Friday, March 21, 2008

Good riddance to the rule breakers

Scanning the landscape at week's end:

There has been a paucity of commentary in this space about Florida and Michigan. And now that the Democratic do-over scenarios have evaporated, I can summarize my reaction in just two words.

Good riddance.

It's really quite simple. The Democratic National Committee, in its attempt to stop the extreme front-loading of the calendar, established rules barring those states from staging primaries in January. Both states were determined to break the rules anyway, by staging primaries in January. The DNC warned that the states would be stripped of their delegates if they broke the rules. The states ignored the threat and broke the rules. They were then stripped of their delegates. Now they have to live with the consequences. Too bad. Deal with it.

Hillary Clinton (who has taken up Michigan's cause only because she desperately needs to find ways to topple frontrunner Barack Obama) claims that this "disenfranchisement" of Michigan will hurt the Democrats in the autumn campaign against John McCain, but that's just spin from a seriously trailing candidate. Six months from now, the Democratic nominee (whoever it is) will be spending a lot of time in Michigan, talking about the kitchen-table economic issues that Michigan voters care about most, issues that typically favor the Democrats, issues that McCain is barely conversant about. Six months from now, the spat over the primary calendar will mean squat to the average Michigan voter. Six months is an eternity in politics.

Meanwhile, what a huge relief it is to learn that Florida will not be conducting a do-over primary. It's akin to getting the news that the lunatic distant cousin in your family will not be coming for Thanksgiving after all. Now we can eat in peace.

Seriously, can you imagine Florida trying to run a newfangled kind of primary, by mail or whatever, with only 60 days notice? Florida in 2000 couldn't even run a general election with four years notice. Then they brought in touchscreen machines, and, sure enough, in 2004, a state legislator in Broward County won his race by 12 votes because some new machines inexplicably failed to record the votes of 134 people; state law required a hand recount, but there was nothing to recount because the machines had no paper receipts. Then, with two more year's notice, another beaut occurred in 2006. On the Gulf coast, a congressional candidate declared victory by a margin of 369 votes; the only problem was, touchscreen machines in Sarasota County failed to record the sentiments of as many as 18,000 voters.

And today? Eight Florida counties are currently junking their touchscreens and changing over to optical-scan voting equipment...and probably wouldn't have been ready in time for any June primary do-over.

I have a smidgen of sympathy for the Florida Democratic party, because it is true that the Republican-run state legislature was primarily responsible for passing the bill that mandated a January primary date for both parties. However, the bill was co-sponsored by a Democrat, state party leaders echoed the desire for a January primary, and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson wanted it as well. The DNC's threat to strip the delegates was always clear, and the Florida Democrats ignored it. Nor did I ever hear Hillary Clinton cry "disenfranchisement" back when she assumed she'd cruise to the nomination; it was not until this winter, when it became clear she'd need to scrounge for every vote, that she chose to make Florida a moral cause.

Today she insists that the meaningless Florida primary should be retroactively decreed a genuine victory for her, but I'll make two points about that: (1) Floridians were repeatedly warned in advance that the Jan. 29 contest was meaningless, so there's no way of knowing how many prospective voters (sympathetic to Obama or Clinton) decided to simply stay home, and (2) The playing field was tilted in Clinton's favor. Neither candidate actively campaigned in Florida, in accordance with a DNC rule, which meant that Clinton had the advantage because she was universally known already. Obama, at the time, was not. More than Clinton, he needed to be there in person. But he was not. So this imbalance skewed the vote tally as well.

So enough with Florida. We should be happy if the state simply gets its act together in time for November, with all voting machines, of whatever technological nature, in good working order.


The Florida and Michigan meltdowns have further narrowed Clinton's prospects of surpassing Obama in the national popular vote and pledged delegate count. And today, another blow: New Mexico Gov. and former candidate Bill Richardson - twice a member of Bill Clinton's Cabinet - is formally endorsing Obama.

We know that generally the value of endorsements is limited; Ted Kennedy's Obama endorsement couldn't even sway Massachusetts. But Richardson's nod could matter in several ways:

1. Richardson is a superdelegate. He may well have influence over New Mexico's 11 other superdelegates. And, lest we forget, this race has devolved into a national competition for the unpledged superdelegates.

2. Richardson - a popular western governor, and an Hispanic - can help make the case to other superdelegates about Obama's electability. New Mexico has been a swing state in the last two presidential elections. Colorado and Nevada are also western states with large Hispanic populations.

3. Richardson has a lot of foreign policy experience (thanks largely to the Clintons, who must be ticked off today), and he elevates the less experienced Obama simply by the act of vetting him. And we can expect months of buzz about a prospective Obama-Richardson ticket. Which would suit Richardson just fine. And which probably played a role in his thinking.


