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THAT TUMULTY SAID! When we read George Tenet’s book, we thought of Karen Tumulty: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MAY 16, 2007

AN ACTUAL QUESTION: Let’s face it, last night’s first question wasn’t half bad. Chris Wallace asked it, of John McCain. Here is the actual question which started last evening’s debate:
WALLACE (5/15/07): Let’s start with the war in Iraq. Senator McCain, you say that you are willing to be the last man standing for U.S. involvement in Iraq. But the Iraqi government has failed to meet one benchmark after another for political reform. Why should Americans continue to fight and die while Iraqi politicians continue to do so little?
We’ll review this debate in more detail, most likely Monday. But in this third debate of Campaign 08, we got our first sensible opening question! Wallace didn’t suggest that Harry Reid was guilty of “treasonous” conduct, as Brian Williams disgracefully did in his opening question to Dems back in April. And he didn’t paint a warm, fuzzy picture of “Morning in America,” as Chris Matthews did on May 3. Instead, he asked a straightforward question. It was the sort of question a journalist might ask—not someone in big orange clown shoes.

In fact, last night’s debate was much more professional than the clown shows staged by Williams and Matthews. There’s an important lesson in that for liberals. Yes, Fox News is often a miserable news org; a great deal of its work is horrendous (not all). But in the past decade, no one has done more damage to Dems than the gang of broken-souled “Lost Boys” Jack Welch assembled at NBC News. But we liberals are often unable to see that. We simply love to hate Fox News. Everyone else gets a pass.

Much of Fox’s work is a joke. But last night’s debate was quite professional—and that was easy to predict. No one clowns like Welch’s Lost Boys—and they’ve been clowning this way, at Dems’ expense, at least since the late 1990s. (Their conduct in Campaign 2000 was egregious.) But we liberals rarely seem to notice. Williams said “treasonous” in his first question. But because he didn’t say it on Fox, nobody much seemed to care.

For the questions which opened those first two debates, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/8/07. Last night’s event was a breath of fresh air compared to those first two disasters.

RELATED QUESTION: How kooky is Matthews? Last night, he baffled Susan Molinari with his growing concern about “the Irish betting odds:”
MATTHEWS (5/15/07): I still think [Giuliani’s] the front-runner. I checked the Irish betting odds and McCain’s up by a point over him. I don’t know what’s going on. He’s falling a little bit.

MOLINARI: I can’t even debate the Irish betting odds.

MATTHEWS: I can’t understand the betting odds. They’re moving against him. They’re the international betting odds! Why is Giuliani doing well in the polls, but people think he’s a little less of a good bet to win right now?

MOLINARI: What people?

MATTHEWS: The bettors! Follow the money.

MOLINARI: I’m going home.
The man gets battier by the week. No, he wasn’t joking.

WHO’S NOT READING WELL NOW: Bob Wise used to be a congressman; he then became West Virginia’s governor. But today, he’s president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a high-minded gang of educational experts. From that perch, he wrote this letter to the Washington Post about Gerald Bracey’s recent op-ed column. Here’s how the gentleman started:
WISE (5/15/07): In his May 3 op-ed, "A Test Everyone Will Fail," Gerald W. Bracey questioned the accuracy of international comparisons of educational achievement and accused advocates of school reform of using scare tactics. Unfortunately, Mr. Bracey's questions are the wrong ones to be asking.
Wise goes on to suggest, perfectly sensibly, that we should work to reduce drop-out rates. In the meantime, can’t we assemble accurate information about all aspects of public education?

In fact, nothing in Bracey’s column “questioned the accuracy of international comparisons of educational achievement.” Primarily, Bracey argued that our own National Assessment of Educational Progress is so hard that it produces artificially low “proficiency” rates among the American kids who take it. According to Bracey’s column, ballyhooed kids from other nations would also produce low proficiency rates if they had to take the NAEP. According to Bracey, only 33 percent of Swedish fourth-graders would pass a reading test equivalent to the NAEP.

Bracey’s basic point was this: The NAEP is an extremely demanding test. Because it’s so hard, it produces low “proficiency” rates—and those low rates can be misleading. They can give the impression that American kids are doing very poorly in school. But if you look at results from international tests, you may get a different impression.

Wise makes a good, if obvious, point. Bracey’s important point isn’t obvious. For that reason, we’re happy to state it again. For our original next-day report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/4/07.

FRAU VONSPRECKEN FLIPS: Poor abused non-millionaire Deborah VonSprecken has had a change of heart about Rudy. After boo-hoo-hooing long and loud about the great harm he had done to her psyche, she has now agreed to be his chairperson in Iowa’s rural Jones County.

