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18 May 2000

Our current howler (part III): Just so stories

Synopsis: Comparing Bush and Gore with angelic opponents, Keating crafts odd fairy tales.

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

Did Bush fib at some point in the course of the primaries? It's likely—so what else is new? One thing Keating says is surely true—it's hard to defend the ads Bush ran in New York about McCain's views on breast cancer. Keating's piece never explains what was "false" about the charge the ads made. For the record, Bush implied that McCain was opposed or indifferent to research on the illness; in fact, Bush's ads referred to actions in which McCain opposed last-minute, end-run funding measures that didn't observe normal budget procedures.

But Keating's article didn't say that Bush had made a false charge; it said something far more sweeping than that. Keating said that Bush was the "most persistent prevaricator" in the GOP primaries, and that Bush's "lying" was substantially worse than that of recent presidents, going back through FDR. To support that claim, Keating made an absurd presentation, claiming that most modern presidents had actually lied for what turned out to be pretty good reasons (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/16/00). And when we got to the heart of his indictment of Bush, he smuggled some weasel words into his piece. He said that Bush or his surrogates made "outlandish claims" about McCain—but he never got around to showing that Bush was connected to the "mysterious groups" in question. For the most part, he made little effort even to say what was wrong with what the strange groups had done.

But so it goes when today's aggrieved pundit sets out to rant and rave about character. The childish tone of George's "Pants on fire" cover perfectly captures the mood of this piece. Was Bush's conduct worse than Bob Dole's in 1996, for example, when Dole's ads grossly misled New Hampshire voters about the Forbes "flat tax" proposal? Don't expect rational inquiry like that to interfere with a good modern thrashing.

For some strange reason, some modern scribes love to weep and moan and play the abused, aggrieved victim. They will make extreme accusations about hopefuls' character—often while engaging in the very same conduct they piously impute to their prey. A comic example is offered by Keating as he makes a complaint about Gore:

KEATING (paragraph 26): Taken together, Al Gore's overstatements suggest a certain discomfort with lifelong expectations for him. Gore was bred for nearly superman greatness literally from day one...

Complaining (yawn) that Gore overstates, Keating immediately does the same, wildly. For the rest of this paragraph he plays the shrink, although we suspect that he lacks the requisite license. (As a professional courtesy to the astute Dr. Keating, we won't show you his "analysis." Until our postscript.) Later, Keating bellyaches that Bush will be "hammering Gore's lack of credibility" this fall; he himself has just spent an entire article doing exactly that. And by the way—in paragraph 25, where Keating runs down Gore's alleged "overstatements," he manages to misstate the basic facts about several now-iconic Gore statements. We saw it last week in the Boston Globe piece: When today's scribe want to call a big fish a big liar, mangled facts often add to the fun.

Was Bush's fibbing worse than McCain's—so much worse as to merit this article? McCain constantly misrepresented Bush's budget plan; flipped and flopped on abortion several times; admits that he lied about the Confederate flag; and gave three different stories in the course of three days about the handbills he distributed in South Carolina. (While he was misrepresenting his views on the flag, he was explicitly saying he would always tell the truth.) He ran insinuative phone calls in Michigan against Bush, using a "mysterious group" with a "name like" Catholic Voter Alert; when he was asked about the phone calls, he outright lied, and he kept on spinning, feinting, dodging and feigning for as long as the matter was raised. The press corps revealed—only after the primaries—that McCain's signature plea to get active servicemen off food stamps was based on bogus numbers. McCain constantly misstated what Gore had said about the 1996 event at the Hsi Lai temple. But how is McCain portrayed in this piece—this aggressive assault on Bush's character? We get Saint McCain, that figure from fiction. As we've told you many times before, this press corps loves to novelize news:

KEATING (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 his 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 fact that McCain didn't "always tell you the truth" isn't allowed to intrude on the fable. In this silly, child-like offering, Senator McCain is the "straight-talk" candidate, brought low by mustache-twirling George.

The same approach is taken when Keating compares Gore and Bradley. Did Bill Bradley say it? Then surely it's true. If you can stand a touch of repetition, here's how Keating presents Bradley in his nugget paragraph:

KEATING (10): The major political parties, with help from voters, this year rewarded their most persistent fabricators by nominating them to run for president. Al Gore, who mischaracterized his or Bradley's position on everything from Bosnia to campaign finance reform to health care, brutally dispatched the man who spoke of a "new politics" that would shed cynicism...

