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Caveat lector

Indulging in some consummate clowning, Sullivan calls us a “leftist.”

FRIDAY, JULY 19, 2002

WHAT A CROC: A “leftist!” What consummate clowning! Yesterday, we were so described by Andrew Sullivan, displaying his standard impeccable timing (see the contents of yesterday’s HOWLER). Sully, of course, has almost no knowledge of our policy views; they have almost never been discussed in these pages. And you can trust us—those policy views, such as they are, could not imaginably be described as “leftist.” But Sullivan often engages in gong shows, and silly name-calling is part of the deal. Indeed, only Sully could yell the name “leftist” on the same day we’re defending George Bush to the teeth. Alas! So it goes in the pandering provinces that make up that tortured state, Blogistan.

What set Sullivan into this rage? We dared critique his best bud, Mickey Kaus, for the silliest thing Kaus ever wrote in his long and constructive career. Stung to the core by such insolent blogging, Sullivan leaped into action. Flipping through the “cultural relativism” index cards he keeps in his head, he accused us of playing the “The Goldstein Defense,” in which “[i]f you get something wrong, relying on a third-hand inaccurate source, it is not incumbent on you to actually check the source, or apologize.” Maybe Sully is really that dumb, or maybe he thinks that his poor readers are. But that, of course, is not what we said (or what we believe). We said something massively different, which seems to have gone over someone’s head.

Let’s start where Sullivan often does, with the least relevant matter at issue. Did Katie Couric “get something wrong, relying on a third-hand inaccurate source?” That’s largely a matter of judgment. As we noted, while Edmund Morris didn’t exactly call Reagan an “airhead,” he came pretty close in his book and in interviews. Speaking to Newsweek, he called Reagan a “cultural yahoo” and “shatteringly banal;” he went into great detail about how “boring” Reagan was in private. As we noted, it was conservatives who were most upset by these statements. Here’s how Robert Novak limned the matter in the 10/11/99 Weekly Standard. Novak’s piece appeared a full week after Couric said that Edmund Morris called Reagan an airhead:

NOVAK: Dutch presents—and embroiders—the conventional liberal wisdom about Ronald Reagan, and [Morris’] book will be read with satisfaction by the president’s detractors. Over the last three years of the presidency Morris (as the authorized biographer and silent observer of presidential meetings) had the opportunity to view Reagan closely, and in Dutch he refers to the president’s “encyclopedic ignorance” and “hardening of his mind.” Reagan lacked “intellectual energy” and “had long since abandoned inquiry for the reiteration of old certainties.” “Reagan was, after all, an old man, with scar tissue near his heart and steadily atrophying powers of concentration.” “An apparent airhead” emerged in the interviews with the author. “Beyond amazement, I was distressed by the relentless banality, not to say incoherence, of the president’s replies.”
Wow! Were pundits wrong when they said that Morris had called Ronald Reagan an “airhead?” We wouldn’t describe the book that way ourselves, but according to Novak, the book mocked Reagan’s “encyclopedic ignorance.” Should Couric have led with that point instead? Should Novak apologize to Morris? Translation: If Couric was wrong in what she said, she wasn’t wrong by very much.

But somebody else was much wronger. That someone, of course, was dissembling Ann Coulter, baldly misstating in Slander:

COULTER (page 51): Most politicians would rather die face-down than be ridiculed by Katie Couric…[F]or the media to accuse you of being against “progress and enlightenment” (the New York Times on Jesse Helms) or to call you an “airhead” (Katie Couric, on Ronald Reagan)—well, that makes strong men tremble and weak men liberals.
Even if you think Couric’s statement was wrong, she clearly didn’t call Reagan an “airhead” herself. Coulter—let’s say it—is lying. And when Couric complained about this on the Today show, Coulter dissembled again. “Well, I didn’t call you a Ronald Reagan basher,” she said. But that, of course, was the obvious point of everything she wrote on this subject in Slander. What was Mickey’s oddball account of this meeting? “Coulter 1, Couric 0,” his site said. (See kausfiles, 7/8/02)

But let’s return to the single sentence that got Sully’s knickers so knotted. To Sullivan, we engaged in The Goldstein Defense when we wrote this: “Why did Couric say what she did? Because everyone thought it was true.” According to Sullivan, we were saying that it’s OK to be wrong in one’s statements. “I guess we’re lucky that Somerby didn’t pull the Full Goldstein and actually blame Coulter for Couric’s error,” he thunders.

