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Daily Howler: Joe Klein (and others) invented a tale, as they've been doing for years now
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THE EVIL OF BANALITY! Joe Klein (and others) invented a tale, as they’ve been doing for years now: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 27, 2008

STEPHANOPOULOS GETS IT RIGHT—THE POST BUNGLES: We’ve sometimes criticized George Stephanopoulos, most often for reciting Saint McCain’s slogans for him. But Stephanopoulos got it right on Sunday. In fact, he got it right two separate times.

It’s just too bad that the Washington Post bollixed one part of his work.

First, Stephanopoulos got it right as he questioned Karl Rove about the Don Siegelman matter. Did Rove “directly or indirectly discuss the possibility of prosecuting Don Siegelman with either the Justice Department or Alabama Republicans?” Stephanopoulos popped the question—and Rove didn’t quite answer:

STEPHANOPOULOS (5/25/08): As we know and our viewers probably know, you were subpoenaed this week by the House Judiciary Committee to give testimony on any involvement you may have had with the prosecution of the former Alabama governor, Don Siegelman. He's claiming there was selective prosecution. He's out on bail now even though he was convicted. He said your fingerprints are all over it. Here's what the House report said: It said, “In May 2007, a Republican attorney from Northern Alabama named Jill Simpson wrote an affidavit stating that in November 2002 she heard a prominent Alabama Republican operative named Bill Canary say that Karl Rove had contacted the Justice Department about bringing a prosecution of Don Siegelman. The question for Mr Rove is whether he directly or indirectly discussed the possibility of prosecuting Don Siegelman with either the Justice Department or Alabama Republicans.” Did you?

Pithy! In response, Rove offered a long, rambling statement which didn’t quite answer the question. But that’s where Stephanopoulos got it right. He asked his question again, two more times:

STEPHANOPOULOS (continuing directly): But to be clear, you did not contact the Justice Department about this case?

ROVE: I read about—I'm going to simply say what I've said before, which is I found out about Don Siegelman's investigation and indictment by reading about it in the newspaper.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that’s not a denial.

ROVE: I've—you know, I read—I heard about it, read about it, learned about it for the first time by reading about it in the newspaper.

Fine! Rove “learned about the investigation and indictment” in the newspaper. But before that, did he “directly or indirectly discuss the possibility of prosecuting Siegelman with either the Justice Department or Alabama Republicans?” He was given three chances to say that he didn’t. But the gentleman never quite did.

At TPM, Josh Marshall called it “a classic non-denial denial.” We’d be inclined to go a bit further; we’d say that Rove refused to answer—or that he refused to deny. But as an interviewer, Stephanopoulos got it right, asking his unanswered question three times. And then, along came Monday’s Washington Post, running this bone-headed headline:

Rove Says He Did Not Intervene in Bribery Case of Former Ala. Governor

Groan! The Post’s headline topped a report from the Los Angeles Times. The Times had run a similar, bungled headline—a headline the paper later changed, running a formal correction. (The Post’s full story isn’t on-line. For a much shorter version, click here.)

Groan. Even at the highest levels, modern scribes just can’t play this game. Unless you have the tinnest of ears, Rove’s refusal to answer was quite apparent. But at the Times—and then at the Post—big headlines told readers the opposite.

But then, Stephanopoulos also got it right when he challenged Obama chief strategist David Axelrod. He began with a question about Hillary’s Clinton’s recent reference to Robert Kennedy. Axelrod didn’t quite answer:

STEPHANOPOULOS: The Clinton campaign clearly thinks that the Obama campaign are part of that group that is deliberately misinterpreting her statements. And in fact, your campaign's original statement on Friday afternoon said that Senator Clinton made an unfortunate statement that has no place in this campaign. Do you think it would have been better to give her the benefit of the doubt?

AXELROD: Well, in fact, she—a few minutes after we issued that statement seemed to say she herself felt it was unfortunate and was misinterpreted. We accepted that, as Senator Obama said yesterday. She said, you know, that's not what she meant, and we take her at her word and, you know, it's—we're beyond that issue now, so certainly we're not trying to stir the issue up.

Hmmm—that’s wasn’t quite an answer. So Stephanopoulos tried again, two more times:

STEPHANOPOULOS (continuing directly): Senator Obama did say that we should move on. You say you're not trying to stir the issue up. But a member of your press staff yesterday was sending around to an entire press list, I have the e-mail here. Keith Olbermann's searing commentary against Hillary Clinton. So that is stirring this up, isn't it?

AXELROD: Well, Mr Olbermann did his commentary and he had his opinion. But as far as we're concerned—

STEPHANOPOULOS: But your campaign was sending it around.

AXELROD: As far as we're concerned, George, as far as we're concerned, this issue is done. It was an unfortunate statement, as we said. As she's acknowledged. She has apologized. The apology, you know, is accepted. Let's move forward.

He even tried a different fourth question. No direct answer there, either:

STEPHANOPOULOS (continuing directly): So your campaign won't be sending around any more commentaries like that?

AXELROD: As I said, as far as we're concerned this is—this issue is done. There's so many important things going on in this country right now, George, that people are interested in that we're not going to spend days dwelling on this.

Should Obama’s campaign have done what it did? Different people will have different views. But Axelrod never quite answered that original question. Stephanopoulos was right to keep asking.

In modern, chummy press corps culture, moderators routinely accept non-answers; in each of these cases, Stephanopoulos persisted, doing his job correctly. Meanwhile: Was something wrong with Axelrod’s answers? Did Obama’s campaign do something wrong? Those are matters of judgment—though it seems clear that Obama’s campaign helped initiate the press corps’ reaction. (There’s nothing automatically wrong with that.) We’ll examine this remarkable flap all week. Our first pass is offered below.

