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Daily Howler: Sorry, Barack--they CAN make stuff up! Wittgenstein helped explain why
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WITTGENSTEIN AND BENEN! Sorry, Barack–they can make stuff up! Wittgenstein helped explain why: // link // print // previous // next //

PAY ME, I’M WORKING AT HOME: As we noted yesterday, hacks raced to peddle Palin’s tale about the way she “fired” that state chef, “saying, I can make sandwiches for my own kids.” (We’re quoting the way John Fund told the tale. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/8/08.) Today, the Post offers a new perspective on such claims, reporting a fairly remarkable fact: Palin requests and receives “per diem” pay from the state of Alaska on the many days she lives at home rather than in Juneau, the capital. In typical press corps fashion, the Post fails to state the size of the stipend—and it offers confusing, seemingly self-contradictory statements. Judging from a paragraph about Todd Palin, it seems that Sarah Palin may request and receive roughly $54 per day when she works at home.

That should help a hockey-mom make a whole sh*t-load of sandwiches. On the other hand, the Post’s reporting is confusing and quite hard to parse. Compare paragraph 1 with this later statement: “Palin rarely sought reimbursement for meals while staying in Anchorage or Wasilla, the reports show.” Does this mean she accepts a lodging fee rather than money for meals? The Post’s reporting is typically hapless.

When Palin arrived on the scene last week, she arrived with a bag full of pleasing narratives. Plainly, these pleasing tales were being pimped to define her superlative character:

I told Congress to take their bridge and shove it!
I sold the governor’s jet—on eBay!
I got rid of the governor’s chef, though my kids really miss her!

As noted yesterday: It was stunning to see the way big major “journalists” ran to recite these pleasing claims, some of which are baldly inaccurate. (Others are quite misleading.) Many slick politicians offer such claims. Journalists aren’t supposed to recite them.

Even more stunning: Chris Matthews’ dim-wittedness on last evening’s Hardball. Matthews tried to discuss the Bridge to Nowhere claim, but he quickly said he couldn’t understand why we’re wasting time on such topics. He then completely bungled the matter. He didn’t know the facts of the case; neither did one of his guests, “Democratic strategist” Steve McMahon. The other guest, Republican strategist Todd Harris, quite capably pimped misleading claims about the matter. Harris could accomplish this task because Matthews and McMahon were so thoroughly and completely unprepared.

McMahon is a wealthy DC insider; Matthews is a wealthy pseudo-journalist. Let us explain the world to these tools: We’re discussing the Bridge to Nowhere claim for an obvious reason—Palin is using the tale to define her brilliant character to unsuspecting, unknowing voters. Now, we’ll explain the world to our readers: In a slightly more righteous society, Matthews and McMahon would be dragged out into the countryside, where they’d get a free public re-education. (Sorry, fellas—no vouchers!) Each is a millionaire—at your expense. Each man was completely unprepared for last night’s pseudo-discussion.

HUG ME, I’M FATUOUS: The depth of the upper-end press corps’ fatuity simply defies description. This morning, the New York Times’ second-biggest political story is this report by Elisabeth Bumiller. In it, Bumiller examines an etiquette question: Should John McCain hug Sarah Palin?

No. We’re not making that up.

Bumiller goes on—and on; and on—eventually quoting Letitia Baldridge, “the manners authority and former White House social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy. Here at THE HOWLER, we go way back with Baldridge; we even guested with her on Politically Incorrect, amazing the world with our wit and irreverence. We’re sorry Letitia got herself dragged into this addled, empty-headed, sordid mess.

For the record, the question of political hugging has long been a prime obsession for the dimwits who run the Times. In 1984, Maureen Dowd attracted early attention from the paper’s editors when she spotted “the story” at the Democratic Convention—Walter Mondale’s perceived uncertainty about hugging Geraldine Ferraro. At this utterly daft pseudo-paper, the imbecile Dowd rose to prominence thanks to a string of such “insights” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/27/08). Today, Bumiller extends her legacy; indeed, a large photo of Mondale and Ferraro sits atop this groaning piece. Out on page one, right at the top, the Times teases interest with two more photos—photos of McCain hugging his wife, and hugging the aforementioned Palin.

Let’s say it again: This group is so daft as to beggar description.

Remember—this is the second biggest political story the Times offers readers today. (On page one, the paper is concerned with fund-raising.) On a facing page, Patrick “Kit” Healy—he sits when he hisses—offers a disappointed piece about Hillary Clinton’s failure to get herself into a cat-fight with Palin. Hiss! Hiss-spit! Hiss-spit! Meee-ow! Dowd’s spawn is sad—disappointed.

