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LATE NOTICE! Richard Cohen goes after the prez today. But check him out back when it counted:


WOULD YOU BUY A USED CAR FROM THIS PUNDIT? Richard Cohen provided some comical moments during Election 2000.

In November 1999, he built an entire column—which ridiculed Gore—around a quote from one of Naomi Wolf’s books. The only problem? The “quote” had never appeared anywhere in Wolf’s work. It had (mistakenly) appeared in a thigh-rubbing, six-year-old Esquire piece, where Cohen had conducted his “research.” Wolf—and Gore—were battered around for the “quote” which had never appeared.

In October 2000, things got better. Cohen savaged VP hopeful Joe Lieberman for something he said before B’nai B’rith. “I wonder what in the world he’s talking about,” Cohen wrote. Lieberman’s statement was “downright smug,” “preposterously false,” and “downright repugnant,” Cohen said. But there was one small problem with Cohen’s rant; it was actually George W. Bush, not Joseph Lieberman, who had visited B’nai B’rith and made the statement in question. And yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Cohen spent an entire column trashing Lieberman for something Bush, his opponent, had said. A small note at the end of a subsequent column acknowledged the comical blunder.

Cohen wrote ridiculous columns reciting gong-show slanders against Gore. During the primaries, he wrote ridiculous columns fawning to John McCain. But on at least one occasion (8/10/00), Cohen stepped outside the Standard Scripts which the well-scripted press was reciting. “George W. Bush lies,” he wrote at the start of his piece. He said that the press corps was letting Bush get away with “rhetorical murder,” and was flogging phony “lies” by Gore. “[U]nlike Gore, Bush and Cheney for some reason get a free ride,” Cohen wrote. Note the key phrase, “for some reason.” Even then, Cohen pretended he didn’t know why his colleagues were acting so strangely.

Today, Cohen returns to this subject. “The evidence is accumulating,” Cohen writes, “that neither Bush nor his colleagues are particularly punctilious about the truth.” Cohen raises questions that ought to be raised—questions about the way the president has been selling the case for a war with Iraq. But he also makes this statement—a statement which is deeply disingenuous:

COHEN: [W]e are beginning to realize that Bush’s campaign tactics in the Republican primaries against Sen. John McCain were not an aberration. When Bush’s allies and minions in New York distorted McCain’s position on breast cancer research and earlier attacked him in personal terms in South Carolina, we got a first peek at Bush’s willingness to tolerate almost any tactic on his way to a goal.
Did Bush play a role in the Palmetto State slanders? In the aftermath of the South Carolina race, many journalists said he did, but no one ever presented much proof. But if Cohen is right in what he says today—if Bush tends to dissemble on policy matters—we hardly have to visit the sweet, sunny South to see where the habit got started. And it’s sheer nonsense to say, as Cohen does, that we are just “beginning to realize.”

Is Cohen just “beginning to realize” that Bush dissembles? If so, where was Cohen during Bush and Gore’s first debate (10/3/00), when Bush baldly misstated the outline of his own budget plan and completely misstated his own prescription drug plan—calling Gore a liar in the process? (Gore’s statements about Bush’s drug plan were perfectly accurate. Bush’s statements were patently false. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/22/02.) Did anyone doubt, from that point on, that George W. Bush had a bit of a tendency to misstate major policy matters? But voters weren’t told what Bush had done, because the press corps was pushing a different Preferred Story. In the wake of the Bush-Gore debate, few pundits made any effort to challenge (or report) Bush’s groaning misstatements. Few criticized Bush for accusing Gore of using “phony numbers” and “fuzzy math”—in a set of policy debates in which Gore’s numbers were plainly accurate. Instead, we focussed on whether a schoolgirl had a desk, and on how many troubling times Gore had sighed. That was rude, the pundits said. They didn’t note that Gore was sighing because Bush’s statements were wildly inaccurate.

Is it true, what Cohen says? Are we just now “beginning to realize” that Bush gilds the lily? If so, we are just “beginning to realize” because pundits took a total pass on the problem in real time.

Remember, Bush completely misstated his own budget plan. He grossly misstated his prescription drug plan. In the process, he kept accusing Gore of using “phony numbers”—when it was clear that Gore’s numbers were accurate. And what did Cohen write on October 5, as he reviewed this crucial debate? “Each candidate had his version of the other’s plans,” Cohen wrote. “But as for me, I have not been so confused since high school geometry.” Incredible, isn’t it? Anyone who made the slightest effort could have known who was right—and who had been wrong. But the press corps was pushing dim anti-Gore lines, and Cohen pleaded the oldest excuse. So it went as the Washington press corps clowned its way toward the election.

Cohen is upset about Bush’s ways now. But pols will lie if the press corps lets them. Cohen played the enabler in Election 2000, railing at quotes that had never appeared and attacking Joe for what George said. And he played the enabler at Bush and Gore’s Debate I. In today’s column, Cohen raises questions that ought to be asked. But they also should have been asked back then. Too bad this scribe was too “confused” to perform his professional functions.

TED AND LARRY’S EXCELLENT DISCOURSE: Cohen wasn’t the only Big Scribe pleading complete, yowling ignorance. One night after the Bush-Gore debate, Ted Koppel appeared on Larry King Live. King ran tape of a factual dispute from the debate. Then he popped off a question:

KING (10/4/00): Okay. Were you impressed with this “fuzzy [math],” top 1 percent, 1.3 trillion, 1.9 trillion bit?

KOPPEL: You know, honestly, it turns my brains to mush. I can’t pretend for a minute that I’m really able to follow the argument of the debates. Parts of it, yes. Parts of it, I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.

Try to believe that he said it! By chance, we had explained the “$1.3 trillion vs. $1.9 trillion” in that day’s column on It took roughly 50 words to explain. But it turned Koppel’s brains straight to mush.

Ted! According to congressional estimates accepted by both parties since May 2000, $1.3 trillion was the amount of revenue lost in the first nine years of Bush’s proposed tax cuts (2002-2010). $1.9 trillion was the amount of revenue lost in the first ten years, plus the interest costs that would accrue due to failure to pay down the debt. Bush described his proposal as a “$1.3 trillion plan.” Gore used the larger figure. Either figure could be defended, although it was better to include the interest costs. But it was easy explaining the difference between them—unless you were Koppel, of course.

So what does it mean, when men so confused direct our discourse? Here’s one thing it certainly means: It means that favored pols eventually see they can pretty much say what they like.