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20 January 2000

Our current howler (part III): True story

Synopsis: There’s a second slight problem we humans have. Sometimes, we aren’t 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 story—the 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 hardball—here'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 Staff—a litmus test, not about readiness, but about politics. Colin Powell couldn't pass Al Gore's litmus test. Neither could Norman Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf and Powell—the heroes of Desert Storm. Call Al Gore. Tell him the only litmus test ought to be patriotism.

And there it was, right on the screen—a 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 But two days later, here was a talker, still playing the outdated ad!

Some background: At the January 8 Democratic debate, Gore had walked right into a hay-maker question from dapper star host Peter Jennings. Jennings—who later admitted that he'd really been thinking about all the stuff that went on backstage—tossed 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 days later.

Whatever Gore had originally meant, his position on the matter was certainly clear—he would not use a "litmus test," and he said he hadn't meant to say otherwise. But the RNC loved their frightening ad—and 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 test—so 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 "contention:"

SEELYE (1/11): Asked if the commercial's contention was correct—that neither general could pass Mr. Gore's test—Chris 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 issue."

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 humans—fallen creatures—aren't trying.


Tomorrow: Why is our public discourse so bad? Three words: Code of Silence.

Seelye's posture—read 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 "Stop."

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 to paraphrase:

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 moon?"

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 again—the 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 day—putting words in Gore's mouth—engaged in work that was truly repulsive. It's sad that the Times lets this pass.