Over the years, we’ve come to a sad realization, in line with the famous tale about that emperor’s famous new clothes: The sheer inanity of this cohort is simply too vast for most people to see. Even critics of the Times haven’t really come to terms with the shape of this upper-class Gotham elite—the profoundly daft, inane palace-dwellers who drive our national discourse. Go ahead—just read the Bumiller piece. This is what happens when a middle-class democracy accepts a multimillionaire press corps. When our silliest, dimmest darlings gain control of our discourse.

MALLABY KEEN AND WAILS: Yesterday, at the Washington Post, Sebastian Mallaby was crying real tears. He cried about the demise of a saint—and typed things that were wrong in the process. Here’s the way the boo-hooing Brit finished his blubbering column:

MALLABY (9/8/08): McCain used to be a real straight talker. On campaign finance, spending earmarks, Iraq and immigration, he has fought bravely for his principles; and that record might have been a trump against an opponent who has taken almost no such risks. But we are now witnessing what might be called McCain's Palinization. McCain once criticized Christian conservatives as agents of intolerance, but he has caved in to their intolerance of a pro-choice running mate. McCain claims to be devoted to his country, yet he would saddle it with a vice president who is unprepared to serve as commander in chief. In the same sad way, McCain has caved in to his party's anti-tax fanatics. The man of principle has become a panderer. The straight talker flip-flops.

As the tears splashed down his cheeks—badly dampening his tattersall trousers—the Brit recited the standard bull-roar pre-keyed into pundit computers.

Did McCain “used to be a real straight talker?” Was he a man who “fought bravely for his principles?” We don’t know why Mallaby feels so certain. For most of us, an obvious thought will come to mind when a person walks away from his stated principles; we’ll think he was perhaps pretending when he claimed these as his principles. In fact, McCain misstated the truth all through Campaign 2000, about George W. Bush and Al Gore. He had a major race-man running his South Carolina campaign; he made robo-calls about Bush in Michigan, then lied to the press corps about them. But the press corps was on this greatest saint’s side, and so they chose not to notice. People like Mallaby wrote fatuous pieces about the wonders of Saint McCain and Saint Bradley—and, of course, they hammered Demon Gore, who they knew was a very bad man. (For a taste of Mallaby’s stupidity during Campaign 2000, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/5/08.)

By the way, Mallaby’s memory played a few tricks as he wept about his great loss. As the tears splashed down his cheeks, he recalled the way the great Saint McCain “once criticized Christian conservatives as agents of intolerance.”Sadly, though, the Brit forgot what the great saint did a few days later. In real time, Frank Bruni reported in the New York Times:

BRUNI (3/2/00): Under growing fire over his recent attacks on leaders of the Christian right, Senator John McCain apologized yesterday for remarks the day before in which he characterized Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell as "forces of evil." He said those remarks had been intended as a joke.

Repeating that he "disagrees with the political message and tactics" of Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell, Mr. McCain added in a prepared statement, "I do not consider them evil, and I regret that my flip remark may have mistakenly created that impression."
"In my campaign," he said, "I often joke about Luke Skywalker, evil empires and death stars. It was in that vein that I used the phrase yesterday."

Mr. McCain's apology focused on remarks he had made on his campaign bus that amplified on a speech he gave on Monday, calling Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell "agents of intolerance."

Talking on the bus the next day, he said: "To stand up to the forces of evil, that's my job, and I can't steer the Republican Party if those two individuals have the influence they have on the party today."

Mr. McCain issued the apology shortly after his most prominent supporter on the Christian right, Gary L. Bauer, harshly criticized him for attacking Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson, and suggested that the attacks could cost him the Republican nomination.

We discussed all these things at they time they occurred. But so what? People like Mallaby—and Josh Marshall, of course—knew a great man when they saw one!

In fact, McCain was all over the lot during Campaign 2000, on all kinds of topics and messages. But so what? Blubbering babies like pitiful Mallaby cheered his every word and deed. Today, they remember the things they so deeply enjoyed, and swear this great man was once driven by principle. Meanwhile, the Post went to Great Britain to hire this fellow! Are we face with some kind of domestic “fool shortage” that requires the purchase of imports?

THIS FELLOW JUST CAN’T STOP: Some “men” are born to behave this way. One fellow clearly can’t stop:

MADDOW (9/8/08): And so, you think [Obama’s] confidence is about what comes next in the campaign, not necessarily an undue confidence about where his tactics thus far have gotten him.

