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8 October 1999

Our current howler (part III): While Washington chattered

Synopsis: Buchanan attempted to raise a point. The chattering press corps ignored it.

Commentary by Carl Cameron
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 10/7/99

William F. Buckley Jr.
Title, The National Review, 12/30/91

William F. Buckley, Jr.
Erratic fusillade on the Buchanan range, The Washington Times, 9/28/99

Commentary by Katrina vanden Heuvel
Hardball, CNBC, 9/24/99

A Fair Reading of History
Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz, The New York Times, 9/30/99 Getting Personal at Homecoming
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 10/7/99

Everyone seems to have a view of what Buchanan said. Last night, Carl Cameron played tape of Donald Trump, according to whom Buchanan had said that he's "in love with Adolf Hitler." Cameron offered this comment:

CAMERON: Buchanan denies anything close to affection for Hitler, but does write in his new book that the United States could have stayed out of World War II.

He does? Do we have to quote the text again? The U.S. entered the war after Pearl Harbor. Here's what Buchanan writes:

BUCHANAN: Whether or not it had been America's war before December 7, it was our war now. In Yeats's line, "All changed, changed utterly." Americans were united as never before or since by Japan's treachery in attacking our ships and murdering our sailors in their sleep, united in the conviction that the Japanese empire should be destroyed.

Again, as a declaration that the U.S. "could have stayed out of World War II," that strikes us as pretty strange stuff. Nor does Buchanan anywhere say that we should not have responded to Germany's declaration.

So have we often seen it go when the press corps gets itself on a jag—pundits feel free to say what they please, ignoring texts or established facts. In the present case, Buchanan has actually had some defenders, perhaps because of his career in the press. In this case, we have actually seen what we rarely see—dissent from a press corps frenzy. But all around the press in the past few weeks, we have seen odd accounts of what Buchanan said—accounts in which scribes fail to cite any text to support their pleasing declarations.

Interestingly, one of Buchanan's current defenders has been none other than William F. Buckley. In 1991, Buckley had written a lengthy study of Buchanan's statements about Israel and the influence of Jewish Americans, and he had offered this nuanced conclusion:

BUCKLEY (1991): I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he said and did during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism, whatever it was that drove him to say and do it: most probably, an iconoclastic temperament.

In a footnote to this passage, Buckley ridiculed those who compared Buchanan to David Duke. But in the current controversy, Buckley wrote this:

BUCKLEY (1999): So Pat Buchanan comes along and argues that Great Britain would have been better off, in 1939, letting Hitler take Poland—and go on to take Moscow. Critics are justified in disagreeing, but it hardly follows from the conjecture that Mr. Buchanan is moved by the anti-Semitic energumenTo travel from Mr. Buchanan's provocative and irresponsible impetuosities of 10 years ago to the implied thesis that he didn't want to hurt Hitler because he admired him so, is intellectually embarrassing.

But you know how that press corps is! Pundits repeatedly cited Buckley's eight-year-old remark—often improving on what he had said—and failed to mention what Buckley said now, which flew in the face of their preferred interpretation.

Alas! So it goes when the mainstream pundits get a sound bite or story they like. They make their claim, again and again, often without reference to established facts or clear texts. And, as we recently saw in the FALN debate, they tend to focus on motives and mental states as opposed to statements and facts (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/22/99). Why do they do that? We aren't really sure. But since motive is extremely hard to prove, you can't be proven wrong when you assess them. The discussions can ramble on without end—perfect for cable news channels. Is Pat Buchanan an anti-Semite? We respect those who examine the question with care. We have less regard for the conversations we've seen, in which pundits offer characterizations of Buchanan's views without ever citing Buchanan's text, and where we see the press corps' passion for chatter about alleged character and alleged motivation.

