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Caveat lector

SEE BOB FAKE (PART 1)! Woodward has written a new Dick and Jane. All week, we’ll sound out his stories:

MONDAY, APRIL 26, 2004

PLANET OF THE SCRIPTS: If we ever make a film about the press, we’ll probably call it Planet of the Scripts. In Planet, we learn that our “journalists” are all secret cyborgs. We further learn that they’ve all been programmed to type up inane, worthless scripts.

Yes, we’re talking about David Broder’s column in Sunday’s Post. And yes—it’s a major problem for American democracy when the reigning Pundit Dean is willing to be this inane. Which script informed the Dean’s Sunday sermon? This one: Kerry just won’t tell it straight. The Dean was eager to type that one up. And he was willing to clown hard to do it.

In his column, Broder explained a recent poll number—one that is hurting the presumptive Dem hopeful. “When voters were asked to rate Bush and Kerry on their willingness to take a position and stick with it,” Broder wrote, “eight out of 10 said Bush does that, while only four out of 10 saw that consistency or tenacity in Kerry.” Why do voters think Kerry’s a flipper? Could it be because Bush has spent millions of dollars on ads promoting this view? Sorry—Broder has a better idea. Caution: If you think you’ve read this tale before, there’s a reason for that—you have:

BRODER: I suspect something deeper is at work. If you watched Kerry on [last Sunday’s]“Meet the Press,” you saw many examples of dodginess on his part. At the very start, moderator Tim Russert asked for a “yes or no answer” to the question, “Do you believe the war in Iraq was a mistake?” Kerry’s response was: “I think the way the president went to war was a mistake.” By restating the question, he left the fundamental issue unanswered.
Yes, Broder was cut-and-pasting from Jodi Wilgoren’s hapless report, the one which graced last Monday’s New York Times (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/04). Why do voters think Kerry’s a flipper? According to Broder, it’s because he gave a 12-word answer when Russert only wanted to hear yes-or-no! Of course, most questions can’t be answered yes-or-no, as people know (but cyborgs don’t). But your modern pundit lives for his scripts, and he’ll recite his scripts to the end. We don’t know what Broder means when he says that Kerry “restated the question.” But we do know why the Dean typed this paragraph. He typed it because Wilgoren already had—and because it voiced an Approved Press Corps Script.

As we’ve seen, Wilgoren got extremely stupid in last Monday’s report. She even slammed Kerry for saying “it depends” when Russert asked how many troops we’d need in Iraq next year. One week before, of course, Don Rumsfeld gave the same answer to the very same question—and, according to Approved Press Corps Scripts, Rummy is one of the nation’s “blunt talkers” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/21/04). But so what? There is nothing so stupid that modern press cyborgs won’t pretend that it fits their Great Scripts.

How dumb was Broder willing to be? Sampling Russert, the Dean was soon clowning:

BRODER: Over the course of the hour, Kerry struggled to explain why he had once—decades ago—advocated placing U.S. forces under the direction of the United Nations…
In this, his second example of Kerry’s great waffling, Broder goes back to 1970—exactly 3.4 “decades ago”—to find a silly statement to flog. But readers, you can make anyone look like a fool if you’re willing to travel that far back in time, as everyone except these cyborgs knows. But Russert had taken that trip himself, and the Dean of All Cyborgs followed suit, extending a recent press tradition (see below). By the way, did Kerry “struggle to explain” his old statement? Here’s what he actually said when Russert asked about his old comment:
KERRY: That’s one of those stupid things that a 27-year-old kid says when you’re fresh back from Vietnam and angry about it. I have never, ever, ever, in any vote, in any policy, in any speech, in any public statement advocated any such thing in all of the years I’ve been in elected office.
Does that sound like a struggle to you? In fact, Kerry simply said that his statement was stupid! But Broder had a script to type, and was willing to fool you to do so.

Has Kerry sometimes flipped or dodged? Obviously, yes, he has done so; so has his opponent, George Bush, quite routinely. But just how often has Kerry flipped if we have to go back 34 years for statements with which he disagrees? Make no mistake—Russert and Broder aren’t trying to inform you. They’re cyborgs; they’re handing you scripts.

In the end, how inane—how unfair—would the Pundit Dean be? Try to believe that this tired old man would descend to this kind of demagoguery:

BRODER: The election is still six months away. But Kerry’s reputation has been built over 40 years. And the voters seem to be sniffing it out. [end of column]
According to Broder, “Kerry’s reputation has been built over 40 years.” This takes us back to April 1964—when Kerry was still a sophomore in college! (Kerry was, by all accounts, one of Yale’s most respected students.) But cyborgs like Broder live for their scripts; they will say any damn thing to promote them. Can’t you see why a great feature film would compare them to apes—or to robots?