OLBERMANN: Well, look what he’s—he’s fought off this. He’s fought off this, you know—we found somebody at Schwab’s Drugstore in Hollywood and give her a screen test and now she’s Liza Minnelli and a star is born and we’re making her the vice president of the United States or at least the candidate on the ticket.

In this way, this fellow adorned the first few moments of Rachel Maddow’s first program! But then, some “men” are born to insult women; they keep it up to the day they die. KeithO seems to be such a guy. He’ll never stop gender-trashing Palin, even if it puts her consort safely inside the White House.

WITTGENSTEIN AND BENEN: In our view, Steve Benen has done terrific work since taking over for Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly. That said, this recent post, concerning a new McCain ad, shows why it’s easy for Republican pols to invent bogus claims—and to escape correction.

Sorry, Barack, but they can make stuff up. This episode helps show us why.

Steve’s post concerns the new McCain ad—the ad which starts with the following claim about Saint McCain and Saint Pit Bull:

MCCAIN AD: The original mavericks! He fights pork barrel spending. She stopped the Bridge to Nowhere.

But did Palin stop the Bridge to Nowhere? As Steve notes, the ad cites a news report from the 12/27/07 Anchorage Daily News—and that news report makes no such claim. As he continues, Steve offers his own account of the matter, eventually saying, “the ad’s claim is obviously not true.” But it would be hard to sell his account to a larger new org; his chronology is basically wrong, as is his overall judgment. What follows is Steve’s account of the matter. But this chronology is badly jumbled—and in some ways, is wrong. And though we agree that the ad is grossly misleading, Steve’s highlighted claim is a stretch:

BENEN (9/8/08): In reality, Palin supported the bridge project, and campaigned on a pledge to build it. The bridge was scrapped, not by Palin, but when an embarrassed Congress stopped the project. Even then, Palin took the money and spent it on other Alaskan transportation projects. Unless the McCain campaign is prepared to change the meaning of the word "stopped," the ad's claim is obviously not true.

For reasons we’ll review below, that account is hard to square with the real chronology. Such errors create a basic problem for a truth-seeking liberal.

Simply put, big news orgs don’t like correcting the claims of Major Republicans. In the character narratives of the past sixteen years, Big Republicans have been plain-spoken straight-talkers; they may be out of touch (Dole) or incurious (Bush), but theyve almost never been presented as liars or dissemblers. In press corps narratives of the past sixteen years, it has been a succession of Major Democrats who have had “problems with the truth”—who have been liars or feckless flip-floppers. Journalists are comfortable correcting Dems’ statements. If you want them to correct a Big Rep, your case has to be air-tight

We know, we know—if you’re a rational person, it’s hard to believe that journalists function that way. But that’s precisely the way “the news” gets processed and shaped—and Steve will have a hard time selling his presentation to a major news org. His explanation isn’t clear enough. Beyond that, it’s just wrong in some parts.

Did Palin “stop the Bridge to Nowhere?” Expressed that way, the claim is grossly misleading—but it can be said to be technically accurate. Indeed, the McCain campaign seems to have cited the wrong news report about the matter. On Saturday, September 22, 2007, an article by the AP’s Steve Quinn appeared on page one of the Anchorage Daily News. Here’s how the report began—and yes, this report was accurate:

QUINN (9/22/07): Some called it a bridge to the future. Others called it the bridge to nowhere.

The bridge is going nowhere.

On Friday, the state abandoned the controversial project in Ketchikan that became a national symbol of federal pork-barrel spending.

It closes a chapter that has brought the state reams of ridicule, but it also leaves open wounds in a community that fought for decades to get federal help.

“The state” abandoned the project, Quinn wrote. Three grafs later, he fleshed out his statement, naming the person he meant:

QUINN: Gov. Sarah Palin directed the state Department of Transportation to find the most "fiscally responsible" alternative for access to the airport.

Without federal funding, the state cannot afford a bridge, so the best option would be to upgrade the current ferry system, she said.

Local officials called the decision premature, saying it came without warning.

"For somebody who touts process and transparency in getting projects done, I'm disappointed and taken aback," said state Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan.

"This is contrary to about every statement she has ever made," he said. "We worked 30 years to get funding for this priority project."

In short, on September 21, 2007, Governor Palin did pull the plug on the infamous project—against the judgment of some local pols. In that sense, Palin did stop the project that had long been derided as the “Bridge to Nowhere.” Steve says, “the ad’s claim is obviously not true.” But uh-oh! Even though the ad’s claim is grossly misleading, Steve’s claim could be a hard sell.