In part, that’s why it was never a great idea for liberals to beat the drums about this story. Temporary misunderstandings affect campaigns all the time. And the original stories about this outrage all turned on accepting this unknown person’s account of the great mistreatment she’d endured. As it turns out, Deborah VonSprecken may not have been quite as abused as she once insisted. Let’s put it another way—the lady may be a little bit flaky. This was always a possibility, although some of our pals rushed into the breach, demanding Hot Press Corps Action. Why, even level-headed Kevin Drum was drawn in! (We cite Kevin to draw you away from Greg Sargent, who chomped on this tale even harder.)

Elsewhere, the war cry was this: Can’t you imagine what the press would have done if a Big Dem had misused poor VonSprecken? Of course, you can always imagine what they would have done—but you can never really be sure. In truth, this is the kind of silly story we should insist that the press corps stop covering. On balance, the press corps will be an upper-class entity over the course of the next many years. If they’re encouraged to chase stupid stories, on balance that will harm us. We can’t tell scribes to stop chasing trivia except when the trivia hurts them.

Deborah VonSprecken, outraged before, is now happy as a Hawkeye State clam. But this story was always a potential stinker. Sometimes, Big Loud Complainers are full of hot air. VonSprecken fell into that category.

Special report: The cult of the offhand comment!


PART 2—WHAT TUMULTY SAID: In Chapter 19 of his new book, George Tenet describes the transformation of his now-famous “slam dunk” remark (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/15/07). It was just “an offhand comment,” he says, describing what he said at a White House meeting—a meeting held four months after Bush and Cheney began to say there was “no doubt” that Saddam had WMD. It was just “two words,” Tenet complains—and he insists that this two-word comment had nothing to do with Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq. Tenet says his offhand comment “was later taken completely out of context” by someone “with a fine sense of the ridiculous”—someone who fed this tale to Bob Woodward. Woodward’s source “painted a caricature of me leaping into the air,” Tenet gripes.

But uh-oh! By the time this caricaturist’s work was done, Tenet’s off-hand, two-word remark had been turned into “a memorable sound bite”—albeit one that was “belied by the facts.” According to Tenet, “Those two words...had nothing to do with the president’s decision to send American troops into Iraq”—but “many people [now] believe” that Tenet’s use of that two-word phrase “was the seminal moment for steeling the president’s determination to...launch the Iraq war.” Tenet, who seems amazed by this process, later asks a very key question: “How is it, then, that an offhand comment...has come to symbolize so much?”

Tenet asks a very good question—but we’re quite surprised by his sense of befuddlement. In fact, the process he so deftly describes has driven our politics for the past twenty years. A cult has almost seemed to form—a cult which transforms pointless remarks into highly symbolic sound-bites. We’ll call it “The Cult of the Offhand Comment.” But then, we’ve described the work of this cult over the past many years.

We think that Tenet is probably right; almost surely, his offhand comment had nothing to do with Bush’s decision to go to war. But such comments have been turned into memorable sound-bites for years, in ways that have changed our political history. For starters, let’s recall what Karen Tumulty said about Al Gore’s pointless remark.

It was September 7, 2000; Tumulty was speaking as part of a forum at American University. In the mainstream press corps, Candidate Gore had been trashed as a liar for the previous eighteen months—and Tumulty rose to discuss the Love Story nonsense, an iconic part of the press corps’ “evidence” against Big Liar Gore. We’ve cited her statement many times in the past. But note the phrase she used this day to describe Gore’s famous remark:
TUMULTY (9/7/00): I am the reporter to whom Al Gore claimed that Love Story was based on him and Tipper…I was sort of appalled to see the way it played in the media. I mean, it was an offhand comment made during a two-and-a-half hour conversation that was mostly about other things and it was a comment that was, you know, true in most respects...I think that there was probably something there worth gigging him about, but the degree to which it became a symbol of the man’s integrity I thought was very unfair. And I say that as the person to whom he made the comment and who wrote it.
It was an offhand comment, Tumulty said, speaking of the fleeting remark Gore had made. “It was an offhand comment,” she said—“and it was true in most respects.” In fact, no one has shown that Gore said anything he knew to be wrong in his now-famous comment. But as with Tenet, so with Gore; an “offhand comment” was deftly turned into a memorable sound-bite—a sound-bite which was repeated endlessly, transforming American politics. Everything Tenet says in his book could be said about Gore’s off-hand comment to Tumulty. But then, in our world, a cult exists—the damaging Cult of the Offhand Comment. It struck at Gore during Campaign 2K—and at Tenet four years later.

