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Daily Howler: Why did we say that Dowd was unfair? Several sharp readers asked
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PARAPHRASING CONDI! Why did we say that Dowd was unfair? Several sharp readers asked: // link // print // previous // next //

Paraphrasing Condi: Did Maureen Dowd paraphrase Condi Rice fairly in Sunday’s column? Was she right when she compared Rice’s statement at Stanford to Nixon’s famous weird statement (“When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”)—a statement which has been enshrined as one of the kookiest of the past thirty years?

On Monday, we said we thought that Dowd was wrong to compare the two statements (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/4/09). Some readers said they didn’t understand why we would have said that. And this is an important topic, for several basic reasons:

On the mega level: Bad paraphrase has played a central role in our recent political history. George Bush reached the White House due to gruesome paraphrase. To all intents and purposes, the history of the past dozen years is the history of faulty paraphrase.

Why did we think Dowd was wrong to compare Rice’s statement to Nixon’s? A lot can be learned from this episode. As a basic starting-point, this was one sharp e-mailer’s query:

E-MAIL (5/5/09): Dowd quotes Nixon saying, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.'' Later, you seem to cast doubt on the quote (I'm guessing that was not your intent) referring to "what Nixon is said to have said.” Anyway, the Nixon quote is 100 percent accurate as you probably know, coming from the Frost-Nixon interview...

The logic of Rice's quote is not identical (notably it is restricted to prohibitions on torture), though I don't find them that different. She seems to be saying that any interrogation technique the president orders is ipso facto not torture for legal purposes. In other words, the president can order subordinates to torture people and whatever they do in accordance with his directions is magically not "torture" at least for the purposes of the Conventions Against Torture.

I do wonder if perhaps Rice misspoke, though. Perhaps she meant to say that it is up to the president /DOJ/ OLC/AG to determine what is or is not legally torture. I.e. what is or is not torture is not up to her to decide, she merely passes along the information. That may have been what she meant; if so, it is very different from what Nixon meant. But in any event that's not what she said.

Regardless, I'd encourage you to clear up why you think Dowd's near conflation of Nixon's and Dowd's statements is so problematic.

Did Rice mean that a president can authorize torture? We thought it was almost totally clear that she hadn’t meant that. At any rate, here again is the way Dowd presented the matter. Dowd leaves out some of what Rice said, but her quotes are quite extensive:

DOWD (5/3/09): I've often wondered why students haven't been more vocal in questioning the architects of the Iraq war and ''legal'' torture who landed plum spots at prestigious universities...But finally, the young man at Stanford spoke up. Saying he had read that Ms. Rice authorized waterboarding, he asked her, ''Is waterboarding torture?”

She replied: ''The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations, under the Convention Against Torture. So that's—and by the way, I didn't authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency.''


The student pressed again about whether waterboarding was torture.

''By definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Conventions Against Torture,'' Ms. Rice said, almost quoting Nixon's logic: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

She also stressed that, ''Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after Sept. 11, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans.”

Dowd omitted some of what Rice said. But at the time, we assumed that Rice had said what she later said she had said. We took her to be saying this:

WHAT WE TOOK RICE TO HAVE MEANT: I didn’t make these decisions; the decisions were made by someone else. (Presumably, by Bush and the Office of Legal Counsel.) I just passed along the decisions. But the president told us that he wasn’t going to authorize anything that violated our legal or treaty obligations. Therefore, when the president authorized X, Y or Z, I assumed that X, Y or Z didn’t violate those obligations.

As the e-mailer noted: If that’s what Rice meant, it’s very different from what Nixon famously said. If that’s what she meant, she was saying that she assumed that a good-faith legal judgment had been made—not that a president can just go ahead authorize any darn thing he pleases. In our view, this is still a shaky statement, for reasons we will discuss below. But it isn’t what Nixon said.

Rice has now said that this is what she meant, during an underwhelming conversation with Leon Wieseltier. (To watch this discussion, click here.) In real time, why did we think this was almost surely what she meant?

This takes us to the heart of paraphrase, a very important topic.

Why did we think that was what Rice meant? Here are three basic aspects of the world of paraphrase:

Extemporaneous speech is often unclear: Extemporaneous speech is often jumbled, muddy, unclear. Rice’s statement was slightly jumbled (for our money, Dowd omitted the most unclear part of what she said). Indeed, Rice’s later clarification (to underwhelming Wieseltier) was also jumbled in parts. (Simple fact: Rice isn’t nearly as sharp as the mainstream press often likes to pretend.) But if you’re going to paraphrase sensibly, you need to start by understanding a basic fact: People often speak in ways which aren’t perfectly clear. No, Gore didn’t say he invented the Internet. But what he did say was slightly unclear.

