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SURELY HE JESTS! Brian Williams paid tribute to Johnny in reacting to Bush’s new whopper: // link // print // previous // next //

SURELY HE JESTS: As we’ve noted before, major pols almost never lie. Why should they? As professional communicators know, a speaker can totally mislead an audience without making literal misstatements. But President Bush went the extra mile in last night’s State of the Union Address. Major pols almost never lie. But what would you call these weird statements?
BUSH (2/2/05): Social Security was a great moral success of the 20th century, and we must honor its great purposes in this new century. The system, however, on its current path, is headed toward bankruptcy...

By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt...

If you've got children in their 20's, as some of us do, the idea of Social Security collapsing before they retire does not seem like a small matter.

Absent reform, Social Security will be “exhausted” by 2042, the president said. But according to the CBO, the system will still pay full promised benefits right through the year 2052! Indeed, even according to the SS trustees’ projection—the gloomy report from which Bush gets his figures—“the entire system” plainly won’t be “exhausted” by the year 2042. Absent changes, the system will still pay three-quarters of promised benefits after that, the trustees say—benefits which will be larger, adjusted for inflation, than recipients get today! Will “the entire system be exhausted?” That statement is about as close to a lie as big pols like Bush ever make.

But don’t expect to hear such news from your nation’s powdered “press corps.” Seeing-no-evil has become their great skill as they keep making nice on this topic. Indeed, Brian Williams provided a good solid laugh when he played some Hardball after last night’s address. Clearly, Williams’ tongue was firmly in cheek as he served up this assessment:

WILLIAMS (2/2/05): I think [Bush’s] foray into Social Security, the confusion around the issue, I think we are very quickly going to see a lot of Americans going to search engines, their local newspaper, their favorite evening newscast or cable network, looking to sort through it, looking for an expert they respect.
Sounds great! But of course, we know what Americans will actually get from “their favorite newscast or cable network.” They’ll get a parade of clueless twenty-somethings insisting that SS “won’t be there for them” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/2/05). And they’ll get hapless reporters like CBS’ Trish Regan, bungling basic facts of the program. And will they find any big network anchor correcting or challenging Bush’s misstatements? Surely not, to judge from last night. Example: Right after Williams’ joking remarks, Matthews turned to Nantucket’s Tim Russert, directly asking about the word “bankrupt.” The Buffalo Bulldog rolled on his back, put up his feet, and stared blankly off into air:
MATTHEWS: Tim, do you think the regular people out there who have not followed this week by week, like journalists do, will be taken with the president`s strong words—Social Security headed for bankruptcy?

RUSSERT: Well, they will certainly have heard that. And they also heard the “no`s” being yelled at by the Democrats, and so they will want to find out a whole lot more.

They will certainly have heard that! Clearly, if people want to “find out a lot more,” Russert won’t be the guy to go to. Russert knows why those Dems yelled “no.” But he also knows that he can’t tattle:
RUSSERT: On Social Security, the suspicions between the two parties are so deep. Democrats believe Social Security is their program, Franklin Roosevelt`s program, that defined their party for a whole generation. And now George Bush wants to take it away with a legacy issue called private accounts or personal accounts. And they are going to fight. All 45 Democratic senators have said they oppose it.

The president is going to go tomorrow to Republican states, so-called red states that have Democratic senators. And the Democrats have already recorded television ads and radio ads and have demonstrators going against the president`s idea. This is going to be a huge, robust debate about an issue central to each of these parties. Who owns Social Security?

Zzzzz! Specifically asked about the word “bankrupt,” Russert specifically ran for the woods. Perfect, isn’t it? Americans will go to their favorite newscast, Williams said. And Russert showed what they will get there.

Indeed, bald deception littered the evening, with Matthews staring off into air. At 7:30, John McCain appeared. Try to believe that he said it:

MATTHEWS: Senator John McCain has long called for an end to partisan politics. So, how does he do it tonight, Senator, marry nonpartisan politics with a very dramatic call for change?

