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SPINNING KERRY (PART 4)! Has Kerry flipped on the Patriot Act? Reading Halbfinger, there’s no way to tell:

FRIDAY, MARCH 12, 2004

ONE FIRST SMALL STEP FOR ANALYSIS: Finally! In this morning’s Post, Pincus and Milbank examine Bush’s remarkable claim—the claim that Kerry tried to “gut” the U.S. intelligence budget. Unsurprisingly, they find that Bush’s claims are all wet. The headline is generous—Bush has “overstated,” it says—but then, so are the writers themselves when they say that “in terms of accuracy, the president is about half right” in what he has said. But their overall analysis is perfectly clear—Bush is playing the voters for fools when he lodges this bogus complaint about Kerry. Did Kerry attempt to “gut” intelligence? Here’s Bush’s real text: Hey rubes!

But what is amazing about this piece? Here’s what’s amazing—no analysis of Bush’s charge has run in the New York Times at all, and the pundit corps has taken no notice of this foolish and phony Bush assertion. (Meanwhile, they wonder what Kerry could possibly mean when he says, in a private aside, that his opponents are liars!) Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan laid out this case several days ago, but as we’ve explained many times in the past, the very notions of “accuracy” and “fact” are virtually foreign to this press corps. The pundit corps has made almost no effort to examine Bush’s recent claims against Kerry. Instead, they play the tape of Bush’s statements, and ask each other what it means that George is now saying John’s name.

But it’s as we’ve told you again and again—facts play almost no role in our discourse. Your pundit corps doesn’t like to be bothered; they prefer the hazier realms of forecasting, mind-reading, guessing at motives. Indeed, Bush’s other claims against Kerry have gone unexamined—for example, his recent claim, widely aired on TV, that Kerry is “for tax cuts and against tax cuts.” The tape has been played again and again; pundits cite the Bush camp’s claim that this is one of Kerry’s flip-flops. But in our reading, only Gene Lyons, in his syndicated column, has noted how strange this Bush claim is. How has Kerry flipped or self-contradicted on taxes? The answer is plain—he has done no such thing. But saying so would involve grimy facts, and your pundits are too grand for such drudgery. Bush’s statement makes almost no sense. But your scribes are too grand to assess it. Why they don’t wear powdered wigs is something we can’t really tell you.

Pincus and Milbank provide a must-read. Meanwhile, at the vacuous Times, their interests are somewhat different. They tell you what Kerry pays for his shirts. They tell you how much his haircuts run. But the claim that Kerry tried to “gut” intelligence? Insipid, bored pundits with their best plummy accents won’t stoop to considerations such as this. Let them eat Botox, the Times scribes have said. How vacuous is the gang at the Times? You know what to do. Just keep reading…

SPINNING KERRY (PART 4): So let’s see: Kerry volunteered to serve his country in Vietnam, although he had doubts about the policy. (This happened thirty-six years ago.) And oh yes—when Kerry went to law school (in 1972), some “liberals” thought that seemed inconsistent (with their view of the universe, apparently). Not only that—and this one will kill you—Kerry went duck hunting on the same day he said he favored gun control! But so it went when hapless David Halbfinger examined the claim that Kerry’s a flipper (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/11/04). Halfway through his front-page Times piece, this was the gruel on which readers had fed. Incredibly—please sit down as we mention a fact—they charge you a dollar for this!

In fairness, Halbfinger is skilled at asking candidates’ wives how many times they’ve used Botox. He has a good ear for their troubling accents, and he lets you know if Kerry’s wife sometimes wears an odd, funny scarf. But just last Saturday, on page one, he tried to examine an important question: Is John Kerry prone to flip-flops? Halfway through, he had given us pointless tales of the old war and the current duck hunt. Not a single real issue had been explored.

Maybe we should have just given up then. But more than halfway through his 32-paragraph piece, the scribe finally tried to examine some issues. And when he did, mordant chuckles ensued. Readers, this really is the type of “analysis” you get in today’s New York Times:

HALBFINGER (pgh 21): Mr. Kerry’s explanations for a number of the recent stances Republicans are branding as flip-flops have a common thread. He voted for the Iraq resolution but criticizes the war because, he says, the president “broke his promises” to exhaust the diplomatic process and use force only as a last resort. He voted for the education legislation known as the No Child Left Behind law but lambastes President Bush now because, Mr. Kerry says, he withheld promised additional money for education.

(22) And on Friday, he said he had criticized the Israeli wall before the Arab-American group in October because its path was then expected to deviate widely from Israel’s border into West Bank villages—though he conceded he had not made the distinction clear at the time.

Note the brilliance of the analysis. After all, it’s hardly a “flip-flop” if you vote for NCLB, then criticize Bush for withholding promised funds. But guess what? At no point does Halbfinger help us know if Kerry’s complaint is based on real facts! Has George Bush withheld such funds? Halbfinger’s piece makes no effort to say! Meanwhile, has the expected path of that wall really changed? Halbfinger doesn’t engage those facts either. He wasted our time with that duck-hunting tale, then leaves us fact-free when he gets to real issues. Continuing directly, the scribe provides his most detailed critique. He examines the Bush camp’s claim that Kerry flipped on the Patriot Act:
HALBFINGER (23): Mr. Kerry also voted for the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, which he has since all but repudiated, telling Democratic audiences that the best thing Congress put into that law was a sunset clause that will make it expire next year, unless Congress renews it. He has likened the law’s use against Americans to the repression of Afghans by the Taliban.

(24) But he also says the law was necessary when it was passed, as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks. And as recently as last week, he went further, telling a group of newspaper editors and reporters, “Of course I support it,” before adding that his objections were mainly to the way Attorney General John Ashcroft had been “abusing” it.

Kerry “has all but repudiated” the act, the scribe writes. But can you make any sense of his murky presentation? More specifically, can you begin to judge if Kerry has flipped based on the smattering of obscure facts you’re given? In this morning’s Washington Post, a more able writer, Howard Kurtz, describes Kerry’s position with more clarity:
KURTZ: Kerry has called for the repeal of the USA Patriot Act, which increased law enforcement authority in terrorist probes after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But Kerry has said, as cited by the Bush team’s own research, that he wants to replace it “with a new law that protects our people and our liberties at the same time.”

Cutter said Kerry wants a “new and improved” Patriot Act, which he voted for while cosponsoring a provision for the law to automatically expire so its effectiveness could be assessed. Kerry believes Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has abused the law “for political purposes,” she said.

Has Kerry “flipped” on the Patriot Act? If you have two brain cells to rub together, you might want to know what’s in his new proposal before you make such a judgment. But Halbfinger didn’t make any attempt to explain what Kerry has in mind. But then, how much could you really expect from the scribe who asked Kerry’s wife how many times she had used Botox? What can you expect from the hopeless eds who put that stupid “profile” into print?

Is Kerry a flipper? Inquiring minds want to know. But at today’s Times, hapless boys cover men. Lightweights like Halbfinger steward your discourse. Let them eat Botox, Times editors say. What have we done to deserve them?