10 February 2000
Our current howler: Letting McCain be McCain
Synopsis: Did McCain distort Bushs budget plan? Two Times scribes wont seem to tell us.
Bush and McCain Vie on Truth
Peter Marks, The New York Times, 2/8/00
Bush and McCain, Sittin' in a Tree, D-I-S-S-I-N-G
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 2/9/00
Commentary by John McCain
Hardball, MSNBC, 2/9/00
Put on the Defensive, Bush Talks Tough As McCain Rides High on His Victory
Frank Bruni and Marc Lacey, The New York Times, 2/4/00
Sorrythe analysts are off on two engagements today, and we
postpone till tomorrow our Nursing Home Special. But we've been
chuckling here as the New York Times tries to explain the dispute
over John McCain's recent ad. Here's the text of McCain's disputed ad, which aired widely in New Hampshire:
MCCAIN AD: There's one big difference between me and the others.
I won't take every dime of the surplus and spend it on tax cuts
that mostly benefit the wealthy. I'll use the bulk of the surplus
to secure Social Security far into the future.
McCain later explained that the ad referred to use of the non-Social
Security surplus (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/7/00). How were
viewers supposed to know that? In his interview, no one asked,
and McCain didn't say.
In fact, Bush's plan uses the entire $2 trillion Social Security
surplus to pay down debt and "secure Social Security,"
just as McCain's plan does. When McCain appeared on the NewsHour
last week, he badly misstated the Bush proposal:
MCCAIN: [Bush] has not one penny for Social Security, not one
penny for Medicare, not one penny for paying down the debt.
The statement plainly seemed to be false. Bush's plan has 200
trillion pennies, in payroll taxes, for paying down the
debt. But Jim Lehrer didn't seek explanation.
Anyway, Bush complained about McCain's ad, and we've chuckled
as the New York Times has attempted to judge the matter. It's
heresy now in the travelling press corps to suggest that McCain
is less than straight-shooting, and the Times has really had a
time refereeing this recent dispute. Peter Marks was the first
to try. In a 2/8 "Ad Campaign" report, he started off
with some background:
MARKS: On Friday, [Bush] introduced a sharply worded 30-second
spot that attacks [McCain] for what Mr. Bush says were distorted
advertisements about his tax-cut plan in an earlier advertisement
by the McCain campaign.
Marks quoted the text of Bush's complaint:
MARKS (quoting Bush ad): "John McCain's ad about Governor
Bush's tax plan isn't true, and McCain knows it"...
Later, we got an overview of the dispute:
MARKS: What started this video set-to was a McCain advertisement,
titled "Every Dime," that ran in New Hampshire and later
in South Carolina. In it, Mr. McCain says that "the one big
difference between me and the others" is that "I won't
take every last dime of the surplus and spend it on tax cuts that
mostly benefit the wealthy."
Bush has said McCain's ad isn't true. Marks knows what part
of McCain's ad is under dispute. Did you think he would try to
judge who's right? Sorryhere's what he wrote next:
MARKS (continuing directly): The Bush and McCain campaigns
have offered dueling tax-cut proposals. Mr. Bush's plan is for
$483 billion in cuts over five years; Mr. McCain's amounts to
less than half that. Mr. McCain's plan has criticized Mr. Bush's
plan as not reserving, as he says his does, money to protect Social
Security. Mr. Bush's spot, however, never explains what is not
truthful about Mr. McCain's original commercial...
It's trueBush's ad doesn't "explain what is not
truthful," but surely Marks understands the Bush complaint.
Does Marks think the complaint is on target? In this passage,
Marks takes a pass. He never tells us what he thinks, seeming
to feign ignorance of what Bush is saying.
The next day, we found the Times' Frank Bruni struggling to
explain the mess too:
BRUNI: Much of the acrimony [between Bush and McCain] began
with Mr. McCain's assertion, in a television commercial that ran
in New Hampshire and South Carolina, that Mr. Bush's tax cut frittered
away the entire surplus on tax cuts for the wealthy and did not
save any money for Social Security.