Because there is one final point about the Buchanan discourse that has simply driven our analysts mad—the outright refusal of the celebrity press corps to consider Buchanan's larger thesis. Some pundits have said that Buchanan's book was written to signal the haters home. On the other hand, we quote glutton-for-punishment Katrina vanden Heuvel, persevering one evening on Hardball:

VANDEN HEUVEL: Pat Buchanan has views of history. These are Pat Buchanan's views. No serious historian, I believe, would take these views seriously. But on the Russia—and I study Russia—in terms of post-Communist Russia, what he is saying, there is an analogy to be made between the way Weimar Germany, post-World War I, 1920s Germany, was treated, and its contribution to the rise of Hitler, and what might now emerge in Russia in analogy to Weimar Germany.

To vanden Heuvel, Buchanan was raising a serious point about ongoing diplomacy. Indeed, Buchanan has repeatedly raised this point on TV, and his book ends with a chapter in which he states his views on America's current role around the world. But vanden Heuvel was the only pundit we saw who tried to discuss these topics and assess these claims. It's more fun to stage debates about motive and character, goosed up with misstatements where needed.

Oh yes. Was vanden Heuvel right about Buchanan-on-history? At THE HOWLER, we aren't really sure. But we couldn't help noticing that on this point, as with everything else, cocksure pundits were quickly contradicted:

LAYNE AND SCHWARZ: [Buchanan's] interpretation is hardly beyond the pale of respectable discourse. Diplomatic historians have long made similar argumentsMr. Buchanan's argument is hardly novelBritish historians have long been divided on whether Britain should have agreed to intervene if Poland and Germany went to war.

Are Layne and Schwarz right? Don't bother to ask. The pundits are busily limning Buchanan's soul—and rewriting his text as it suits them.


Improving the news: As you know, we've got a thing about Ceci Connolly; we think she's done the most puzzling election writing this year. Yesterday, she offered an article on the opening of Gore's new Nashville headquarters. Our analysts rushed into our vaulted chamber with this offending passage:

CONNOLLY: [Gore's] disillusionment only grew when after Vietnam came Watergate and then his father's defeat—a loss the vice president attributes to his father's brave stands on civil rights, but which in reality also was precipitated by the elder Gore's inattentiveness to local concerns.

You talk about bungled history! Gore's father lost re-election in 1970, long before Vietnam ended, and long before Watergate. As for Gore's account of why his father lost, here is an earlier passage from this same article:

CONNOLLY: Gore's father, the late senator, "was against the poll tax in the '40s and for civil rights in the '50s," the son recalls. "He was against the Vietnam War and lost his seat in 1970 because of the courage of his conscience."

Having quoted Gore saying one thing, Connolly then paraphrases him saying another.

The article provides repetitive examples of the desire to make stories better. Listen to this odd account:

CONNOLLY: [A]fter three decades in office, the vice president is not well known outside Washington, and until recently has struggled with telling his own story—the most basic of political chores.

"He had this wall built up," said Rep. John E. Baldacci (D-Maine), who learned only last week that the vice president had served in Vietnam. "He told us he doesn't have to be vice president anymore; he's a candidate."

If Baldacci just learned that Gore served in Vietnam, it tells us more about Baldacci than about Gore's walls. Gore's Vietnam service was widely discussed when he was chosen as Bill Clinton's running-mate; it was said by pundits, again and again, that his service helped balance Clinton's history. And by the way, though it may seem like "three decades" to bored correspondents, Gore finished his 22nd year in office this year. Do they ever fact-check at the Post?

Even in the parts of her story that pander to Gore, Connolly makes things more exciting:

CONNOLLY: The new Gore appears to be having an impact.

"I saw a comfort level in him today when he opened his headquarters that I haven't seen in a few years, a few months," said former Tennessee governor Ned McWherter (D) at a fund-raiser tonight. "He's ready, prepared, he's able. He's our man."

That "D" is the most significant part of this anecdote. McWherter is a long-time political ally of Gore. Obviously, his statement provides no evidence at all that "the new Gore" is "having an impact." (There was a "D" on Baldacci's name, too.)

The truth is, there wasn't any big story in Wednesday's opening. But the press corps loves to improve the news (even in innocuous matters). It's the point that we made in "The 21-year-old intern." You can see for yourself. Just click here.