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STOP EXPLAINING! Kristof tells us how Bush thinks—and shows us the corps’ limitations: // link // print // previous // next //

STOP EXPLAINING: Major scribes constantly try to determine who the candidates “really are.” Quite often, their spirit is willing but their method is weak—a point Nicholas Kristof puts on display in this morning’s New York Times.

Is George Bush a liar? Kristof says no. Then he offers a “charming” example:

KRISTOF (10/27/04): Let me offer an example—not from Iraq but from Mr. Bush's autobiography. In it, he tells a charming little story involving his daughters in 1988, on the eve of the presidential debate between his father and Michael Dukakis.
The “charming little story” comes from the book published by Bush during Campaign 2000. Kristof’s column includes his account of Bush’s charming tale—you can read it there if you like—but let’s move right to brass tacks. According to Kristof, the charming story, which involves George Bush senior, is factually inaccurate in at least several ways. Bush describes his father engaging in charming conduct—conduct he actually didn’t quite engage in. And Bush is wrong about when the incident occurred—and this second misstatement of fact also makes his story more pleasing. In short, Bush told a heart-warming story about his dad—a story which was factually inaccurate. But that doesn’t make him a liar, Kristof says (we agree). Here’s his more nuanced assessment:
KRISTOF: The current president's hyped version of the incident reflects his casual relationship with truth. Like President Ronald Reagan, reality to him is not about facts, but about higher meta-truths: Mom and Dad are loving grandparents, Saddam Hussein is an evil man, and so on. To clarify those overarching realities, Mr. Bush harnesses ''facts,'' both true and false.
According to Kristof, Bush didn’t “lie” when he included this anecdote in his book—he merely gave a “hyped version of the incident.” This doesn’t make him a liar, Kristof says—instead, it shows that “reality to him is not about facts, but about higher meta-truths.” Kristof continues: “To clarify those overarching realities, Mr. Bush harnesses ‘facts,’ both true and false.”

Like you, we don’t have the slightest idea what that actually means. But just how weak is Kristof’s reasoning? Here’s how weak: At no point in this column does Kristof say whether Bush knew his charming story was inaccurate when he allowed it to be published in his book. This would be an obvious question for someone assessing the gentleman’s honesty. But Kristof skips the question altogether. He proceeds directly to murky claims about how Bush’s mind really works.

Did George Bush know that his story was false? We don’t have the slightest idea, and neither, it would seem, does Kristof. After all, many people carry around recollections of trivial incidents that turn out to be factually false in some way. But note how weak Kristof’s reasoning is. He builds an entire column about Bush’s honesty around this one silly, trivial incident. And he doesn’t seem to have tried to determine whether Bush even knew that his story was semi-false.

But so it goes when major pundits attempt to assess hopefuls’ character. Their standards of reasoning are exceptionally weak—and even more striking is the rank inconsistency they bring to their dreary ruminations. After all, who can fail to note an obvious point about Bush’s charming, inaccurate story? Bush’s book was published in late 1999, when his opponent, Democrat Al Gore, was being lambasted as a liar every time the Big Press breathed. Indeed, the corps was so eager to call Gore a liar that they worked to gin up silly pseudo-incidents, torturing trivial (and accurate) bits of extemporaneous speech until they were troubling “lies.” But Bush was held to a different standard, as Kristof unintentionally reminds us. Did you ever hear about Bush’s “charming little story” during Campaign 2000—during the period when Gore was being savaged for allegedly saying things just like it? Of course you didn’t (and mercifully so). Bush’s story was plainly inaccurate—and it was published in a book, not delivered off the cuff. But your Big Press had a script for Campaign 2K, and that script only included one “liar.” They gimmicked up phony “lies” by Gore, and ignored misstatements like this one by Bush. And today, four years later, Kristof is able to discuss this incident with absolutely no nod to this irony.

How inane is your Washington press corps? Who on earth—except a journalist—uses a silly example like this to decide how truthful a president is? And who on earth—except a Big Journalist—can swim in a sea of such deep double standards without so much as noticing? Finally, who but a Washington journalist produces such cant as we see in this piece? George Bush isn’t a liar—he just clarifies overarching realities by harnessing “facts” which are sometimes false. Who except a Washington journalist—or a stoned college sophomore—ever uses language that way?

Your press corps’ skills are remarkably weak—and they’re always eager to use them. But Kristof’s column helps show why our Big Writers should just stop explaining. They need to stick to simple facts. They need to stop their deep assessments. Let’s face it—they’re simply not up to the task. But their editors don’t know this simple fact, and for that reason aren’t able to tell them.

PANDER-BARE: Nor is Bush a panderer, Kristof says. Here’s part of the way he knows it:

KRISTOF: In fact, I'm convinced that Mr. Bush is not only smarter, but also a better man than his critics believe. Most important, he's not a panderer. While Mr. Kerry zigs and zags on trade and Middle East policy, Mr. Bush has a core of values and provides genuine leadership (typically, I believe, in the wrong direction, by trying to reshape America and the world according to a far-right agenda).
But Bush has zigged and zagged on many matters. And by the way: Is there any bigger pander in our political life than the claim that voters pay too much in taxes? Especially when the claim is made without proposals to cut federal spending? There is surely no easier claim to make, and Bush has built his career around it. Was that factored into Kristof’s assessment? Since he only devotes two paragraphs to this cosmic character question, we have no way to know.

Is George Bush a liar? Does George Bush pander? Kristof’s reasoning is straight from sixth grade. Alas! At best, we humans reason quite poorly, and our Big Press seems determined to prove it.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: We’ve been in this zone with Kristof before. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/24/03. Scroll down to the “Daily Update,” and ignore the “bagman” remark.

TOMORROW—LIMNING LIARS: Lawrence O’Donnell went off his meds as he just kept yelling “liar.”

CONVENTION WATCH: Those fact-check conventions just keep improving. On Sunday, a reader sent us an e-mail titled, “A cause for hope at the N.Y. Times?” He included a pair of fact-checks from that day’s paper—fact-checks which were organically built into a pair of reports:

E-MAIL (10/24/04): Note use of phrase “in fact”:

Bush Keeps Focus on Preparedness for Terrorism; Kerry Shifts to a Theme of Hope
Published: October 24, 2004

Mr. Bush cast new aspersions on Mr. Kerry's fitness to be commander in chief, declaring twice that Mr. Kerry had said he would attack terrorism only “after America is hit—and that would be too late.” In fact, Mr. Kerry has insisted that he would take pre-emptive action, when there was clear intelligence about a threat to the United States—a test he says Mr. Bush threw aside in the case of Iraq.

Behind Candidates' Domestic Plans, an Ideological Gulf
Published: October 24, 2004

Mr. Bush calls the Kerry plan a government “takeover” of health care. In fact, it is intended to build on the existing employer-based system.

You can agree or disagree with the judgments made in these passages. But it’s a big improvement when daily reporters can make such judgments in their reports instead of scrounging around for some “expert” to contradict something a candidate has said. For the record, if scribes are free to challenge assertions this way, they will presumably challenge statements by Democrats too. But don’t forget—all such judgments are subject to error. Reporters should challenge plain misstatements. But there is no way to guarantee that their challenges will be on the mark.

Again for the record: In these two cases, we think Wilgoren’s challenge is stronger than Rosenbaum’s. We think he’s justified in flagging Bush’s statement, but that he might have objected somewhat differently.