and tyranny. If we permit one of these laws to fall, who will be able to stand in the winds that follow?”

And as we said, at THE HOWLER, we’re not certain. But you don’t impeach a president for a speeding ticket, and that doesn’t mean the speed limits will fall. If we don’t impeach Clinton for what he has done, that doesn’t send perjury laws out the window. But, what do we let fall, in columns like Kelly’s? Say good-bye to simple truth and sweet reason.

Postscript: Kelly’s description of committee Democrats is nothing short of remarkable. By the end of the week, it was Republican spin that all but six House Democrats had voted for some form of an inquiry. And the two parties’ plans were so similar that some commentators said that Republicans should just vote for the Democrats’ plan. But what were Kelly’s readers told? “All 16 Democratic members of the committee...voted to block an inquiry.” So do pundits feel free to mislead, because they believe President Clinton’s a liar.

The Democrats acted “in dereliction of their constitutional duty,” Kelly wrote. What of his duties as a journalist? And why do papers like the Post allow such howling falsehoods to be set in their print?

Read on: Whenever bad arguments are floating around, you hear them first on Hardball. See Life in this celebrity press corps, 10/14/98.