20 January 2000
Our current howler (part III): True story
Synopsis: Theres a second slight problem we humans have. Sometimes, we arent all that honest.
Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 1/10/00
In New York, Gore Outlines View on Gays In the Military
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 1/11/00
Bradley and Gore Renew the Battle
Adam Clymer and Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 1/4/00
There's a second slight problem we humans have. Sometimes,
we aren't all that honest. Why is our public discourse so bad?
Some scribes don't try to be right! Socrates said sophists
would use their skills to let the weaker argument defeat the stronger.
Once in a while, our workers see signs that the syndrome survives
to this day.
True storythe analysts were in our viewing chambers, playing
some Hardball last Monday (1/10). A highly excitable tabloid
talker began to expound on gay topics:
MATTHEWS: Talk about hardballhere's the new RNC, that's the
Republican National Committee, TV ad that just started running
today in New Hampshire and Iowa, those early primary and caucus
states, about Al Gore and his flip-flop on gays in the military!
What an ad! Our faithful dog Argus hid under a chair as frightening
music emerged from the screen. Then we heard the voice of Jim
Nicholson. The RNC headman expounded:
RNC AD: Al Gore says he wants a test for the Joint Chiefs of
Staffa litmus test, not about readiness, but about politics.
Colin Powell couldn't pass Al Gore's litmus test. Neither could
Norman Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf and Powellthe heroes of Desert
Storm. Call Al Gore. Tell him the only litmus test ought to be
And there it was, right on the screena number, to phone the
VP! The music ended, and Argus reappeared, still shy for the rest
of the evening.
Here at THE HOWLER, we were all convinced that the talker had
played the wrong tape. We'd all heard the text of the RNC ad:
"Gore says he wants a litmus test." But Gore had said
exactly the opposite in a statement the previous Friday.
"Gore, in a reversal, shuns litmus test on gay troops"that's
what the New York Times Saturday headline had said (1/8). But
two days later, here was a talker, still playing the outdated
Some background: At the January 8 Democratic debate, Gore had
walked right into a hay-maker question from dapper star host Peter
Jennings. Jenningswho later admitted that he'd really been thinking
about all the stuff that went on backstagetossed an oddball question
at Gore. Would Gore pose a "litmus test," Jennings asked,
to nominees for the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
JENNINGS: ...If you become president, will you nominate members
of the Joint Chiefs who only support your gay policy? In other
words, will it be a litmus test?
In all likelihood, Jennings' question had never occurred to
Gore or to any other hopeful. Why would the prez pose a "litmus
test" to members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? The Chiefs
have to do what the commander-in-chief says, so it doesn't really
matter too much what they think. Gore, facing a question
from out of left field, ended up saying that nominees would have to "be in agreement with that policy" and that he "would insist,
before appointing anybody to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that that
individual support my policy." Did that mean the Chief would
have to agree with the policy, or just that he would have
to be willing to implement it? On Friday, Gore told the
press that he had not meant "to imply that there should ever
be any kind of inquiry into the personal political opinions of
officers in the U.S. military." He said he hadn't meant to
say that he would have a "litmus test," and adviser
Robert Shrum said the same thing on Meet the Press two
Whatever Gore had originally meant, his position on the matter
was certainly clearhe would not use a "litmus test,"
and he said he hadn't meant to say otherwise. But the RNC loved
their frightening adand their frightening ad said just the opposite!
Damn! It was so much better before Gore went and said that
there wouldn't be any test. How to justify an ad that was false?
An inventive tabloid talker got spinning:
MATTHEWS: On Sunday, on Meet the Press, Bob Shrum, who
writes a lot of the material Al Gore uses in these kinds of events,
said he never changed his mind...He said, "No, he didn't change
his mind." What he said in the debate, with Peter Jennings,
is exactly what he said two or three days later, which is obviously
not true. He changed his mind. And I think the irony, J.D. Hayworth,
congressman, is this gives your [Republican] party license to
keep running these ads, because if Al Gore hasn't come back from
what he stated in terms of advancing a litmus test for admirals
and general, then you have a fair shot at him.
