Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Holiday? What holiday?

So much for the holiday break. So much news, so much to say. For instance:

1. John Kerry announced over the weekend that he is tan, rested and ready to take on those Swift Boat guys who have been ridiculing his war record.
As the New York Times reported, Kerry "is now fighting back hard. 'They lied and lied and lied about everything,' Mr. Kerry says in an interview in his Senate office. 'How many lies do you get to tell before someone calls you a liar? How many times can you be exposed in America today?' His supporters are compiling a dossier that they say will expose every one of the Swift boat group's charges as a lie and put to rest any question about Mr. Kerry's valor in combat."

Well. Dare I state the obvious? Perhaps it would have been better for Kerry if he had responded this way in August of 2004, instead of ignoring the Swift Boaters and embarking on a windsurfing vacation.

No doubt Kerry's people are looking ahead to 2008, and figuring that if they fight back now, they will boost his prospects of winning another nomination. I think it's more likely that Democrats will conclude that the man missed his moment.

2. The email box was stuffed last night with the usual irate correspondents who were aggrieved for various reasons by the newspaper column I wrote yesterday about Al Gore. My friends on the right charged that I was shilling for Gore (by writing about him at all), while my friends on the left charged that I was maligning Gore.

I am more interested in commenting on the latter. Several liberal readers complained that I was perpetuating the stereotype of Gore as a dissembler, because I mentioned in passing "his occasional embellishments of the facts" without offering any examples. They challenged me to cite examples.

OK, here they are: Gore's insistence that his sister was the first Peace Corps volunteer (she was a salaried office employee); his claim that he was "under fire" in Vietnam (it didn't happen); that he had provided wording for Hubert Humphrey's 1968 acceptance speech (not true, as he admitted in 1999); that he had helped sponsor the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill (it was introduced after he left the Senate).

And here's a new one. In my column yesterday, I quoted from a recent Gore speech that assailed the broadcast media for being superficial. He said: "One morning not long ago, I flipped on one of the news programs in the hopes of seeing information about an important world event that had happened earlier in the day. But the lead story was about a young man who had been hiccupping for three years.... He had trouble getting dates."

I was curious about that hiccup story, so I searched for it in Nexis. I soon found it. The story, about a date-deprived hiccupper in Utah, ran on CNN on April 18, 2001.
But CNN said he had been suffering from his malady for eight months, not three years. How Gore came up with three years is anybody's guess.

I'm not suggesting that Gore's various embellishments should be equated, for example, with the documented, fact-challenged track record of an administration that took America to war. I'm just saying that journalists need to check out what everybody says. I am also suggesting that partisans for any candidate, on the left or right, would be wise to never assume that their hero of the moment is perfect. Nobody is.

Having said that, it is also interesting to observe the lengths to which Gore's enemies are still seeking to paint him as a master liar, in order to undercut his current comeback.

Take Jonah Goldberg, for example. (Jonah is a conservative commentator whose mother, Lucianne, was instrumental in ensaring Bill Clinton in the Lewinsky scandal.) Jonah got suspicious last week when Gore went to the Cannes Film Festival. Gore told the press that this was second trip to Cannes: "The first was when I was 15 years old and came here for the summer to study the existentialists."

Jonah went to work, to find out what Gore was doing during the summer when he was 15. He found a passage in a Gore biography which mentioned that Gore was working on the family farm when he was 15. Therefore: Gore's a serial dissembler!

But he never called Gore's people. However, Greg Sargent, at the American Prospect website, did check with Gore's people. And a flak told him, "Mr. Gore did indeed spend an educational week in Cannes during the summer when he was fifteen. That summer he also spent a great deal of time working on the family farm."

Confronted with this statement, Goldberg is now tempted to say that Gore's big lie was that he only went for a week, and not "for the summer" (which presumably is another reason why Gore should be disaqualified for high office).

Nevertheless, Goldberg did state yesterday: "(I)f I had found any evidence that Gore had been in Cannes for even a week that summer, I would not have written the column the way I did....I should take Gore at his word. I apologize for the imprecision and overly broad insinuations."