By the way, Clinton's desperation tactics are getting worse. While trying to inflate her own foreign policy credentials during a speech last Monday, she boasted that she braved "sniper fire" after landing at an airport in Bosnia in 1996. She said, "We just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles."

Now take a look at this photo, snapped on the day in question. Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of the word ran is. A candidate who is already perceived by a majority of Americans as untrustworthy probably shouldn't be spinning tall tales.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The intellect versus the visceral

Millions of Americans, and certainly the media commentariat, were bedazzled by Barack Obama's eloquent and gutsy plea for racial reconciliation. Forty-eight hours later, however, it's time to return to the nuts and bolts world of practical politics - as distasteful as this exercise may be - and ask whether his speech has erased the questions voters might have concerning his relationship with the Rev. Jerimiah Wright. Is he in the clear, or not?


Ideally, from Obama's perspective, his speech would be read in its entirety by one and all, thereby magically transforming our civic dialogue and human nature itself. Americans of all racial and ideological persuasions would suddenly rise above their basest petty suspicions and march together on the high road. Our politicians would travel that path as well, aiming their messages at the intellect, not the gut.

But here in the real world, where the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once ruminated about the "nasty, brutish" nature of our species; a world where journalists are expected to probe rather than swoon; a world where many voters will always be guided by their visceral instincts, certain nagging questions about the Obama-Wright connection still remain:

1. Why did Obama wait until his speech to admit that, yes, he had indeed heard Wright utter incendiary remarks during church sermons - after previously claiming that he had not heard anything of the sort? Why is he now characterizing certain Wright remarks as inflammatory and even ignorant, whereas, in Ohio earlier this month, he said that "I don't think my church is actually particularly controversial"? These questions go to the issue of credibility.

2. What specific incendiary remarks did he personally listen to, and did he ever make it clear to Wright or other church leaders that those remarks were inappropriate or worse? What provocative comments, uttered when he was not in attendance, did he nevertheless learn about, and did he lodge any private protests against them? As an influential Illinois political leader, did he ever share any concerns with fellow congregants? These questions go to the issues of character, judgment, and leadership.

Obama did explain, at some length in his speech the other day, that Wright's rhetorical excesses should be viewed in a broader context, as the bitter utterances of an African American who grew to manhood at a time when whites were systematically relegating blacks to second-class status. It was a worthy argument. However, a lot of white working-class voters will not embrace that argument; fairly or not, a lot of them don't want to hear anymore about how blacks were suppressed in the past. Obama's argument may play well with highly-educated white liberals in the Philadelphia suburbs - but not with lunch-bucket whites in northeast Philadelphia and in the downtrodden towns that are the swing battlegrounds in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. That's just reality.

His full speech text was an appeal to the intellect, but the short-hand version of this affair packs a visceral punch. Some voters will simply reduce it all to a few sentences: Why didn't Obama, upon hearing something vile or hateful, simply get up and walk out? How could Obama stick by a reverend who stands in the pulpit and says "God damn America?"

(Dick Morris, the ex-Clinton pollster, suggested the other day that Obama stuck with Wright for old fashioned earthbound political reasons: "Because he's a black Chicago politician who comes from a mixed marriage and went to Columbia and Harvard. Suspected of not being black enough or sufficiently tied to the minority community, he needed the networking opportunities Wright afforded him in his church to get elected. If he had not risen to the top of Chicago black politics, we would never have heard of him. But obviously, he can't say that.")

Anyway, I suspect that these questions will also be a concern for many Jewish voters, particularly those who are strong supporters of Israel and who are now aware that Wright once accused Israel of practicing "state terrorism against the Palestianians." Jewish voters may not be particularly numerous - just three or four percent of the national electorate - but they are highly concentrated in the big electoral states, and they are loyal Democratic donors. They will also vote heavily in Philadelphia and its suburbs on April 22 - the region where Obama needs overwhelming support.

Obviously, they're not all obsessed with Israel. My point is that, if Obama has any hopes of winning Pennsylvania, or blunting Hillary Clinton's victory margin, he can ill afford any erosion in the populous southeastern corner of the state. And it's worth noting that, according to the exit polls thus far, Clinton has bested Obama among Jewish voters, 52 to 46 percent.

William Galston, a longtime Democratic activist/scholar who likes Obama, nevertheless addressed Jewish concerns in an online commentary the other day: "I attend a small synagogue in Washington D.C. When my rabbi says something controversial, the entire congregation quickly learns about it. Members who are offended do not remain silent. They often reprove him. Some threaten to leave unless he apologizes and changes course. A few have left to join other congregations...Successful leaders must know when to draw lines and say no. They must accept that, as they do so, they will leave some people out and make enemies...I do not believe Senator Obama yet understands how questionable (his refusal to reject Wright) appears to many Americans..."