Indeed, this cult struck out at Gore many times during Campaign 2000. Tenet’s “offhand comment” was only two words—and so too with Naomi Wolf! In November 1999, another silly flap blew up, about another offhand remark: Wolf had dared to say“alpha male” in discussing Gore’s campaign strategy! A few days into this mindless flap, Melinda Henneberger reported Wolf’s reactions to the uproar in the New York Times. Note how Wolf described her own comment:
HENNEBERGER (11/5/99): Naomi Wolf, the feminist writer turned feminist campaign consultant, disputes the notion that she has been giving Al Gore secret lessons in how to bare his teeth, growl and get elected leader of the pack.

In fact, Ms. Wolf calls the whole idea that she has been instructing him on how to be a dominant "Alpha male" rather than a subordinate "Beta male" a total fantasy...

Yes, she did mention Alpha versus Beta males, she allows, but only once, in passing, either in a conversation or a memo—she doesn't recall, really. "The thing about writers is that we mention a lot of things in passing," she said, but she insists she has never talked to Mr. Gore about it.
Wolf didn’t call her remark an “offhand comment”—but she did say she had made the remark “only once, in passing.” Same difference! Later, Henneberger quoted Wolf saying this: "It was just a truism, something the pundits had been saying for months, that the vice president is in a supportive role and the President is in an initiatory role.” This comment by Wolf was perfectly accurate, as were Tenet’s larger remarks about the context of his own two-word phrase. But “alpha male,” like the later “slam dunk,” was soon made part of a pleasing caricature. Half-witted journalists, part of a cult, couldn’t repeat the story enough. In this manner, Wolf’s two words became a key part of the way George Bush reached the White House.

But then, the mainstream press corps—this cult’s main adepts—have exhibited this cult-like behavior for decades. The history even goes back to the time when these adepts would turn “offhand comments” into caricatures designed to hurt major Republicans. (Yes, children—such a day once existed.) Just a few weeks ago, we revisited one such episode from the 1988 White House campaign (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/23/07). Visiting a New Hampshire truck stop, Candidate George H. W. Bush made some sort of offhand comment—and by the fall, Maureen Dowd showed how it had been transformed:
DOWD (9/22/88): George Bush will never completely shake his Topsider accent...

Still, he must be given credit for trying to avoid Ivy-speak on the campaign trail. Sitting down the other day at the counter of the Glenwood Diner in New Jersey, he ordered some coffee. He did not, however, ask for ''a splash'' of the brew, as he did last February at Cuzzin Richie's truckstop in New Hampshire. This time he spoke up as proudly and carefully as Eliza Doolittle at the Ascot races: “Could we,'' he asked the owner, ''have a little coffee, please?”
Darlings, it was simply delicious—and quite widespread in the mainstream press. As we noted last month, there’s no real evidence that Candidate Bush really asked for “a splash of coffee” when he visited that Granite State truck stop. But whatever he actually said, our nascent Cult of the Offhand Comment soon transformed it in a manner they liked, and it turned into rural legend; Dowd cited this anecdote again just last month, and Hardball’s Chris Matthews routinely cites it when he discusses the way Bush’s son has avoided the sins of the father. Meanwhile, the cult struck at Bush again in 1992, as he ran for re-election. When Bush made some sort of offhand comment about a supermarket scanner, a New York Times cultist transformed it into a tale which symbolized mightily: Bush is out of touch. As we have explained in the past, it seems that the press corps may have gimmicked up Bush’s alleged statements in this matter too. What did the candidate actually say? In what actual context? The truth about that has never been clear. But the caricature was quickly devised, and it was bruited all over the land.

Needless to say, you have to be a screaming idiot to become a member of this cult. But so what? The Cult of the Offhand Comment has been roiling our politics for years. In Campaign 04, they invented an offhand comment by Kerry—an offhand comment he never said. (Who among us doesn’t love NASCAR? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/02/04.) Of course, their skillful work with such comments, real and invented, is only part of their larger work. This is really a Cult of the Pointless Incident—a cult devoted to building Symbolic Stories out of all manner of meaningless trivia. In Campaign 2004, John Kerry’s wind-surfing was part of their work. So was Dukakis’ failure to punch Bernie Shaw back in 1988.

But let’s return to our narrower focus—to the Cult of the Offhand Comment. In 2004, the cult got Tenet, just as it had gotten Gore concerning that Love Story nonsense. “I mean, it was an offhand comment,” Tumulty said—and she had been present to hear what Gore said, unlike the adepts who made it a symbol. But so what? The silly children who make up our “press corps” are endlessly willing to play you this way. Tomorrow, we ask an obvious question: What made Woodward type such “bull-roar?” What makes these strange cultists tick?

TOMORROW—PART 3: See Bob channel Rove.