No wonder Gore says he has no overwhelming appetite to leap back into politics.

3. But enough about what Gore did or didn't do when he was 15 years old. More pressing today is what a squad of U.S. Marines did or didn't do in the heat of the moment, during the war in Iraq.

Follow the Haditha story (also here and here), because, politically speaking, it has all the earmarks of scaldingly hot potato. Credible allegations of Marines killing 24 innocent Iraqi civilians last Nov. 19 (including the shooting of a four-year-old in the chest) could further complicate President Bush's attempt to recoup his political standing at home.

His defenders, of course, are already assailing the press for focusing on the negative by tracking this story, and they are attacking Pennsylvania Congressman (and ex-Marine) John Murtha for publicizing the matter and for warning that Haditha could be "worse than Abu Ghraib." Murtha, they say, is just an antiwar partisan who is trying to convict Marines ahead of the evidence for his own political purposes. But now we also have a Republican congressman confirming what Murtha has been saying:

Minnesota Republican and ex-Marine John Kline, who has been briefed on the incident by Marine officials: "This was a small number of Marines who fired directly on civilians and killed them. This is going to be an ugly story....There's no doubt that the Marines allegedly involved in doing this — they lied about it."

For President Bush, the political perils of this incident are obvious. More questions will be raised about whether young American soldiers are being overwhelmed by their mission, and stretched to the breaking point by inadequate resources and backup. In other words, more congressional hearings and another long hot summer.

4. Last Thursday, I posted some comments about Karl Zinsmeister, the new White House domestic policy adviser who declared in print last June that the U.S. military struggle in Iraq was essentially over. But now we have a new twist in his saga:

Over the weekend, a conservative newspaper unearthed evidence that Zinsmeister endeavored in 2004 to cover up the fact that he had uttered some comments that might be read as - gasp - critical of the President of the United States. By altering his quotes after the fact.

That year, Zinsmeister, in his capacity as a scholar at a conservative think tank, was interviewed by a newspaper, the Syracuse New Times. During that interview, he said that Bush was trying to do something truly historic in Iraq. Then Zinsmeister added his own little dig about Bush's handling of the war. Here's Zinsmeister speaking in the New Times article:

"[Bush] said, 'I'm gonna do something for history.' To say nothing of whether it was executed well or not, but it's brave and admirable."

Zinsmeister never objected to the quote as published, or anything else in the piece; in fact, he wrote to the newspaper's editor in August 2004: "I just read your story online, and wanted to thank you for an extremely fair and thoughtful treatment.... I really appreciate your professionalism and kindness. You wrote it straight up, which is the best and hardest kind of journalism."

Nevertheless, when he posted the article on the website of his think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, the quote was altered. A certain little phrase now was missing. The AEI version - which was still credited to the Syracuse New Times - read this way: "[Bush] said, 'I'm gonna do something for history.' It's a brave and admirable attempt to improve the world."

He made other alterations as well: excising a quote in which he implied that all Iraqis of his acquaintance are liars, for example.

Molly English, who edited that story, is justifiably perturbed that Zinsmeister decided on his own to cleanse the record: "It's reprehensible, frankly. Once this is published, it's not his property. From that point in time, he can't just pick and choose."

Why did Zinsmeister act as he did? Take a wild guess: To protect his career options. To ensure that a prospective future employer, the dissent-averse President Bush, did not discover that he had once uttered a phrase of dissent.

But the story doesn't end here. The Washington Post weighed in today, saying that Zinsmeister feels bad about what he did. But then he offered his rationale: the Syracuse reporter, Justin Park, had screwed up, by misquoting him four times. (Strange that Zinsmeister never complained that way two years ago.)

Retroactively impugning the competence of a reporter is standard stuff in the DC blame game. What's noteworthy, to me, is that the Post didn't offer Park a chance to tell his side of the story. Welcome to the clubby Beltway culture. This is why the Washington media's many critics (in this case, on the left) believe that the watchdogs are insufficiently vigilant.