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HOW THE WHITE HOUSE WAS WON (PART I)! Tim Noah issued a semi-retraction. We emitted a low, mordant chuckle:


THE POST WALKS AWAY FROM THE WORLD’S LEADING STORY: In case you missed it, here’s a story in today’s Post which says that President Bush “warned yesterday that time is growing short for an international agreement on action against Iraq as his administration began final efforts to convince reluctant United Nations partners that war will be inevitable if an accord is not reached.” Why did you miss this important story? Because it appeared on page 14. On page 1, the Post had three stories about the Washington-area killings, filled with more expert advice. (“Demme delivered suggestions for people in the vicinity of a shooting. Among them: Duck and seek cover at the sound of gunfire.”) The Post also ran a page-one story about the continuing growth in traffic gridlock on highways outside the beltway.

TIM NOAH’S SEMI-RETRACTION: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” Mother said. Despite this bit of sound advice, we couldn’t help chuckling at Timothy Noah’s “semi-exoneration” of Al Gore. Noah’s semi-responsive semi-acquittal appeared in Tuesday’s Slate.

The flap began in standard fashion. On September 23, Gore made a speech about Iraq. As usual, the RNC sent out a memo, pretending that Gore had told a Big Lie. And over at Slate, Noah made a mistake, as we all sometimes do; he bought the RNC’s bogus spin-point. In a longer column defending Gore from other complaints about his speech, Noah—mistakenly, in our view—accused Gore of an “inconsistency” about his past statements. For the record, Noah acknowledged that he was working from the RNC text, which he accurately called an “attack memo.” And he said that the memo was “apparently” true. Apparently, he didn’t bother to check the facts before he ran with the charge in the memo.

This unfortunate pattern has persisted for years. The RNC sends out bogus “attacks” against Gore. And pundits run to type them up. Little effort is ever made to learn if the charges are accurate. This pattern ruled the coverage of Campaign 2000, beginning in March 1999. Almost surely, the press corps’ willingness to type bogus RNC spin decided the 2000 race. (More on this matter tomorrow.)

What was the issue in this recent episode? In his speech on Iraq, Gore made this statement—a statement which, perfectly plainly, comports with the well-known facts:

GORE (9/23/02): I was one of the few Democrats in the U.S. Senate who supported the war resolution in 1991. And I felt betrayed by the first Bush administration’s hasty departure from the battlefield even as Saddam began to renew his persecution of the Kurds of the North and the Shiites of the South—groups we had encouraged to rise up against Saddam.
In fact, Gore did complain in 1991 about Bush’s failure to defend the Shiites and Kurds—just as he says in this passage. It’s a matter of no great significance now, but Gore was outspoken on the matter. His real-time complaints about Bush’s policy were widely reported in the national press. He guested on both Nightline and Crossfire, representing those who were critical of Bush’s efforts. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/26/02, to review our original discussion.)

As such, the statement in Gore’s speech on Iraq comports with the facts. But so what? As has been their practice for years, the RNC sent out an “attack memo” claiming that Nasty Old Gore Lied Again. Their memo included an irrelevant quote from Gore in 1991, in which Gore defended Bush’s decision to leave Saddam in power. The fact that Gore also criticized Bush for abandoning the Shiites and Kurds somehow failed to make an appearance in the RNC memo.

So the RNC dissembled about Gore, as the org has been doing for years. And in another familiar pattern, many pundits ran to type the RNC’s claim—including Tim Noah at Slate. For the record, we didn’t criticize Noah at the time. He treated this issue in passing, as part of a much longer effort, and so we focussed on other scribes who made major efforts to push the RNC line.

To his credit, Noah now semi-acknowledges error. “[I] withdraw the accusation that he lied,” Noah says. But we couldn’t help chuckling at the half-hearted way the pundit engaged in this effort.

First, Noah attempted to explain away our original defense of Gore. How had this flap first arisen, he asks. According to Noah, “Gore partisan (and college roommate) Bob Somerby took exception [to the RNC’s claims] in his political weblog, The Daily Howler.” Here’s what happened next, Noah says:

NOAH: Somerby’s argument was picked up by the leftist Weblog the Consortium and prompted an uncharacteristically coherent debate in the Chatterbox Fray. To Chatterbox’s great surprise, Somerby and Co. turn out to be more right than wrong.
Note how Noah examines the motives or the competence of everyone who got the facts right. THE DAILY HOWLER? Just Gore agit-prop! Bob Parry’s Consortium? Parry’s a “leftist.” And the Fray? The Fray was less stupid than usual. Wow! If that’s how Noah treats the folks who were right, think how hard he must have come down on the folks who turned out to be wrong!

