STOP EXPLAINING! Kristof tells us how Bush thinks—and shows us the corps limitations:
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 27, 2004
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 mornings 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. Kristofs column includes his account of Bushs charming tale—you can read it there if you like—but lets 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 didnt 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 doesnt make him a liar, Kristof says (we agree). Heres 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 didnt lie when he included this anecdote in his book—he merely gave a hyped version of the incident. This doesnt 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 dont have the slightest idea what that actually means. But just how weak is Kristofs reasoning? Heres 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 gentlemans honesty. But Kristof skips the question altogether. He proceeds directly to murky claims about how Bushs mind really works.
Did George Bush know that his story was false? We dont 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 Kristofs reasoning is. He builds an entire column about Bushs honesty around this one silly, trivial incident. And he doesnt 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 Bushs charming, inaccurate story? Bushs 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 Bushs charming little story during Campaign 2000—during the period when Gore was being savaged for allegedly saying things just like it? Of course you didnt (and mercifully so). Bushs 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 isnt 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 theyre always eager to use them. But Kristofs 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. Lets face it—theyre simply not up to the task. But their editors dont know this simple fact, and for that reason arent able to tell them.
PANDER-BARE: Nor is Bush a panderer, Kristof says. Heres 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 Kristofs 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? Kristofs 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: Weve 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 ODonnell 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 days paper—fact-checks which were organically built into a pair of reports:
E-MAIL (10/24/04): Note use of phrase in fact:You can agree or disagree with the judgments made in these passages. But its 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 dont 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 Wilgorens challenge is stronger than Rosenbaums. We think hes justified in flagging Bushs statement, but that he might have objected somewhat differently.