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11 September 2000

Our current howler (part I): Gong show!

Synopsis: Whoa! It's almost as if the Globe's Glen Johnson is calling Al Hunt a Big Liar.

On Bush tax plan and Social Security, Gore's rhetoric seen loose with the facts
Glen Johnson, The Boston Globe, 9/10/00

Commentary by Al Hunt
Meet the Press, NBC, 9/10/00

You'll definitely think we're making it up. This time you'll say we've gone too far. But no, dear readers, it really did happen. Yesterday, the Boston Globe's hapless Glen Johnson served up this major league howler:

JOHNSON: Gore, however, has a long history of making statements that stretch the truth, such as his claims that he "took the initiative in inventing the Internet," or that he and wife Tipper served as the model couple for Erich Segal's novel "Love Story."

Yep. We really thought we'd seen it all, but there it was, from inventive Glen Johnson. Johnson—attempting to quote Gore directly—has him saying he took the initiative in "inventing the Internet." What makes this error especially comic is a fact of which readers may be aware; in Johnson's 9/1 review of an RNC ad, he correctly quoted Gore on this subject (links below). Somehow, he had the quote right on September 1. By yesterday, though, he had improved what Gore said, inserting the RNC-favored language which Jim Nicholson "invented" long ago.

This, of course, comes in a paragraph saying Gore has a history of "stretching the truth!" There's only one way to say it, folks: Gong show! The Boston Globe's at it again.

Because this groaning howler is just comic relief in Johnson's absurd analysis. Johnson presents a larger view, claiming Gore is up to old tricks. Here is the hapless scribe early on, describing a recent Gore speech:

JOHNSON (paragraph 2): It served as the latest venue for Gore to repeat two statements, one about his rival, George W. Bush, and another about himself, that stretch the truth.

And this is all familiar stuff, the het-up scribe avers. Here's the overview which drives Johnson's piece:

JOHNSON (10): The Bush campaign says Gore's statements illustrate the vice president's tendency to twist the facts for his own purposes. It is the same charge that former US senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey leveled against Gore last winter
in the Democratic primary campaign.

That again! We're back to a theme which the Globe—always quoting Bradley—has revisited time and again.

What are Gore's objectionable statements? If Johnson is serious about Statement One, he ought to quit journalism. Now:

JOHNSON (3): Speaking of his opposition to a tax cut proposed by the Texas governor, Gore said Thursday, "Let me make it clear: I will not go along with any plan that takes the entire surplus and squanders it on a big tax cut for the very wealthy at the expense of the middle class."

(4) In fact, Bush has not proposed that. His $1.3 trillion tax cut would consume slightly more than a quarter of the projected $4.56 trillion surplus over 10 years.

One prays that Johnson is joking. When he cites a $4.56 trillion surplus over ten years, he combines two surpluses—the projected surplus from Social Security, and that from general revenues. But both parties have agreed that the SS surplus will be used for SS purposes alone. Obviously, Gore refers in his recent statement to the general revenue surplus. So, of course, did the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt, when he appeared on Meet the Press:

HUNT (9/10): I think the tax cut—which is the centerpiece of [Bush's] economic plan—70% of the surplus he wants to use for a tax cut that is undeniably tilted to the very wealthy.

Hunt's accounting differs from Gore's, but when he says that Bush uses 70% of the surplus for his tax cut, he is obviously referring to the non-SS surplus. Does Johnson wish to say that Al Hunt is "twisting the facts" or "stretching the truth?" That's what his words would imply. The fact is this: Commentators routinely use the non-SS surplus in the way Gore did in his speech (and in the way Hunt did on Meet the Press). If Johnson doesn't know that, he ought to quit. Boston Globe readers are baldly deceived by Johnson's silly—and incompetent—presentation.

What about Gore's actual claim—that the Bush tax cuts would use all the (non-SS) surplus? At the end of his piece, Johnson finally lets a Gore spokesman explain. Johnson himself keeps on blundering:

JOHNSON (24): [Chris Lehane] said Bush's $1.3 trillion cut would actually cost about $1.6 trillion, because the nation would incur about $300 billion in extra interest costs if that portion of the surplus is used not for debt repayment.

(25) The Gore campaign also says the Bush tax cut costs $300 billion more than Bush acknowledges—for a total of $1.9 trillion—because of the intricacies of its effective date. Aides to the Texas governor dispute that, but Lehane, like the vice president, is insistent.

(26) "He does spend all the surplus on a tax cut for the wealthy," Lehane said.

(Note: Johnson nowhere has anyone explain that Gore is discussing the non-SS surplus. No one is asked to reconcile the size of Bush's cuts with Johnson's "$4.56 trillion.")