The commercial did not name Mr. Bush, but he was the clear
target of it. Moreover, its claim was contradicted by the arithmetic
and details of Mr. Bush's plan, at least as he and his aides laid
According to Bruni, McCain's claim was contradicted by "the
arithmetic and details of Bush's plan. " Does Bruni mean
the $2 trillion Bush uses to pay down debtis that the
"detail" he means? But just as Bruni seems to say that
McCain's ad is not on the mark, he says the ad is only
contradicted by the Bush plan "at least as Bush and his aides
laid it out." (Who else would "lay out" Bush's
plan?) Bruni suggests there is some uncertainty about what Bush's
plan really is. Does Bruni think McCain's ad was fair? He too
seems strangely unable to tell us.
In our view, the McCain ad was misleading at best, an outright
misstatement of fact at worst. (What McCain told Lehrer was plainly
wrong.) But how do Bruni and Marks judge the ad? They're strangely
unable to tell us. No one is forcing these two Times scribes to
discuss the Bush complaint at all. But if they're going to raise
the issue, why do they get so wobbly about it?
Meanwhile, on last night's Hardball, McCain said this
in at a Clemson forum:
MCCAIN: Governor Bush takes the entire surplus and puts it
into tax cuts. Not one new penny in Social Security, Medicare,
or paying down the debt. We have a clear difference of opinion
Did the audience know that Bush puts 200 trillion pennies in
payroll tax surpluses into paying down the debt? We'd guess the
bulk of the crowd did not. But guess what? A tabloid talker didn't
ask McCain to clear up his statement.
No. We don't think that:
1) McCain is dishonest.
2) McCain lacks character.
3) McCain should remove himself from the race.
We do think that misleading statements should be clarifiedwe
think important facts should be made crystal clear. And we also
think one other thing. We think the press corps will sometimes
pick and choose when it comes to those hated distortions.
Postscript (2/11/00): Back on the job, the analysts
scolded us for missing an earlier Times effort to explain the
ad flapan article by Bruni and Marc Lacey on 2/4. On that date,
the timid Times twosome were also tongue-tied when it came to
defining Bush's gripe.
Bush had accused McCain "of running misleading television
commercials," the writers said in paragraph one. They 'splained
it a little while later:
BRUNI AND LACEY: Regarding the commercial, which Mr. Bush characterized
as an unwarranted assertion that his proposal for a tax cut would
endanger Social Security, Mr. Bush began the news conference with
a sort of declaration of political war.
"I'm going to start right now by saying that any ad that's
being run by John McCain that infers, implies or says that I don't
reserve money for Social Security is Washington-style politics,"
Mr. Bush said.
"The people in this state are going to hear what the facts
are," Mr. Bush added.
If so, they'll be well ahead of New York Times readers. Once
again, Bruni and Lacey mysteriously fail to spell out this dispute's
basic facts. The text we have quoted comprises their total discussion
of the nature of Bush's complaint. A reader is never told what
the McCain ad says, and is never told that Bush uses $2 trillion
in surplus payroll taxes to pay down debt and "secure Social
The timid two did manage to include this reply from McCain's
BRUNI AND LACEY: Howard Opinsky, a spokesmen for Mr. McCain,
disputed Mr. Bush's accusation that Mr. McCain was running a commercial
that unfairly characterized Mr. Bush's position on Social Security.
Mr. Opinsky noted that while the spot maintains that Mr. McCain
is the Republican presidential candidate who would most strenuously
safeguard Social Security, it does not mention Mr. Bush.
The McCain ad is obviously referring to Gov. Bush, as Bruni
later stated (see above). Of course, when he finally said
this on 2/9, readers weren't told that McCain's camp had said
In summary: McCain's ad said Bush "takes every dime of
the surplus and spends it on tax cuts." In fact, Bush's plan
takes 20 trillion dimes from the payroll tax surplus and
spends it to pay down debt and "secure Social Security."
Times writers penned three separate treatments of this flap without
ever describing that seminal fact. Our question is simple: Why