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Caveat lector

17 May 2000

Our current howler (part II): Surrogate says

Synopsis: How does Keating know that Bush is a liar? He played a game: "Surrogate says."

Commentary by President Bush
Talking with David Frost, PBS, 1/3/92

Will the Biggest Liar Win?
Peter Keating, George, 5/00

What was President Bush talking about, in January 1992, when he said to David Frost, "I will do what I have to do to be re-elected?" In part, he was talking about health. There had been doubts that Bush would even run for re-election, given his thyroid problems the year before, and the interview began with a double Q & A about whether Bush planned to run for re-election. (He did.) There had also been questions about the vigor with which Bush was pursuing an economic recovery; Frost asked Bush for his views on the economy, which was still in recession. It was in that context that Frost asked Bush if he thought he would be re-elected "with or without a recovery." Here was Bush’s answer:
PRESIDENT BUSH: Sure, but it makes it very difficult, I mean, because—and you know it depends who the opponent is and what the opponent claims, with what magic wand he would wave in order to solve these inexorable problems. But I think that I will be re-elected. I predicate that, of course, on that I think the economy is going to be doing much better. I think confidence will be coming back. I think people now know we are trying hard; I don’t think they did at first. I think also you’ve got a whole wealth of other performance out there that the American people are grateful for. But I’m certainly going into this as a dog-eat-dog fight and I will do whatever I have to do to be re-elected.
Was that some sort of menacing statement? Or was it a statement that Bush would be active and involved, as a candidate and as leader of the economy? People can read it as they like, but Keating’s reading was truly remarkable; he read the statement as evidence that Governor Bush had "inherited a trait from his competitive family" that explains why he tries to "obliterate" something that "stands between him and a goal" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/16/00). The fact that President Bush had made this remark showed that Governor Bush has a character problem. It was a good example of the foolish ways modern scribes now attack hopefuls’ characters.

George’s cover showed Bush with his "pants on fire," with the words "biggest liar" across his chest. Early on in his text, Keating described Bush as "the most persistent fabricator" in the GOP primaries. And not just that—Bush’s lying was worse than that of recent presidents, Keating seemed to say. Of course, it’s always possible that all that is true, but Keating didn’t argue his case very hard; he opened his article with one example of a "false charge" (Bush’s ads on McCain and breast cancer). But when Keating’s systematic discussion of Bush began, he started out in a remarkable manner—citing this comment by Bush the father, which Told All about Bush the son.

Should citizens be happy with journalism like this, in which the most serious charges about public figures are "supported" in such a ridiculous manner? The practice has been aimed at Gore more than Bush, but Keating captures the mood of the late primary season, when pouting scribes were scuffing their toes as their champions, McCain and Bradley, went down. Scribes were peeved with Bush at the time in a way that has plainly long since subsided. But according to Keating—lower lip extended—Bush’s conduct in the primary races stamps him as a big fat liar. And sure enough, as Keating starts to lay out his case, helping us see how naughty Bush is, we see him employing the same slickmeister tools that have routinely been used to trash Gore:

KEATING (paragraph 10): The major political parties, with help from voters, this year rewarded their most persistent fabricators by nominating them to run for president...George W. Bush or his surrogates made outlandish claims about John McCain’s personal life, McCain’s senior adviser, and McCain’s environmental records, all to batter the "straight-talk" candidate who concluded his campaign stops by promising to "always tell you the truth."
The pathos is overpowering. Again, Keating shows no sign of recognizing that McCain may have fibbed a bit too. But in this paragraph, where his attack on Bush’s character begins, Keating smuggles in a slippery concept. Did you notice the sleight-of-hand, dear friends? It isn’t Bush who has said these horrible things. It’s someone else—it’s Bush "or his surrogates."