The ad’s claim isn’t exactly “untrue”—it’s just grossly misleading. But that fact doesn’t explain itself—and given the low skill level of major journalists, few of them will ever be likely to tackle this problem. If you want them to get it right (or do it at all), an imperfect account just won’t do. We liberals must be very precise if we want the truth covered.

What is wrong with that ad’s claim? In fact, Palin did stop the bridge project last fall—but it’s absurd to claim that this action made her some sort of a “maverick.” Governors make decisions like this all the time; if dropping a project makes Palin a maverick, then every one of the other forty-nine is a big maverick too. Yes, some people in her state wanted to proceed with the project—but that is always true in these matters. There was nothing unusual in what she did. When Sarah Palin dropped this project, it proved nothing grand about her.

This brings us back to that basic chronology—the simple chronology that Steve bungled, like almost everyone else who has tried to present it.

What was the real chronology of this project? It isn’t complex. Here we go:

THE CHRONOLOGY: In the summer of 2005, Congress directed Alaska to build the bridge using federal funds. After Hurricane Katrina hit in September, this use of federal funds turned into a political firestorm. In November 2005, Congress rescinded its order—but Alaska was allowed to keep the federal money that had been earmarked for the bridge; the money could now be used for any purpose the state saw fit. One year later, in her campaign for governor, Palin said she still favored building the bridge. She finally dropped the idea in September 2007—specifically saying that Congress wouldn’t give the state any more money for the project.

That would be an accurate chronology; we’d love to see someone simplify it. Steve is simply wrong in some of his claims. Example: “The bridge was scrapped, not by Palin, but when an embarrassed Congress stopped the project.” It’s hard to know what he means by that. And as a general matter, journalists won’t call Republicans liars unless the case is air-tight.

So how about it. Has Palin been lying in her standard claim about this matter? And how about the claim that is made in that new McCain ad?

Palin’s standard claim: Palin’s standard claim is so bogus that we’d basically call it a lie. At no point in that chronology did Palin “tell the Congress” to go stuff their bridge, as she has repeatedly claimed. Plainly, Palin is trying to make voters think that she boldly stood up to Congress. But the claim is laughably false; even when she stopped the project, she said she had to do so because Congress wouldn’t provide more funds! But because our side keeps bungling our presentations, we’ve seen this sort of thing said in very few places. Basically, Palin’s standard claim is a lie. We’ve seen few big journalists say so.

The new ad’s claim: The new ad’s claim is less grandiose, but it’s still grossly misleading. As governor, Palin did stop the bridge project—but nothing about her action stamps her as a maverick. If she was telling the truth to Alaska’s voters, she wanted to proceed with the project—but Congress wouldn’t give her the money! Nothing about that makes her a “maverick.” If a lie exists in the ad, that’s where it lies. (And of course: This ad reinforces voters’ recollections of Palin’s earlier statements, which were flatly wrong.)

But alas—our side isn’t good at explaining such things. Benen has done superlative work since assuming his post, but his chronology is simply wrong in this case, and his accusation—“the ad's claim is obviously not true”—is very poorly explained. Your press corps doesn’t like to correct the claims of Big Reps, and work like this isn’t likely to tempt them. We have to make our claims air-tight if we want our claims to proceed.

Let’s get lofty! Wittgenstein, in a famous remark, described a cousin to this problem. In philosophical reasoning, conceptual confusion is easily created, he said—but it’s very hard to untangle: “We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s web with our bare hands.” (Philosophical Investigations, 106.)

But so it goes with Republican messaging—with deceptive messaging like the slickster Palin’s. That new ad’s claim is grossly misleading—but it’s been constructed by Republican experts. They know how to create misleading pictures—pictures which are hard to refute, especially in a political culture which assumes that Republican pols are plain-spoken straight-talkers.

If Dems and libs hope to succeed, we have to work hard to refine our skills. Benen has done superlative work. But his post about Palin is wrong.

Off our standard path, but relevant: We can’t recall when any pol arrived on the national scene with such a bogus set of narratives. If Dems and libs can’t debunk Palin’s claims, things will only get worse in the future. We think her claims are deeply bogus. But alas! In the world which now exists, you have to be able to show it.

Also wrong: Benen links to this Think Progress post—a post which is also bungled. Like Steve, Think Progress noted that the 12/27/07 Anchorage Daily News report said nothing about Palin “stopping the bridge”—and that was good enough for them. But Palin did pull the plug on the project, in September of that year, as the Daily News clearly reported. When progressive interests are represented this way, such interests are destined to fail.