MCCAIN: Well, I think he is going to try to appeal to the best interests of the country. I think he`s going to point out that it is our money that goes in the form of our Social Security taxes and we ought to have some control over it and that this is the pillar of his proposal and that we are in a crisis situation. In other words, we can wait until 2018, when the Social Security system starts running the other way. But then, in 2040—are we supposed to wait until 2042, when it has got zero money in it? In other words, I think he`s going to convey a certain sense of urgency and plus make a strong pitch that it is your money that you`re paying in taxes.

According to McCain, Social Security will have “zero money” in 2042—but Matthews voiced no word of challenge. Hardly surprising: Throughout the evening, as we flipped the dial, we heard wild statements about SS. But did you see any such statements challenged? Frankly, we did not.

Surely, Williams was jesting. What will Americans get from their favorite newscast? They’ll get Norah O’Donnell—who used to fight back on Hardball—playing the well-mannered fool:

O’DONNELL: I was struck in particular, this is the first speech since 9/11 where for the most part one of the big headlines that is going to come out of this is domestic issues, and the issue about Social Security, which we have not touched on. The president tonight challenging Congress to strengthen and solve Social Security, which he said is on the verge of bankruptcy. We`ve heard the president talk about this, but this is the first time he said it between tens of millions of people, and the president offering details.
O’Donnell knows the problem with Bush’s remark, but she has also learned to clam up.

But then, everyone got to play the fool about that “bankruptcy” claim. Moments later, Matthews asked Newsweek’s Jon Meacham about it. Meacham knew that he should duck too. Take stimulants before you try reading:

MATTHEWS: I would expect a lot of newspapers in this country tomorrow to lead with "president says Social Security headed for bankruptcy." You know, we are getting a little sophisticated here. I think—because we have covered it so often in the last several months, but to the weekly papers, to the papers that don`t cover federal events every day on their front pages, they are telling their people, their older people, for the first time, it`s not just an argument about how to fix Social Security. It`s an argument that it needs fixing in the most drastic terms, Jon?

MEACHAM: I think it`s a two-tiered story, if I were laying out that front page. I think it is pledged to the AARP members and up that you are off the table. And going down to the very clear generational appeal the president was making to people his daughter`s age and younger about these private accounts. He was not wildly specific about that. There is much room for argument about the years and the numbers the president has talked about. But you do have—the president, I thought—and I agree with David, that it was shorn of a lot of the ideology of the inaugural, but what he is really talking about is an ownership society, which has been a phrase he`s used. He did not frame it in that way. This was a more actuarial case than it was an ideological case.

In short, Meacham offered his usual comment: Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Final point, and let’s be clear: It isn’t like these folks don’t know the problem with Bush’s statements. Indeed, one day before, their home-town paper devoted an entire editorial to this problem (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/2/05). “When Mr. Bush says that the system [in 2042] ‘will be flat bust, bankrupt,’ he is flat wrong” the Post editors said. All the pundits had read that piece. And they all knew to pretend that they hadn’t.

“The entire system will be exhausted?” Bush came as close to a flat-out lie as Big Major Pols ever get. But Williams is known for his sense of humor. Americans will turn to their favorite newscasts, he said, proving that his recent promotion hasn’t killed off his sense of the absurd.

BANKRUPT LOGIC: Yesterday, we got an e-mail on this very subject. Our mailer was struck by an apparent contradiction:

E-MAIL: Have you seen this? Great stuff. The very first page has a beaut:

1: By 2042, when current twenty-somethings retire, the system will be bankrupt if we do nothing now.

Two lines—two friggin' lines—down:

2: Under the current system, today's 30-year-old will face a 27 percent benefit cut.

To our mailer, that seemed like a contradiction. Incomparably, we penned a quick reply on the logic of the slippery term “bankrupt:”
REPLY: What they say if challenged on this: By "bankrupt," we mean "unable to meet all outstanding obligations."

In short: They fall back on a technical legal definition, claiming their statement is technically accurate. Of course, when normal people hear the word "bankrupt," they picture a shuttered-up, failed, shut-down enterprise. When Bush says SS will be "flat bust" or "flat broke," he heightens this frightening image.

Conservative spinners will defend the term “bankrupt” by citing technical legal definitions. But: The entire system will be exhausted? There’s a word for a statement like that. And yes, that word starts with an “L.”