Special report: The evil of banality!

PART 1—THIS LAND IS THEIR LAND: Since we finished Saturday’s post with a note on Joe Klein, let’s start with the same fellow today. In this remarkable Swampland post, Klein took a “sympathetic” line (by press corps standards) regarding Hillary Clinton’s reference to the death of Robert Kennedy. And yet, Klein started with an astonishing statement—a statement which draws the problem of pundit banality into stark relief. As he started, Klein referred to this post by Karen Tumulty. But it’s the highlighted comment in which he showed how banal he’s programmed to be:

KLEIN (5/24/08): I take all of Karen’s points below—and the fact that Hillary Clinton mentioned Bobby Kennedy's assassination in conversation with Rick Stengel in March shows that Obama's vulnerability to racist nutjobs has been in her mind for months now—but still, I have a certain amount of sympathy for her. The woman is clearly exhausted.

According to Klein, a major journalist: “[T]he fact that Hillary Clinton mentioned Bobby Kennedy's assassination in conversation with Rick Stengel in March shows that Obama's vulnerability to racist nut-jobs has been in her mind for months now.”

That highlighted statement is truly remarkable. It’s a tribute to this press corps’ banality—an astounding banality which, years ago, turned evil, destructive and vile.

It will take a lot of work to cover this most recent press corps debacle. But let’s start with the hapless Klein’s profoundly banal remark.
Klein refers to a statement Clinton made to Rick Stengel, another king of press corps banality. The full transcript of the interview can be read on-line (just click here). But here’s the specific Q-and-A to which Klein was referring:

STENGEL (3/6/08): Can you envision a point at which—if the race stays this close—Democratic Party elders would step in and say, "This is now hurting the party and whoever will be the nominee in the fall"?

CLINTON: No, I really can't. I think people have short memories. Primary contests used to last a lot longer. We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A. My husband didn't wrap up the nomination in 1992 until June. Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual.

Speaking with Stengel back in March, Clinton said she couldn’t envision being asked to exit the race. “I think people have short memories,” she said. “Primary contests used to last a lot longer.” Then, she cited two examples: The tragic case of Robert Kennedy. And Bill Clinton’s 1992 primary race, which also extended to June. (Details on that matter tomorrow.) “Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual,” she said.

The ability of American society to persist turns on your response to this question: Which part of Clinton’s statement to Stengel could possibly generate Klein’s description? Which part of that statement “shows that Obama's vulnerability to racist nut-jobs has been in her mind for months now?”

What could possibly make Joe Klein offer so strange an account?

Did Clinton’s statement really show that Obama’s vulnerability has been in her mind? We have no idea why Klein would say that. To state the obvious, Clinton didn’t refer to Obama; she was talking about Robert Kennedy. In fact, she didn’t mention Obama at all—or anyone else, for that matter. She didn’t mention the fact that Obama (or McCain) could be killed—or the fact that she could be killed, to cite another possibility. Indeed, by any normal interpretive standard, Clinton referred to Kennedy for an obvious reason, one she carefully stated twice—most likely, keeping things simple for Stengel. As everyone of a certain age will recall, Robert Kennedy was murdered in June, on the evening of the California primary. Hence: “Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual.”

Clinton said nothing about Obama. She didn’t refer to Obama at all—or to anyone else, for that matter. Yet to Klein, this statement somehow “shows” that Clinton has been thinking, for months, about the possibility that Obama could be killed by racist nut-jobs! By any normal interpretive standard, nothing Clinton said even dimply implied that. But that’s what came out of Joe Klein.

Question—and America’s future turns on our answer: What could possibly make Joe Klein translate Clinton’s statement that way?

The answer to that is clear, of course; people like Klein have been inventing these narratives for a good many years now. They’re the screaming mimis of modern American culture; they mind-read the fairy tales they prefer, then shout them all over the land. (This land is their land, they seem to believe.) They’ve done this to many pols in the past—most disastrously, to Candidate Gore. (Though good “career liberals” still know not to say so.) That said: By any normal interpretive standard, there was nothing in Clinton’s statement to Stengel suggesting the dream-song Klein drew from it. Has “Obama's vulnerability been in her mind for months now?” Simply put, Joe Klein made that up.

By any normal interpretive standard, Klein simply made that sh*t up. But then, so did Olbermann; so did Drudge; so did the ghouls at the New York Post (though they later retracted their lunacy). So did Russert and his prom queen, Dowd, and the rest of Sunday’s disgraceful panel. These people simply made this sh*t up, as they’ve done so many times in the past. (Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! No: Al Gore said that he invented the Earned Income Tax Credit!) And that leaves a basic question for liberals: Are we so dumb that we’re willing to buy this? When this banal crew churns out its tales, are we so dumb that we run out and shout them?

American culture can not survive if people like Klein (and Drudge; and Olbermann) are free to imagine and make stories up. Again, the nation’s future comes down to our band: How banal will we liberals be?

TOMORROW—PART 2: What happened in March? Also! Timothy’s angels.

THEY ONCE HAD DIFFERENT VALUES: This land is their land, the banals believe. But when they were younger—before they were rich and famous—they often had different values. They weren’t quite so banal back in those days; or at least, they were drawn to different models. To order Klein’s 1980 biography of Woody Guthrie, you know what to do—just click here.

Readers, Woody Guthrie would have kicked Klein down the stairs, out the door, into the street and under the bus. But as Amazon’s lead review ironically states: “Before he became Anonymous, Joe Klein wrote this intelligent” book.

FRIDAY—PART 4: Dream-songs of the coming century: Why China will likely prevail.