His surrogates? Who might "his surrogates" be? Later, Keating gives details:

KEATING (29): Third-party attack dogs helped pull the Texan through in what turned out to be the critical states of South Carolina and New York. South Carolina residents were barraged with messages assailing John McCain on abortion. They were targeted by mysterious groups with names like the National Smokers Alliance, which ran anti-McCain ads, and Keep It Flying, which praised Bush and attacked McCain on the Confederate flag, even though both men had adopted equally mushy positions on the issue. They were assaulted by telephone push polls that disparaged McCain’s integrity and raised questions about his wife’s former drug addiction.
"Push polls that disparaged McCain’s integrity"—as Keating disparages Bush’s. Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea what Bush may or may not have done in South Carolina. But this paragraph is such a pastiche of half-baked claims one hardly knows where to begin:

First: There is no reason on earth why South Carolina residents should not have been "barraged with messages assailing John McCain on abortion." Is something supposed to be wrong with that? If so, Keating doesn’t bother to say what it is. Are people forbidden from disagreeing with Senator McCain on abortion? And oh yes—did these messages come from Bush, or from someone else? That minor point isn’t spoken to, either.

Second: We’re not sure what is "mysterious" about the National Smokers Alliance, or what is strange about a "name like" that. Keating doesn’t say: What the group did; what is wrong with what they did; or what connection they had to Bush.

Third: It is absurd to say that Bush and McCain "adopted equally mushy positions" on the Confederate flag. McCain openly stated on Meet the Press that he thought the flag was a symbol of slavery; after changing his stance the very next day, he took to reading his new position right off a crumpled-up sheet of paper which he would ostentatiously pull from his pants. He recently stated that he was untruthful when he called the flag a symbol of heritage. It’s hardly surprising if flag-obsessed groups noticed his attitude at the time. By the way, was Keep It Flying somehow allied with Bush? Again, no effort to say.

Fourth: Few people would think it appropriate, in an election, to make telephone calls about Mrs. McCain’s one-time problem. But did Bush have anything to do with that? Keating forgets to explain.

It’s amazing that Keating could write a paragraph like this in an article assailing Bush’s character; in this one paragraph, Keating makes a string of nasty insinuations about Bush which his article never tries to back up. He never makes the slightest effort to demonstrate ties between Bush and these "mysterious" groups; for the most part, he never even tries to explain what these groups did that is wrong (except disagree with McCain). Was the Bush campaign in secret alliance with groups that were making inappropriate calls? Clearly, that’s what we’re given to think in this passage, but Keating isn’t willing to say so. That might take some reporting, some work or some actual knowledge. All three are toxic to some in today’s press corps.

At any rate, these are apparently some of the naughty "surrogates" to whom Keating referred early on. He then discusses another such pair—the "Dallas billionaires, Charles and Sam Wyly," who "blitzed the airwaves [in New York and two other states] with $2.5 million of advertising that characterized Bush as green and McCain as an anti-environmentalist." Here’s Keating’s take on that:

KEATING (31): Between them, the Wylys have contributed more than $200,000 to Bush’s Texas campaigns. The New York Daily News called Bush "a desperate man who obviously takes New Yorkers for a bunch of suckers," and decried "the stench" from his swine-like campaign." Still, the Wyly ads took their toll.
According to Keating, the Wyly ads were "absurd," given the environmental record in Texas. (One page before, of course, Keating had complained that Gore was going "to blame Bush for anything Texas is doing poorly.") But were the Wylys acting at Bush’s request? The article offers no evidence and makes no claims. Keating complains that Bush "was willing to stand back and let the Wyly handiwork air;" he didn’t ask the pair to pull their ads. But again, no effort is made to show that Bush was working with these "surrogates."

Was the Bush campaign working with "mysterious groups?" Such conduct could have broken election law, but Keating offers no evidence. Should candidates tell third parties to pull ads off the air? Keating could have written a balanced discussion of what Bush (or other hopefuls) should have done. But that isn’t what this article does. Instead, early on, in its nugget paragraph—right after calling Bush a "persistent fabricator"—it talks about "outlandish claims about McCain" which were made by Bush "or his surrogates." There isn’t an ounce of effort—not a word—to justify the use of that smuggled-in term. So it now goes when the modern scribe wants to call a big fish a Big Liar.

Tomorrow: Did Bush ever fib in the primary races? Most likely. So what else is new?