Johnson's paragraph 25 is simply hopeless. According to Johnson, Gore says the tax cuts "cost $300 billion more than Bush acknowledges." And why is that? "Because of intricacies of its effective date," he mysteriously says. But no "intricacies" are involved here at all. The facts: According to the congressional Joint Tax Committee—in an analysis which both campaigns accept—the Bush tax cuts would lower revenues by $1.3 trillion in their first nine years, from 2002-2010. There would also be $300 billion in interest costs, according to Citizens for Tax Justice. Now, here come the "intricacies:" Citizens for Tax Justice has estimated that the tenth year—2011—would cost $300 billion more in lost revenues, for a total cost to the treasury of $1.9 trillion over ten years (2002-2011). What are the "intricacies" to which Johnson refers? It's simply the cost of the tax cuts' tenth year!! It's the simplest thing in the world to explain, although Johnson either didn't know how, or simply chose not to. This is the caliber of political journalism with which Boston Globe readers are saddled.

Does the Bush tax cut "use all of the (non-SS) surplus?" Under current budget analyses, quite possibly not. But in the first ten years of its operation—from 2002-2011—it at least comes pretty darn close. For the record, when Hunt said it used 70% of the non-SS surplus, he was probably referring to the nine years from 2002-2010, or to the ten years from 2001-2010. In his paragraph 4 above, for example, Johnson is apparently referring to the "10 years" from 2001-2010. But this time span includes a year—2001—when the Bush tax cuts wouldn't be in effect. Who is "stretching the truth" and "twisting the facts" when analysis like that is being served up? By the way, this self-serving time span is the one Bush uses when he describes the size of his cuts. Unsurprisingly, each campaign uses the time frame in this discussion which best serves its political interest.

The public interest would be well served if this general topic were competently addressed. We praised the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler for doing so just last Friday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/8/00). But Johnson's work is a technical gong show—and it's difficult to avoid the feeling that the piece really exists to revisit a few treasured old spin-points. Johnson fumbles his way back through old Globe detritus, accusing Gore of lying about martyred Bill Bradley. How accurate is Johnson's work on these topics? About as accurate as you would expect from someone who can't even quote Gore correctly, although he got the quote right nine days before.

We aren't going to waste our time with Johnson's errors on the Bradley topics. (Some of the same errors were covered in our work on James Fallows' Atlantic piece. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00.) We aren't even going to waste our time here with Johnson's second Gore statement. It has to do with the Social Security "lockbox," and Johnson's work is so laughable we'll present it below, for a bit more comic relief.

But just go back to Glen Johnson's deathless quote: "I took the initiative in inventing the Internet." Again, Johnson had the quote right only nine days before—he's so hapless he can't quote himself! And Glen, please tell us—is Al Hunt a liar? Because that's what your piece plainly says.

Why would the Globe put this mess into print? We don't have the foggiest notion. But the Globe has bumbled around with these themes all year long. Alas and alack for the Boston Globe's readers, the paper is running a gong show.

Visit our incomparable archives: Last spring, in a four-week report, we discussed the Globe's work in this area. For the table of contents, click here.

In his Atlantic Monthly piece, James Fallows made some of Johnson's current errors. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00.

Links. We aren't making this up: On September 1, Johnson quoted Gore right. You can see it yourself. Just click here.

As of our publication today, Johnson's 9/10 article is not available from the Globe on-line. We'll try to link you tomorrow.


Smile-a-while (9/11/00)

We swear we aren't making this up: We swear we aren't making this up. This is Johnson's Statement Two—the second Gore statement to which Johnson objects:

JOHNSON (5): The vice president told workers at Gentex, a manufacturer outside Scranton, "It is also time to secure retirement by making sure that Social Security and Medicare are put in an off-budget lockbox with a sign on it that says,
'Politicians, hands off.'"

(6) In fact, Bush also says he wants to put Social Security money in such a "lockbox," but Gore's vivid imagery suggests that the money would be placed in some sort of vault. Earlier in the week, the vice president told one audience the lockbox would be "ironclad."

Readers, we swear we aren't kidding. And Johnson typed on, complaining more about the VP's "vivid imagery:"

(7) The reality is that the term does not refer to a bank or an account, but the commitment to use all unneeded Social Security taxes in the coming years to pay off part of the nation's $3.4 trillion debt. That way, when Social Security faces insolvency in 2037, the country will have more capacity to deal with it.

(8) When Bush refers to a lockbox, he often notes that its benefit would be to reduce the national debt.

You're surely convinced that we've made this all up. That simply can't be what Johnson said. But that is Johnson's total discussion of the second of Gore's two offending statements. That's right, kids: The Boston Globe published a major article to call Gore a liar over something like this. That's why we used the term "pathology" in our Special Report this past spring.

We know you're going to look this up. You will not believe that this could be true. But the Boston Globe has become a paper of circus clowns. This is their latest trip out of the Volkswagen.