Typically, people don’t say the craziest things in the world: If you want to be fair at all, you can’t simply adopt the craziest possible version of somebody’s unclear statement. Again, consider the history-changing paraphrase of Gore. Why was it always unlikely that Gore had said that he invented the Internet? Duh! Because that would have been a crazy statement (no one “invented the Internet”), and Al Gore isn’t crazy! Similarly, it would have been very weird for Rice to have echoed Nixon’s famous ludicrous statement. We don’t think Rice is anywhere near as impressive as the mainstream pundit corps often suggests. On the other hand, she isn’t Michele Bachmann; she doesn’t normally parade about making the craziest possible statements. Especially if you oppose a public figure, it’s tempting to adopt the craziest possible version of some unclear thing she has said. (People like Olbermann/Hannity do this constantly, thereby pleasing the demo.) This practice is highly pleasing; it just doesn’t tend to be fair or accurate. No, Gore didn’t mean to say that he invented the Internet. And we can see no reason to think that Rice meant to make the crackpot statement liberal hacks quickly put in her mouth.

If you aren’t sure what someone meant, the remedy is to ask her: Sometimes people say jumbled things and you really aren’t sure what they meant. In this case, we thought it was fairly clear what Rice meant—she meant the she had been assured that Bush’s judgments were based on acceptable legal reasoning. But if you’re truly puzzled by somebody’s statement, the remedy is fairly obvious: You ask the person to explain what she meant. When Gore was asked to explain his statement about the Internet, he gave a perfectly sensible answer. (Because the press corps was seeking his blood, his explanation was quickly deep-sixed.) In this case, Rice was asked what she meant by her statement at Stanford—and she said she hadn’t meant what Nixon said. We thought this was reasonably clear all along. But once a person has said that she didn’t mean X (and doesn’t believe X), there’s no real reason, other than unvarnished partisanship, to keep asserting that she meant the thing she has disavowed.

None of this means the following:

None of this means that Rice gave a “good” answer to the questions at Stanford. We find it hard to believe that she didn’t have questions or doubts about the legality of water-boarding, for instance. For all we know, she may have fought like a tiger, behind the scenes, against the use of water-boarding. Or she may have offered “strong support” for the use of these techniques, as Mark Mazzetti reported in Monday’s New York Times. (Mazzetti referred to the early years—2002-2004.)

It would make good sense to question Rice about these matters—especially for those who treat this topic as a central issue. But wouldn’t you know it? When Rice’s top aide (Philip Zelikow) appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show, he got no questions about such matters! When Colin Powell’s top aide appeared two nights later, he too got a total pass. (When Powell himself appeared on the show, Maddow failed, again and again, to ask the world’s most obvious question: Was water-boarding discussed in your presence?) Do you mind if we mention something about the real word? It’s easier for a climber like Maddow to take a dive when the big shots are present—then to adopt the world’s silliest paraphrase when the coast is clear.

That’s what Maddow has done in the past two nights. We have truly come to wonder if she’s the fakest person in the world.

On the other hand, conduct like this will please the demo. And on corporate cable, the demo rules. The demo brings in all the swag, after all. That cash, and its attendant fame, end up in the lazy host’s pocket.

What Mitchell told Maddow RE Rice: On Monday night, Andrea Mitchell discussed the Rice matter with Maddow. Here’s where it ended up:

MITCHELL (5/4/09): Well, I think she’s caught in a firestorm. And clearly, at Stanford, she was not expecting those questions in a hallway. You saw the video that had been posted from the newspaper at Stanford. And I think that she was caught off guard and clearly misspoke.

I don’t think that she, in a clear-cut way, would have prepared to answer in what is clearly an echo of what Richard Nixon said to David Frost. So that is why she came back and said “this was not a Frost-Nixon moment.” And I think she’s trying to clarify that she was not in that corner.

Now, what is even more confusing is when she said she didn’t authorize the CIA to go ahead with the water-boarding, that she was just relaying information. So basically what Condi Rice and others are now trying to do—Phil Zelikow is very close, co-authored a book with her—what they’re trying to do is point to the Justice Department, point to that Office of Legal Counsel.

And similar it’s similar to the way the Bush White House used to point their finger, you know, at the CIA. So it is an attempt to deflect it all back to the Justice Department lawyers who are—three lawyers, who, as you know, are under investigation.

MADDOW: Andrea Mitchell, NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, it’s always great to have you on the show. Thanks for being here, Andrea.

We agree with most of what Mitchell said. Of course, Rice wouldn’t likely have said something as weird as what Nixon told Frost. Obviously, that’s why she is trying to clarify what she said.

But note the cynical thing Mitchell said right after that. We’ll paraphrase: Rice and Zelikow are trying to deflect the blame back to the Justice Department’s lawyers. They’re trying to palm off the blame, just the way the Bush White House used to do with the CIA.

Is that a fair assessment of what Rice and Zelikow are doing? Are they just trying to palm off the blame, or did they really oppose these practices from within? We don’t have the slightest idea. You see, when Zelikow appeared on this same program, Maddow put her feet in the air, kissed his keister, and completely forgot to ask! He was allowed to bang away at Cheney. His own role was barely question; Rice didn’t come up at all.

Mitchell suggested this may be a ruse. Maddow basically didn’t ask. But if we might be a bit cynical ourselves: So it goes when the corporate suits pick our “progressive” stars for us.