But in another familiar pattern, Noah isn’t hard on such people. How hard is Noah on his own efforts? Here’s how Noah “exonerates” Gore. Try to keep your chin off your chest as he hauls you through the reeds and the marshes, trying to make you think his mistake was more complex than it actually was. In this passage, Noah tries to figure out what Gore could have meant in the remark which we’ve quoted above:

NOAH: The question of whether Gore lied turns on the meaning of the phrase “hasty departure from the battlefield,” which on further inspection is more ambiguous than Chatterbox previously understood. If Gore meant that he “felt betrayed” at the time of the cease-fire on Feb. 28, 1991, that’s a lie. A Gore who had “felt betrayed” would have objected publicly at the war’s end. But a scouring of news databases for that week shows that he didn’t. Gore’s rueful Congressional Record statement, quoted above, indicates that Gore initially supported the cease-fire; otherwise, he couldn’t have said there was “universal” agreement that the war should end when Iraq left Kuwait. Score one for the RNC.

An alternative reading of “hasty departure,” however, absolves Gore. If Gore referred to the uninterrupted troop withdrawal that continued in the weeks after the cease-fire, even after it became apparent that the ongoing U.S. troop withdrawal was allowing Saddam to slaughter the Kurds, then it’s correct to say that Gore “felt betrayed.” Gore’s specific beef with Bush père was that he wouldn’t force the Iraqis to halt Iraqi gunships flying in violation of the cease-fire terms. “We should put out the word,” Gore said on CNN’s Crossfire on April 3, 1991. “You fly, the helicopters will be shot down.” Score one for Somerby.

A split decision goes to Gore, so Chatterbox withdraws the accusation that he lied.

It’s called a left-handed retraction. Note how Noah puzzles over the meaning of Gore’s vexing speech. Indeed, in the part of Noah’s work which we’ve set in bold, Noah actually wonders if Gore meant to refer to the Shiites and Kurds. But look back at what Gore actually said; he explicitly refers to the Shiites and Kurds. Noah spends several paragraphs puzzling over what is plain on its face. Somehow, this process ends up in a “split decision.” The grudging headline on his piece proclaims a “semi-exoneration” of Gore.

Let’s go over a couple of points—points of simple logic and courtesy.

First, consider the way Noah slimes our motives, and slimes the motives of Parry. In these passage, he turns simple logic on its head. People may reasonably turn to motive to explain misstatements or bits of odd conduct. For example, if someone makes a weirdly false statement, we might search for an underlying motive. But here, Noah tries to explain the motives of the people who got the facts right. Weirdly, Noah feels the need to explain away statements which were actually accurate. Incidentally, THE DAILY HOWLER has often defended Bush from bogus press coverage, most recently in the July Harken flap. Does that mean we’re “Bush partisans” too? And to slime Bob Parry here as a “leftist”—well, let’s just stick to the basic point. Except in a world of total spin—a world in which many pundits reside—you really don’t have to explain the motive of someone whose statements are accurate.

Which leads us to our second point. Note the way Noah treats the RNC, which was deeply wrong in this matter (more on that in the days to come). After sliming the HOWLER and Parry, he pretends that the RNC was somehow right; “Score one for the RNC,” he proclaims. In fact, what Gore said was perfectly accurate, and the RNC pretended it was wrong. But Noah doesn’t say a word about the RNC’s familiar conduct. It’s THE HOWLER and Parry—we who were right—who find their conduct explained and examined. And the RNC, dissembling as always? Timbo don’t say Word the First.

Only the RNC gets a pass. And this pattern ruled Election 2000, almost surely deciding the outcome. Tomorrow, we’ll help you see the way your pundits ran to type bogus RNC spin-points.

THE ART OF THE GRUDGING RETRACTION: In his “semi-exoneration” of Gore, Noah extends an old Washington art form—the art of the grudging retraction. In such retractions, the party who was factually wrong semi-admits his semi-mistake—but in the process, goes out of his way to slime parties who were factually right.