Next time, we’ll try to write more slowly, so that even Andrew Sullivan can follow. Why did we note what “everyone thought?” Because Coulter was principally trashing Couric’s motives. According to Coulter, Couric said the things she said because she was trying to trash Ronald Reagan. But here’s the problem. Many others said what Couric said, and they didn’t say it to trash Ronald Reagan; clearly, they said it because they thought it was true. Coulter, of course, didn’t tell readers this, but Sean Hannity said the same thing as Couric. Was Hannity trashing Ronald Reagan?

COURIC, 9/27/99: Good morning. The Gipper was an airhead. That’s one of the conclusions of a new biography of Ronald Reagan that’s drawing a tremendous amount of interest and fire today, Monday, September the 27th, 1999.

HANNITY, 9/27/99: Welcome back to Hannity & Colmes. I’m Sean Hannity. Coming up, the authorized biography of Ronald Reagan calls him, quote, an airhead. And it is upsetting a lot of the former president’s supporters.

HANNITY, 9/30/99: Still to come, former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese. He sounds off on that controversial book that calls President Reagan an airhead. That debate straight ahead as Hannity & Colmes continues.

We weren’t saying that it’s OK to be wrong. Who would say something stupid like that? We were saying that Coulter’s account of Couric’s motives is exceptionally hard to square with the facts. And Couric’s motive lay at the heart of Coulter’s entire critique. This is why we also noted Couric’s tangy session with Morris. If Couric was trying to trash Ronald Reagan, why did she challenge poor Morris so? Couric says that Nancy Reagan called to thank her. Maybe Nancy was just trashing Ron too.

But let’s return to that silly clowning about “leftist” Somerby’s use of “The Goldstein Defense.” Sully, you can put your index cards away when you deal with people like us at THE HOWLER. When it comes to matters of this type, we’re smarter than you are, and we’re much better-trained. So keep on throwing those crumbs to the herd. Play your dimwitted Us-And-Them games. But please don’t go where the big gators glide. By the time we chase you back on the banks, you’ll simply look soggy and tired.

LATEST LEFTIST UPDATE: Being good leftists, we exchanged e-mails yesterday with our honored “Uncle Joe,” and in the wake of the bristling exchange, we decided to make ourselves clearer on Harken. At the HOWLER, we don’t have the slightest idea what Bush may (or may not) have done there. But fundamental fairness requires that basic facts be included in accounts of this matter. Here (gulp) is another clear error, this time from one of our favorites, Molly Ivins. In her piece, Ivins refers to an “old story” and a “new story” about Bush and Harken. She says that both these stories are accurate—but this account in her piece simply isn’t:

IVINS (Chicago Tribune, 7/18/02): The old story is that, in 1990, George W. Bush sold his stock in Harken for $848,560 while serving both as a consultant to the company and on the board of directors, assigned to both the audit committee and the fairness committee. He unloaded the stock 16 days after receiving an internal “flash report” that the company was about to record huge losses.
“Huge losses?” In the context of Harken, that just isn’t so. As we noted on Monday, that “flash report” predicted 2Q losses of about $4 million. Such losses would have been in the normal range for Harken. Questions arose when the actual losses, reported two months later, came in at a whopping $23 million. For Harken, those actual losses really were huge; they led to questions about Bush’s prior sale. But the “flash report” said nothing about them. This fact has been clear ever since the report was first described in September 2000.

What did Bush do at Harken? We don’t have the slightest idea. But Molly’s account here just can’t be defended. Don’t worry, though—many will try.