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23 February 2000

Our current howler (part III): Upholding the saints

Synopsis: Six weeks after Bush’s first complaint, Frank Bruni still couldn’t explain it.

Commentary by Lars-Erik Nelson
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 2/14/00

Commentary by John King
Democratic presidential forum, CNN, 2/21/00

Bush and McCain Scurry Toward Showdown
Frank Bruni and Alison Mitchell, The New York Times, 2/18/00

McCain Fits Quite Well On Flank Firing at Him
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 2/19/00

As the ad wars heated up in South Carolina, Lars-Erik Nelson appeared on Washington Journal. A caller made the following statement, slamming McCain for what he'd said about the Bush budget plan:

CALLER: I know you are a supporter of Mr. McCain and I've always liked Mr. McCain, I've watched him up here on TV through the years. But I don't respect him any more, and the reason is I saw him on TV in his ads, I saw him speaking to groups on TV, I saw him in interviews on television, and he made the same statements about Governor Bush's tax plan, he said that Governor Bush was going to spend all the surplus on tax cuts. Well, I think everyone knew better than that. And I do believe that that's the reason that Mr. McCain's approval ratings went down shortly after that. Because right, just a few seconds after he said that in his ad about Governor Bush using all of the surplus for tax cuts, he said, "I will always tell you the truth." And he had just told a lie, and he kept telling it, knowing it was not true.

We'll admit it—we'd had a somewhat similar reaction to the ad the caller described. Nelson urged a bit of caution:

NELSON: I think you ought to be careful about calling that a lie because—I mean I understand what you're saying, but it's a very difficult issue. There are two surpluses. There's the surplus that comes from the income tax, and then there's the Social Security surplus which comes from the withholding from your paycheck, the FICA withholding. McCain is saying that none of the income tax surplus will be used to shore up Social Security. Bush is saying that he will use the Social Security surplus to shore up Social Security. So they're two different things.

Nelson's answer is a fascinating study in the press corps' approach to McCain. We agree with Nelson about the word "lie;" we have said, of McCain's statement on this matter, that it is grossly misleading at best and an outright misstatement of fact at worst. We'll let others sort out who is "lying." But beyond that, Nelson displays a permissive attitude toward McCain's presentation that is typical of the press corps' approach. Nelson says that the issue is "very difficult," but he then explains it quickly and easily, making something all too clear—this issue isn't "difficult" at all. Nor is McCain actually "saying" that Bush would use "none of the income tax surplus to shore up Social Security." In fact, McCain is saying what the caller relates: that Bush's tax cut spends the entire surplus. It would be easy for McCain to state his point accurately—and it would surely be easy for the press corps to clarify the facts of this ongoing matter. But the press corps has rarely asked McCain why he presents this topic as he does (see postscript), and the press corps rarely makes any effort to clarify the facts for the public. Just Monday night, for example, after the Democratic debate at the Apollo Theater, CNN's John King said this about McCain's aggressive campaigning in Michigan:

KING: We saw that today at a morning rally in Traverse City, by far Senator McCain's best crowd here in Michigan. Very aggressive contrasts on taxes and spending. Senator McCain wants to put aside a big chunk of the federal surplus for Social Security, he says Governor Bush has not a penny...

Responding to questioning, King went on to say this:

KING: [McCain] has a line, he says it's "mature" to put aside money for Social Security, "mature" to put aside money for Medicare, again trying to make the case that Governor Bush is not ready to be president of the United States.

But it's also "mature" to clarify facts, and neither King nor any of the three journalists to whom he was speaking attempted to clarify McCain's statement. King mentioned recent McCain complaints about Bush's campaigning, but no one said a word about the ongoing Bush complaint. (King was speaking with CNN's Jeff Greenfield and xxx, and with Jack White of Time.)

