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4 February 2000

Our current howler (part I): Argument culture

Synopsis: Gore corrected a misquotation. The Boston Globe scolded him for it.

Principles vs. Politics on Abortion
Faye Wattleton, The New York Times, 2/1/00

Democrats debate abortion; Bush senior campaigns
Michael Kranish and Jill Zuckman, The Boston Globe, 1/30/00

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, MSNBC, 2/3/00

On January 26, at the final New Hampshire Dem debate, Al Gore said this about his record on abortion:

GORE: I've always supported Roe. v. Wade. I've always supported a woman's right to choose...It's true that early in my career I wrestled with the question of what kinds of exceptions should be allowed to the general rule that Medicaid should also pay for this procedure. I have come to the strong view that that all women, regardless of their income, must have the right to choose...

Bill Bradley, in his reply, challenged Gore's construction. He said that Gore had had "an 84% pro-right-to-life voting record" in the Congress:

BRADLEY: Your campaign shouldn't go around saying that you've always been for a woman's right to chose because the record shows you have not.

The following exchange then occurred:

GORE: I have always supported a woman's right to choose. And I support it today. And—

BRADLEY: That's not true. You voted the other way—

GORE: Well, it is true. I have always supported Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose. And the fact is, the exceptions on—

BRADLEY: Al, that's not true.

GORE: If I could finish—I haven't interrupted you, Bill...

Gore went on to say that the question of federal funding of abortions, to which he had previously referred, "constituted virtually the only votes in the House of Representatives during those years."

This exchange between the two Dem hopefuls established a classic semantic dispute; Gore and Bradley seemed to agree on the facts, and disagreed over how to describe them. There was no apparent dispute on the facts: in some instances in the 1980s, Gore had voted against federal funding of abortions. But Gore said he had "always supported Roe v. Wade and the right to choose;" Bradley disputed that construction.

Here at THE HOWLER, we might as well tell you, we have no instant problem with Gore's formulation. There is an obvious difference between a woman's right to have an abortion and a woman's right to federal funding. We, for example, oppose federal funding of Hawaiian vacations—but we support to the death your right to take one. Roe v. Wade did not address funding. Some sketchy recitations have appeared in the press about language in amendments for which Gore voted (more next week). But we have seen no evidence that Gore ever supported repealing Roe v. Wade, or ever supported any provision to limit the right to a (self-paid) abortion. If Bradley feels that Gore's votes against federal funding are relevant, he does of course have every right to raise that issue in any forum.

Bradley later warned the voter to be careful about Gore's "tricky" use of language. But language can trick us in many ways, as Faye Wattleton quickly proved in the Times. Writing five days after the Dem debate, Wattleton said that Gore "ha[d] not been forthcoming" on 1/26. But her arguments showed how careful one must be in negotiating the terrain of this tricky debate.

Wattleton, former Planned Parenthood head, started with this assertion:

WATLETON (paragraph 1): After several days of obfuscation, Al Gore has confessed, sort of.

She followed with a fairly straightforward account of the two Democrats' dispute:

WATTLETON (2): When Bill Bradley cited Mr. Gore's record of supporting anti-choice legislation as a Congressman from Tennessee, Mr. Gore contended that he had always supported a woman's constitutional right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade.

Except for the debatable term "anti-choice," that is an unobjectionable account of the 1/26 exchange. But Wattleton quickly slid into a presentation that is simply impossible to defend:

WATTLETON (3): Then, Mr. Bradley produced a 1987 letter to a constituent signed by Mr. Gore that said abortion was "arguably the taking of a human life."

(4) Finally, the Vice President demurred, saying, "I would not use that phrasing today."

(5) So, Mr. Bradley is right. Mr. Gore has not been forthcoming about his record

Sigh! Wattleton, accusing Gore of misrepresenting his past, serves up a miserable howler. In paragraph 2, she states that Gore had said in debate that he always supported the right to choose; in paragraph 4, she repeats a quote which she seems to feel contradicts that claim. But the letter to which Wattleton refers was a letter in which Gore described his votes against federal funding; and the fact that Gore said abortion was "arguably" the taking of human life does not mean that he thought that it was. (Obviously enough, if Gore had wanted to say that abortion was the taking of human life, he would not have put in the word "arguably.") But let's examine the logic further. Suppose that Congressman A thinks abortion really is the taking of a human life. That doesn't mean that Congressman A opposes the right to choose. Many Democratic pols in the 1980s articulated the Mario Cuomo position—I personally think that abortion is wrong, but I support the woman's right to choose. The essence of the right to choose is that politicians don't make the decision based on what they think—they leave the decision up to the woman. A person can support the right to choose no matter what he or she personally thinks.

But we live in an adversarial political culture, where some pundits like to make pols into liars—especially pols they don't like. In the past week, many scribes haplessly cited the 1987 Gore letter as if they didn't know what "arguably" means. And many were using creative paraphrase, saying Gore had said he always supported "abortion rights"—a nebulous phrase that Gore hadn't used, but one which makes it a good deal easier to turn Gore into a liar. (More on that next week.)

In our view, the prevailing desire to make pols into liars is a leading problem with our political culture. We state again what we stated last month, when we reviewed charges that John McCain had misbehaved with his FCC letters (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/19/00). When a public figure is accused of wrong-doing, he is entitled to a careful review of the facts—and he is entitled to direct quotation. By January 30, the Boston Globe was presenting a comical exchange concerning the 1987 letter—an exchange that showed the occasional secret desire that pols should turn out to be liars:

MICHAEL KRANISH AND JILL ZUCKMAN: Gore, campaigning in the streets of Milford, dismissed complaints that he has been less than candid about his record on the abortion issue.

Asked whether he still believed what he wrote in a 1987 letter to a constituent, that abortion is "the taking of a human life," Gore seemed to choose his words carefully.

"I didn't write that," Gore said. "I used the word 'arguably'" before the words the taking of a human life, he said.

In short, a reporter—complaining that Gore had been "less than candid"—misstated what Gore had actually said. Then, when Gore corrected the record, he stood accused of "choosing words carefully." Ironically, "choosing words carefully" is what scribes should do when they accuse public figures of wrongdoing. Kranish and Zuckman amuse us here with their disdain for the rules of their craft.


Monday—picking and choosing: Talk about the right to choose! On 1/26, Bradley misstated what he'd done with his medical records. The press corps "chose" to ignore it.

Let's play goofball: The anti-Bush bandwagon is pulling out of the station, and a tabloid talker was jumping on board, playing tape last night of two Bush speeches, one from June and one from last Sunday. The talker's point? Many of the very same phrases were heard in the two different speeches. ("He tends to repeat his message, the basic pitch he makes to voters as he goes around the country," the talker complained.) This silly trick could of course be played on any one of the two parties' hopefuls; we've reported before that this silly trick is often played on candidates who have fallen from favor. Comically, at the start of the inventive show's next segment, the talker played footage of John McCain, saying Tuesday night that he would sometimes tell us things we don't want to hear. This is also a standard message, repeated again and again by McCain (as is completely appropriate). Every hopeful repeats basic messages; every scribe knows that perfectly well. But when a hopeful loses by 19 points, the tomfoolery soon goes on his tab.