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3 April 2000

Our current howler (part I): Rule of law

Synopsis: Steve Roberts obeyed the pundits’ great law: Always talk first about motive.

Commentary by Rep. Steve Largent (R-OK), Rep. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 4/2/00

Commentary by Steve Roberts
Late Edition, CNN, 4/2/00

Gore and the Evidence (Cont'd)
Lanny Davis (letter), The Washington Post, 4/1/00

The Odyssey of Homer
Translated by Richmond Lattimore, Harper & Row, 1965

On Friday morning, as the latest surge in Elian interest was building, we commented on Washington Journal about the uniqueness of the case. That uniqueness once again came clear on yesterday's Fox News Sunday. In one segment, conservative Republican congressman Steve Largent complained about his GOP colleagues. They had failed to act on "family values" in the case, Largent explicitly said:

TONY SNOW: Mr. Largent, I want to begin with you. We've just heard Senator Connie Mack (R-FL) say that a court ought to decide whether Elian's father should get visitation rights. What do you think?

Largent didn't think so:

REP. LARGENT: Why? I mean, what place is it for the government to come in and determine the fitness of the father when there's been no cause of action?...That doesn't make any sense. The boy should be returned to Cuba as fast as possible. I think it's tragic that he lost his mother at sea, in her drowning, and it's a travesty that we're keeping him from his father four months after the fact.

"It boggles my mind," Largent said, "to think that anywhere is a better place for this boy to be than with his father."

Indeed, by any normal standard, in any normal case, a child who had lost his mother so tragically would be returned to his father. But Rep. Menendez, in reply, said the case wasn't normal at all:

REP. MENENDEZ: Well, I would share Steve's view if in fact this was a country that observed the family values he speaks of. But in Castro's Cuba, the Castro constitution says the child belongs to the state and is entrusted to the parents so long as they raise them as a proper Communist man or woman. At certain parts of their adolescence, they're taken away from the family...So we have to talk about the same values and Castro does not share those values.

"I think that the mother's death spoke volumes about what her intention was for this child," Menendez said.

Menendez and Largent do not represent prevailing opinion within their respective parties. In the main, Democrats have favored returning Elian Gonzalez to his father; Republicans have more generally argued the Menendez point of view. But there have been striking defections within each party, and that is because the case is hard. In fact, the case is uniquely hard-it comes straight from Solomon-for those who hold two mainstream Americans views: 1) Young children like Elian Gonzalez belong with their parents, and 2) Cuban society under Castro is uniquely disturbing.

If you find some merit in each of those views, this case is bound to be difficult. If you think, for example, that Elian's father may not be free to state his views, his declaration that he wants his son back may not strike you as wholly convincing. (Many Cuban parents in years past sent their "Pedro Pan" children out of the country.) You might understand why some might look for creative ways to elicit the father's views. At the same time, you might ponder the problems which could be created by departures from normal immigration procedures.

Yep. For many people, the Gonzalez case will be tough, depending on one's views about Cuba. It's the kind of case that can have a northeastern Democrat warning about Cuba, while an Oklahoma conservative heatedly argues that a child should be sent back "to Castro." And it's the kind of case that now has presumptive Democratic nominee Gore siding with many Republicans in Congress, arguing that Elian Gonzalez's Cuban family should be given permanent residency status in this country.

Phew! So many lines all being crossed! Indeed, with so much confusion and so much uncertainty, it's good that there's at least one group of reliables-one group of observers to whom we can look for total and complete regularity. And that group, of course, is the celebrity press corps, called in to referee the dispute. This weekend, as pundits sounded off about Gore's position, we saw them repeatedly play by key Pundit Rules. Ignore the merits; don't talk about substance; go straight to motive; always be negative. And most important, key above all: Always stick to revered Pundit Scripts.

Consider, for example, Steve Roberts' reaction when asked about Gore by Wolf Blitzer. Blitzer had played a tape of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) criticizing Gore's position:

BLITZER: Maxine Waters, Tom Daschle-a lot of Democrats don't like what Al Gore did.

ROBERTS: Well, because he clearly was pandering. Let's be honest about this. This is a total appeal for the south Florida vote. Gore thinks he can steal Florida-maybe even talk about Senator Graham as a running-mate... (Roberts' emphasis)

Like many other pundits, Roberts started with motive-and went straight to the p-word-when asked a general question about Gore's position. But then the pundit did something so strange, we've seen it only once in the past:

ROBERTS (continuing directly): But-just because he's allied himself with people who Charlie Rangel doesn't like doesn't mean he's wrong on these issues. If you look at the welfare of this child-not the politics of it, the welfare-Gore's got a point. And the whole notion that this should be treated like a domestic custody battle, that there should be focus on the emotional well-being and not all the political rationale, makes lots of sense. Yes he was pandering. On the facts, he may be closer to being right than Charlie Rangel. (Roberts' emphasis)

We won't even attempt to hide our contempt for this remarkable style of "reasoning." On the merits, Gore is right-but we'll say that he's "pandering" anyway! Roberts was sticking to treasured scripts; even when Gore is right, he's wrong. His comment anchored a striking panel on Late Edition-and a gruesome day all throughout the Big Press.


Tomorrow: Scribe after scribe swore that Gore had pandered. None of them said how they knew it.

Always read THE DAILY HOWLER: We recently chuckled when perpetually-furious Michael Kelly got an "uncontroverted fact" wrong (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/24/00). In an exchange of letters with Lanny Davis, Kelly tossed off a howler:

KELLY: This fact is true and uncontroverted: Maria Hsiah raised $55,000 at a visit to the Hsi Lai Temple on April 29, 1996 by Al Gore.

The claim, as we noted, is not only untrue, it has never so much as been made. By every official account of this case, the $55,000 to which Kelly refers was raised on April 30, the day after Gore's appearance. Hsiah's prosecutors said Gore didn't know what was done. (For more colorful, improved versions of these events, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/27/00.)

Only Kelly could sound off so furiously while lacking knowledge of such basic facts, we surmised. But now Kelly has a new partner in crime; say hello, if you will, to Lanny Davis! Last Saturday, Davis continued the unedifying series of letters in the fact-averse Post:

DAVIS: In reply to my letter, Kelly writes: "Maria Hsia raised $55,000 at a visit to the Hsi Lai Temple on April 29, 1996, by Al Gore." Kelly states: "This claim is true and uncontroverted." I agree. But that is not what Kelly wrote in his earlier column.

Davis joined his arch-foe in affirming a "fact" that is totally, unambiguously wrong.

Sheesh. Meanwhile, help arrived, from an incomparable cohort. Our internationally-acclaimed Task Force on Classical Allusions had been little seen in recent months. But on Saturday, the ancient greybeards emerged en masse from the sumptuous halls where we keep them housed and honored. The antique scholars had struggled to recall an elusive text as they watched the boys with their partisan bickering. And then, of course! The team had it at last! It was Pallas Athene, third-born of the gods, whose words the embarrassing squabble evoked. Surely you recall the passage-her deathless speech at the end of the Odyssey? As our incomparable Task Force advised us, we think that Professor Lattimore has it just about right:

And now they would have killed them all, and given none of them
homecoming, had not Athene, daughter of Zeus of the aegis,
cried out in a great voice and held back all the company:
"Hold back, men of Ithaka, from the weariness of fighting,
so that most soon, and without blood, you can settle everything."

Or at least be sure to read THE HOWLER, so you can get a few basic facts right.

Visit our incomparable archives: Our internationally-acclaimed Task Force first appeared after playing some hardball. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/2/98.