The truth is, Bush's complaint about this presentation has been on the record for over six weeks now, and it's perfectly easy to clarify the facts in this ongoing dispute. (On January 6, Alison Mitchell effortlessly explained the Bush complaint. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/00.) On Monday, it would have been perfectly easy to clarify the facts by saying this:

CLARIFICATION: To be fair, let's point out that Bush would use all or most of the general revenue surplus for his tax cut. But like McCain, Bush takes all of the $2 trillion Social Security surplus and uses it to pay down debt and shore up that program.

Viewers still wouldn't understand every aspect of this issue—but they wouldn't have heard that Bush has "not a penny" for Social Security, with four major newsmen standing by and uttering not one peep of comment. But then, the same corps that has scoured through ancient Gore texts, praying they could find a clause out of place, has sat by mutely for the past six weeks and said nothing about McCain's presentation.

But no one has sat by quite so mutely as the great New York Times. When the GOP campaign arrived in South Carolina, Bush said he wouldn't let McCain "define" him again, and he ran an ad saying McCain had lied about the Bush budget plan. Surely the Times understood Bush's complaint—Mitchell had explained it a full month before! But, as we noted in several earlier reports, Frank Bruni and Peter Marks of the Times were just completely bamboozled. They struggled and struggled with Bush's complaint, but couldn't seem to figure it out. (For full links, see postscript below.)

What was the source of the Timesmen's confusion? Really, we just can't imagine. C-SPAN's caller explained the matter quite well. Nelson immediately understood what she meant. Mitchell had explained the Bush complaint long before. But in South Carolina, the Timesmen struggled to explain the complaint, and never quite managed to do it. Even when Mitchell and Bruni joined forces, writing about this on February 18, even then the two Times scribes couldn't quite manage to do it. For whatever reason, they couldn't quite manage to say the words that would suggest that authentic Saint John may be spinning. Here's how the scribes explained the issue, discussing that disputed McCain flier:

BRUNI AND MITCHELL: The flier asserts that Mr. Bush wants to nationalize education and that his tax cut plan would squander the federal surplus so that there was not "one red cent" left to shore up Social Security.

"There's nothing factual about this," Mr. Bush complained. "The Senator has got to understand that he can't have it both ways. He can't take the high horse and then claim the low road."

Mr. Bush's education plan calls for more intensive federal monitoring of schools and programs that get federal money, but he talks often about keeping public education a local prerogative. And the surplus issue is a matter of much debate, depending on which pools of money are being considered.

Incredibly, the scribes could offer no clearer explanation of Bush and that "one red cent." Essentially, they said the issue is quite complex, then made no effort to explain it. But the issue isn't complex at all—Mitchell had explained it some six weeks before. Yep—the working press corps has had quite a time deciphering this seminal dispute for the public. Standards seem to fly out the door when there's a hint that Saint John may be spinning.


Tomorrow: Another caller made a complaint about the straight-shooting authentic.

Visit our incomparable archives: Bruni and Marks had quite a time explaining the Bush complaint. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/7/00 and 2/10/00.

Unheard of! Sam Donaldson asked McCain to explain his statements about the Bush budget plan. The aggressive newsman didn't get very far. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/7/00.

Parse me: Many Times reporters despise President Clinton because he's so, well, "Clintonesque." But when Times scribes start defending a saint, you have to parse them carefully. Last Saturday, Melinda Henneberger was in fine form, analyzing conservative assertions that McCain is "a moderate." Henneberger wasn't buying that jive. Here was her presentation of McCain's record on taxes:

HENNEBERGER: Mr. Bush, it is true, has proposed a much heftier tax cut. But Mr. McCain has never voted for a broad tax increase, including the one adopted by Mr. Bush's father.

What is the key word there, parsers? The key word in that passage is "broad." Many conservatives are upset because McCain himself proposed a large tax increase on tobacco. Incredibly, Henneberger never mentions this obvious point, and the word "broad" makes her passage technically accurate. When Clinton does it, CelebCorps howls. It's OK, though, when you're spinning Saint John.

Our usual note: None of this is meant as a judgment on the merits of McCain's proposal. But readers should have been told about that proposal; it's the basis of conservative complaints about McCain on taxes.