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
BRADLEY: Al, that's not true.
GORE: If I could finishI 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
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 vacationsbut 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
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
WATLETON (paragraph 1): After several days of obfuscation,
Al Gore has confessed, sort of.
She followed with a fairly straightforward account of the two
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
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 positionI 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 thinkthey 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 liarsespecially 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 factsand he is entitled
to direct quotation. By January 30, the Boston Globe was presenting
a comical exchange concerning the 1987 letteran 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,
In short, a reportercomplaining 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.
Mondaypicking 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.