Why do journalists behave this way? At THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. Maybe they don’t know who they are. Maybe they just have a problem with the truth. Worst of all, maybe they’re willing to do and say anything in the effort to maintain their high status. After all, they certainly can’t act like the smartest kid in the class when they make observable errors! So sometimes, they make their retractions in grudging ways. Does such a scribe seem come across as a kind of manic journalistic vaudevillian? We think that would be too strong. But we couldn’t help chuckling as we found ourselves slimed for being right! Here came the twist of the knife:

NOAH: To Chatterbox’s great surprise, Somerby and Co. turn out to be more right than wrong.
For some reason, Noah is still “great[ly] surprised” when the incomparable HOWLER turns out to be right!

Of course, a man who is still transcribing RNC “attack memos” against Gore may not have been following events all that closely. Clearly, he doesn’t know that the RNC has been issuing such dissembling memos for years. And that inattention just may explain Noah’s surprise at our latest triumph. For the record, here’s a bit of our history:

We were right, in March 1999, when we denounced the “farm chores” canard as a journalistic hoax. Indeed, that attack on Gore—fueled by at least one baldly doctored quote (from the New Yorker), sent out by the RNC and typed by your press corps—finally turned out to be such a joke that even the press corps gave it up, though not before they had spent three months calling Gore “delusional” and a “liar” for statements which were perfectly accurate. (Many scribes knew that Gore’s remarks were accurate, including writers at the Washington Post, for example, who had profiled Gore’s Tennessee life in detail. We’re too well-raised to mention names or to play any “roommate” cards, but they knew the RNC was dissembling. They also chose not to say so.)

We were right, in March 1999, when we noted that the press corps’ Love Story nonsense was built on a string of journalistic errors. In October 2000, the Post’s Ceci Connolly finally laid out the problems with this stupid old tale—after she had flogged the matter for the prior two years.

We were right, in December 1999, when we pointed out that Connolly and the NYT’s “Kit” Seelye had baldly misquoted Gore about Love Canal. The two mighty papers did what came naturally; they refused to issue corrections for more than a week, and when the Post finally did correct, it made another key error, right in that text. (Another grudging retraction!) Meanwhile, Connolly was cut-and-pasting RNC spin—see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/2/02—and the bogus quote which the ladies imagined ran in other papers for months. Almost instantly, Connolly typed other blatant misquotations; we were right when we flagged those “errors” too.

We were right when we noted the sheer stupidity of RNC claims about the fancy hotel. We were right when we noted the rank dissembling in RNC claims that Crazy Gore wants to eliminate cars. And had Al Gore said he invented the Internet? The RNC flogged (indeed, initiated) that nonsense too (more on that comical episode tomorrow). We were right when we noted the sheer stupidity of the press corps’ work in that area.

Scribes like Noah sat on their hands while this dimwittery, dissembling and slander went on. Even today, he doesn’t seem to get upset at the RNC’s bogus attacks. Instead, he uses the occasion of “semi-exoneration” to aim cheap shots at those who were right. And let us repeat—we didn’t so much as say Word One about his original error.

By the way, we were also right when we defended Bush against Harken spinning; when we defended Bush against McCain’s misstatements of his budget plan, which were permitted by the press corps. And we were right when we defended Bush post-Super Tuesday; and when we criticized Richard Berke’s “DemocRATS/subliminal ad” story in September 2000. If it’s a blast from the past that you want, here’s how we led our story on 9/20/00:

SOMERBY, When it put the “RATS” story on page one, the New York Times bowed low to King Trivia. And the national press corps also bowed down, having fun with the tale for a week. It also was trivial when Governor Bush said a naughty word near an open mike. “Issues” like these aren’t worth a rat’s #$$. But they bring squeals of delight to the press corps.
We guess it was just the “Gore partisan” in us that made us express those naughty views, just as the White House race was being decided—and to do a week’s worth of stories about the journalistic trashing of Bush that went on in the wake of Gore’s rise in the polls after the Democratic Convention.

But guess what—we were right about that. And, because we don’t live on Neptune or Mars, we also learned, a long time ago, that the RNC loves to send out dissembling “attack memos” aimed at Vile Gore. Apparently, Noah still didn’t know this basic fact as of late September. Such insouciance may help explain why he was “great[ly] surprised” when the HOWLER was right, once again.

NEXT (MOST LIKELY TOMORROW): All through Campaign 2000, scripted pundits happily typed dissembling RNC “attack memos.”