Can you follow the logic, dear readers? Gore says he hasn't
changed his mind, because he never meant to imply a test. But
Matthews says he did imply a testso if Gore says he hasn't
changed his mind, then that means that Gore still must want one!
Of course! Argus was covering his ears with his paws as the tabloid
talker spun and twirled, repeating again, to Jerry Nadler, that
Shrum's remarks on Meet the Press had "given
license to this crazy Republican ad campaign, which has now been
proven by Gore's aide."
Proven! Did we mention before that some of our scribes may
not always be all that honest?
Anyway, the RNC ad claimed Gore "says" something
which Gore had quite plainly disavowed. A talker's comic-book
pose to the side, surely this was the kind of thing the mainstream
press would just jump on. And Katharine Seelye had heard
enough, over at the New York Times. Like all major scribes, Seelye
loves the truth. She described the new ad the next morning:
SEELYE (1/11): After asserting that Mr. Gore wants a litmus
test and that neither generals Schwarzkopf nor Powell would pass
it, the ad tells voters to "Call Al Gore. Tell him the only
litmus test ought to be patriotism."
Obviously, Seelye knew perfectly well that this isn't what
Al Gore "says." She had reported earlier in this
very piece that Gore had said there would be no such test.
Sure enough, Seelye's blood began to boil as she thought about
the ad's factual claims. This celebrity press corps lives for
truth. Seelye gave voice to her concern about the ad's crucial
SEELYE (1/11): Asked if the commercial's contention was correctthat
neither general could pass Mr. Gore's testChris Lehane, the vice
president's press secretary, told reporters today: "It's
a hypothetical. I don't know their views well enough to know whether
they would carry out the orders of the commander in chief on this
Somehow, reviewing an ad with a plainly inaccurate claim, Seelye
was struck by a different fact: no one knew if Colin Powell (now
retired) would have been willing to let gays serve openly. Or
something. And this was the pointless point of concern she brought
to her New York Times readers. Readers, if you want to know why
our discourse is so crazily bad, we'd suggest that you study this
dispatch from Seelye. It's true, we human beings don't reason
real well. But sometimes, dear readers, it even seems clear that
we humansfallen creaturesaren't trying.
Tomorrow: Why is our public discourse so bad? Three
words: Code of Silence.
Seelye's postureread it: We don't know what she did
on her winter vacation. But ever since the turn of the year, Katharine
Seelye has been the press corps' top spinner. For example, on
January 5 and 6, she did a pair of articles concerning Ted Kennedy's
endorsement of Gore. And by the time she finished with her "reporting,"
you'd have to wonder why poor old Gore would even enter the same
state as Teddy! According to Seelye, Kennedy reminds people that
Gore is too liberal; that Gore is too establishment; and that
Gore is just too goddamned boring. Seelye yelled "liberal"
so many different ways that Jim Nicholson called her up and said
But a truly repulsive bit of work had appeared on January 4.
Spinner One was holding forth on the renewal of the Gore-Bradley
tussle. Each of the hopefuls had given a speech. Seelye began
SEELYE (1/4): [Gore] suggested that Mr. Bradley's approach
was, if not un-American, at least un-Democratic.
"Can you imagine John Kennedy saying, "We have to fight
the cold war; we can't explore the heavens of put a man on the
Un-American! One's breath is taken. Obviously, Gore hadn't
used either one of the words which we've set in bold above. But
there's another word Gore hadn't used, either. Seelye went and
got it out for him:
SEELYE (1/4): As he has before, Mr. Gore suggested today that
Mr. Bradley made a cowardly retreat, not an intellectual
exploration, when he retired from the Senate.
The word "suggested" is Seelye's very best friend,
her crutch and her personal savior. The word lets her say what
she pleases. We've tried to tell you, again and againthe power
to paraphrase is the power to spin. It's the power to invent what
a hopeful has said, to stir up some great big excitement. Seelye
this dayputting words in Gore's mouthengaged in work that was
truly repulsive. It's sad that the Times lets this pass.