ROOTS: Jim Rutenberg is also concerned about Kerry’s decades-old statements. In this morning’s Times, the deeply worried Times reporter travels back some 33 years to puzzle and parse an old statement. By contrast, Rutenberg gives minor space to things said yesterday, on the stump. In fairness, we really should give the scribe credit where due; this time, he stopped his outright lying (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/15/04). He didn’t say that “Democrats and Republicans alike” are disturbed by the things Kerry said.

Last Friday, a college student asked us what they should watch for in the press. If there’s one thing to watch for, we replied, you have to look out for the focus on trivia. Scribes will misdirect you to ancient trivia, we said. This morning, a deeply worried Times reporter shows that bright kid what we meant.

From the annals of stories for children

SEE BOB FAKE (PART 1): On this weekend’s Fox News Watch—one of Fox’s few fair-and-balanced programs—Jim Pinkerton made an observation about Bob Woodward’s new book:

PINKERTON: This is a book that is a Rorschach test for everybody to look at. The Bush-Cheney campaign has it on its Web site as recommended reading. On the other hand, Arianna Huffington praises it in her column and says this proves all my points about how much I hate Bush. Rush Limbaugh said that the book makes Bush look like an idiot.
“Jim, you’re making an absolutely fascinating point,” host Eric Burns said. “But how can it be explained? How can so many people look at that book and see so many different things in it?”

We can’t necessarily answer that question, but at the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller can. In this morning’s “White House Letter,” the scribe explains why the White House has linked to Plan of Attack. In the process, she does what she does best—she tells us what “Republicans say,” and even what Karl Rove “belie[ves].” Obviously, Bumiller doesn’t know what Rove really thinks. But as she continues, she makes an accurate point about major chunks of this book:

BUMILLER: The book does portray Mr. Bush as the central decision maker, a chief executive who orders, over objections from his staff, that Iran remain part of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union speech, and who sharply questions his C.I.A. director, George J. Tenet, after a C.I.A. presentation on the evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

“I’ve been told all this intelligence about having W.M.D. and this is the best we’ve got?” Mr. Bush says.

In Mr. Woodward’s book, Mr. Bush—not Mr. Cheney—is clearly president. Mr. Cheney is persistent but always deferential, and he even falls asleep at a Pentagon briefing.

As we told you last week, major scenes in Plan of Attack read like a Karl Rove wet dream (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/21/04). In them, Bold Leader Bush is insightful and honest; he wisely cautions impulsive aides against a string of potential mistakes. On Fox News Watch, Neal Gabler limned Woodward’s book. “No, it doesn’t vilify [Bush],” he said. “He walks on water.”

To some extent, Gabler overstates. As we pointed out last week, there are clearly parts of Plan of Attack in which Woodward shows Bush behaving irresponsibly. Indeed, for those who want to understand the structure of Woodward’s phony new book, that scene in which Bush cautions Tenet serves as an excellent primer.

Yes, we see Bush, in a central scene, “sharply question” his bumbling aide about those WMD. He even tells Tenet not to “stretch” the intelligence, making his heartfelt warning twice! But this scene takes place in December 2002—and in scene after scene in the preceding months, Woodward has shown us Bush and Cheney as they baldly stretch the intelligence! We see Bush doing the very thing he later warns Tenet against.

Let’s go over that sequence again, because this is a crucial point. Starting in August 2002, we plainly see Bush as he “stretches” intelligence. Then, in that crucial December scene, we see Bush—now a wise, honest leader—warning Tenet not to stretch! And there’s one other thing we see in these scenes. We see the book’s author, the brilliant Woodward, failing to notice this clear contradiction. The sequence here makes little sense—but Woodward never says boo about it. There is no sign that he ever asked Bush why this briefing was held in December. Nor does he ever ask Bush about his earlier overstatements. And he doesn’t ask how Bush was briefed before that late December session. One more point: In September 2002, Woodward clearly shows us Bush as he “flips” about WMD, getting in line with Cheney’s misstatements (more tomorrow). But wouldn’t you know it? Absent-mindedly, Woodward forgets to ask the president why he adjusted his stand.

Why does Woodward write this way? At THE HOWLER, we really can’t tell you. We can state the obvious, however; Woodward is a very smart man, so he writes this way on purpose. Why would the White House love this book? Part of the answer to that is obvious. The Bush campaign would love this book because it ignores puzzling conduct by Bush. Indeed, Woodward agrees to ignore the obvious throughout the length of his book.

In some ways, that makes this book read like a dream, with sequences which make little sense. But in many scenes, the book also reads like a schoolchild’s primer—like a sequel to Dick and Jane. Woodward treats you like a child as he types a string of odd scenes—crucial scenes which “portray Mr. Bush” in a way Karl Rove surely loves.

TOMORROW: See George fail to ask!