Thursday, May 10, 2007

Candidate howlers of the week

Barack Obama’s statistical misfire on the Kansas tornado death toll, referenced here yesterday, was not his finest moment. But in the annals of candidate howlers, it barely qualifies for membership. This week alone, Obama already has been trumped by several of his rival aspirants.

Consider John Edwards, for example.

On a few recent occasions, the Democratic White House hopeful has been asked to explain why, as a self-professed champion of poor people and working stiffs, he nevertheless felt compelled to work as a consultant to a lucrative hedge fund and private equity firm – the kind of operation that is dedicated to finding ways to make the rich even richer.

If Edwards is so bonded to the poor, why sign on to hobnob with a bunch of executives who are listed by Forbes magazine as billionaires? Why work for a year – from the autumn of 2005 to the autumn of 2006 – for a firm that generally restricts its membership to rich investors, and offers investment returns that far exceed whatever the average Joe can typically extract from a mutual fund?

Asked about this again the other day, Edwards told the Associated Press that it was really quite simple: He joined the Fortress Investment Group, with assets of $35 billion, “mainly in order to learn about the relationships between financial markets and poverty…How else would I have done it?”

In other words, he basically contends that he worked for the rich (for a stipend that he has yet to disclose) in order to better understand the poor.

Yeah, right. And Roger Clemens signed with the Yankees for $28 million in order to better understand the privations of pitching minor league ball in the sticks. And the swinger who joins a sex orgy does so in order to gain a deeper knowledge of abstinence.

Edwards said that his job was to advise Fortress on U.S. economic trends, as well as international trends gleaned from his overseas travels. How that role would have furthered his understanding of the blue-collar factory worker is still not clear to me. Nor was it clear, from the AP story, about what he did specifically learn in the end about that relationship between the markets and poverty.

But since Edwards is trying to market himself as the candor candidate, we can give him a modest kudo for this answer: When an AP reporter told Edwards that he could have “learned” more about the relations between the markets and poverty simply by taking a university course, the candidate replied, “That’s true.”

On the other hand, if he had merely enrolled in a college course, it’s doubtful that Fortress employes would have donated $167,000 to Edwards’ presidential campaign. That’s the latest official figure, and it aptly demonstrates how learning can be politically lucrative.


Meanwhile, on the GOP side, we have a fresh example of Mitt Romney’s obsession with France. As referenced here not long ago, a Romney memo made it clear that the candidate intended to engage in some France-bashing, apparently because that rhetorical exercise is quite popular with the conservative base.

And what better way to curry favor with the conservative base than to combine France-bashing with another trait that has been popularized by the current president: making claims that contradict factual reality?

Speaking the other day at Regent University (the Pat Robertson school, naturally), Romney was in the midst of a riff about loose morals when he said: “It seems that Europe leads America in this way of thinking. In France, for instance, I’m told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up. How shallow…”

Wow, a French law dedicated to codifying the seven-year-itch. I had no idea that such a thing existed. I would have assumed that its passage would have been reported in the news.

But wait, the seven-year-itch law does indeed exist…in a science-fiction novel called “The Memory of Earth,” written by Orson Scott Card. The novelist, who, like Romney, is a Mormon, uses this form of marriage contract as a plot point - in a saga that takes place in outer space.

And there’s also a 2003 French film comedy entitled 7 ans de mariage, so maybe that’s where Romney got confused.

Let us assume, however, that Romney didn’t read the book or see the movie. And let us also assume that a staffer didn’t simply feed him this fictional info as fact (what did he mean by the phrase “I’m told”?). Yet if we assume all this, what would explain his uttering of such a blatant falsehood?

Maybe Romney was merely confused. France does have a law that allows same-sex couples, as well as heterosexual couples, to sign “civil solidarity pacts,” which provide certain social and financial benefits, but falls far short of all the rights conferred by marriage. And there is no seven-year provision in the law.

Bingo: A Romney spokesman now says that Romney was intending to refer to the civil union law. And that Romney meant to say that the law has been in effect for seven years. (He’s wrong on that, too. The law has been in effect for eight years.)

Whatever. Candidates frequently say fictional things. What’s arguably worse is when political reporters merely repeat the fictions as if they were fact – which is what The Washington Post did the other day, by failing in print to question Romney’s France falsehood. That too should qualify as one of the week’s top howlers; after all, stenography does not qualify as reporting.


Nor does cheerleading qualify as reporting. In this week’s Sopranos episode (answering yesterday's pop quiz), Carmela Soprano was in bed reading Fred Barnes’ worshipful biography of President Bush. Perhaps she likes the fact that Bush cut taxes on the rich; on the other hand, why should Carmela care about that? She and Tony have paid no taxes on all the cash that’s still sitting in the backyard dumpster.