In some cases, Bradley's politics were remarkably "new;" early this year, for example, he began accusing Gore of injecting race into the 1988 campaign by raising the matter of Willie Horton. But in his 1997 book, Time Past, Time Present, Bradley had explicitly said just the opposite (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/7/00). And how did the press corps treat this remarkable flip, from a candidate who preaches against using race in politics? They never mentioned it, deciding not to spoil the sunroom story in which white hat was set against black. Why didn't Bradley's conduct create "cynicism" in this instance? Because the press corps knew not to report it.

Was Gore a Big Liar in this year's primaries? For someone making so serious a charge, Keating offers limited argument. In his opening example, he accused Bush of a "false charge" involving McCain and breast cancer. With Gore, he discussed flood relief:

KEATING (1): When Al Gore turns his head, his entire body rotates, too, as if to demonstrate that he is afflicted by the opposite of spinelessness: tree-solid certainty, even of insupportable ideas. Twisting during a January 8 Iowa debate, he confronted his primary opponent, Bill Bradley: "Why did you vote against the disaster relief for Chris Peterson when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods?"

(2) Gore's attack was well planned—he had acknowledged farmer Peterson in the audience, and asked him to stand. And soon Gore would launch televised ads repeating the charge against Bradley.

(3) Only problem was, that charge was false.

It was? Bradley did vote against supplemental relief in 1993, after voting in favor of a larger initial package. And Gore's question to Bradley came in a public forum, where Bradley could immediately respond. Critics have come to regard this exchange as an iconic example of Gore's bad behavior. In so doing, they have found innumerable ways to ignore a crucial element—when Gore challenged Bradley on this matter, Bradley didn't seem to know how he had voted, twice avoiding Gore's direct question in the most obvious way. (We never found out what Gore would have said if Bradley had ever defended his defensible position.) Is this the kind of egregious "lying" that is more troubling than the lies that took us into Vietnam? Only in a child's sunny playroom, which is where this piece must have been written.

Like many others in this year's Manners Police, Keating complains that Gore will run "a campaign of fear" against Bush in the fall. Example? "[H]e will seize the moments when Bush has leaned rightward," such as by "supporting a bigger tax cut than even the GOP Congress wants." Why should a candidate avoid mentioning that? Boys and girls in their playrooms can tell you. And when he runs through Gore's approach to Bradley's health plan, Keating simply retypes stale, highly-spun craftings. Is this the conduct that exceeds Vietnam? Here's where his summary ended:

KEATING (21): ...Gore also described Bradley's plan as a voucher plan that would limit insurance subsidies to $150 a month. In fact, the proposal did not involve vouchers, and did not cap benefits at $150 a month.

According to Keating, the plan involved "benefits" rather than "vouchers." And it didn't offer $150 a month to everyone, it offered $150 a month on average. These are the horrid misstatements more vile than anything seen since before Vietnam.

Did Gore tell a fib at some point in the primaries? It's possible—so what else is new? In debates, Gore did persistently present Bradley's $150-a-month as a fixed amount, forcing Bradley to restate that it was really a "weighted average." (We don't recall Gore calling it a "cap.") But are these the tiny, trivial sightings to which magazines now devote name-calling covers? Keating's attacks on Bush and Gore are intellectually lazy, often slick, and utterly absurd in their historical sweep. That's what happens when scribes want to yell "Liar, Liar." It's a part of their strange new pathology.


Tomorrow: In slamming Gore's ad about Texas schooling, Keating said one magic word.

The doctor was IN: Dr. Keating's full assessment:

KEATING (26): Taken together, Gore's overstatements suggest a certain discomfort with lifelong expectations for him. Gore was bred for nearly superman greatness literally from day one: His birth was announced on the front page of the Nashville Tennessean. Gore's self-promotion serves the purpose of bridging the gap between a life played by the rules and the heroic heights his family and he have always imagined for him. But his boundless ambition also heightens his ruthlessness because it suggests there is no means to power he would not use.

This is noxious, inexcusable writing. Keating's shrink-like pronouncements are basically echoes; Keating copies pronouncements of other writers who are similarly unqualified to make them. His analysis would be embarrassing if he had basic facts straight; but in the preceding paragraph, he misstates the facts of several of the episodes he is shrinking. He then states—on the basis of episodes he is too lazy to describe accurately—that "there is no means to power [Gore] would not use." George should be ashamed of itself for putting such ugly blather into print. But this writing is typical of the strange pathology infecting today's puzzling press corps.