All told, Galston wrote, these nagging concerns "present a window on his character and help us judge what kind of president he would be." And the problem for Obama is that there are few other windows available. He is so new to the national scene, and still such a blank slate to so many low-information voters, that an issue this visceral becomes all the more magnified. His words on Tuesday were magnificient, but one speech can't remake the world.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

John McCain, congregant in the church of Bush

I'm just wondering. Which of these affiliations is worse: Barack Obama and his pastor...or John McCain and his president?

The 24/7 story du jour continues to be Obama-Wright, but let us at least briefly pause to ponder the McCain-Bush connection. Because I would argue that McCain's fealty to the lame-duck Decider who launched a needless war based on false premises (at a current cost of 4000 American dead and three quarters of a trillion dollars) is at least as worrisome for America as Obama's fealty to a preacher who talks fast and loose.

And yesterday, buried beneath the news about Obama's speech, we got a vivid reminder that when McCain opens his mouth about Iraq, Bushspeak dribbles out.

Bush's penchant, over the past few years, has been to characterize all anti-American combatants in Iraq as "al Qaeda" - even though, as has long been documented, only a fraction of those combatants have any ties to Osama bin Laden's organization. Bush's conflation of all fighters into "al Qaeda" has allowed him to maintain the implicit link to 9/11 (a falsehood still embraced by a healthy minority of credulous Americans), and has enabled him, with some success, to paint all Democratic dissenters as soft on Osama bin Laden, thereby forestalling any fundamental change in America's overall strategy.

McCain worships in the same church, where fact-averse sermons have become commonplace these past eight years. Yesterday in Iraq, McCain stated: "Well, it's common knowledge, and has been reported in the media, that al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training, and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That's well known."

OK, here we go, just as we always do with Bush: It's actually not common knowledge, it has not been reported in the media, and it is not well known. Because McCain's whole statement was false.

Iran is a 90 percent Shiite nation. The al Qaeda organization is Sunni. Iran, according to the U.S. government, is indeed making mischief across the border by sending in Shiite extremists (thanks to the war we launched, which toppled the Sunni dictator who had kept the Iranian Shiites at bay), but that has nothing to do with al Qaeda.

Note the certitudes in McCain's remark, about how it's "well known" and "common knowledge." That's the way Bush's mentor, Dick Cheney, and Bush's chief war planner, Donald Rumsfeld, used to talk when they would claim that there was "bulletproof" incontrovertible evidence of Hussein-al Qaeda-WMD complicity.

It speaks volumes about the strength of the Bush-McCain mind meld that McCain had to be corrected, on the spot, by, of all people, uber-hawk Joe Lieberman. Lieberman whispered in McCain's ear, whereupon McCain said, "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al Qaeda." And shortly afterwards, a McCain spokesman said, "John McCain misspoke and immediately corrected himself."

The problem is, McCain said the same thing this week on conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt's radio show: "As you know, there are al Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they’re moving back into Iraq." Hewitt, naturally, didn't question this remark; talk-show hosts on the right have long been acclimated to accept Bushspeak as synonymous with empirical truth.

And McCain used the same rhetorical conflation on Monday, when he assailed Hillary Clinton for daring to suggest in a speech that perhaps a new Iraq strategy might be worth trying. Referring to her speech, he said: "So I just think what that means is al Qaeda wins...And their dedication is to follow us home."

That's verbatim from the Bush playbook - the idea that all new ideas must be summarily shot down, lest we give aid and comfort to "al Qaeda"; the implication that any Democrat who dares discuss a pullback of troops is enabling "al Qaeda."

All this Bushspeak from McCain, despite the inconvenient fact that the offshoot group known as al Qaeda in Iraq did not exist until Bush's invasion gave it a reason to be formed. All these Bush echoes from McCain, despite the documentation that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda never had traction under Hussein; indeed, as the Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee concluded back in September 2006, Hussein was "distrustful of al Qaeda and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al Qaeda to provide material or operational support."

Perhaps McCain's verbatim allegience to Bush - and its core relevence to the '08 election - is dismissed merely as an old story, lacking the visceral power of the race issue. But I have yet to hear Barack Obama utter so much as a single verbatim phrase from the reverend's incendiary playbook.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Wright, race, and the post-racial campaign

Barack Obama delivered a remarkable speech this morning in Philadelphia, directly tackling the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy with daring arguments and nuanced historical context rarely heard on the American campaign stump.

He challenged white voters to better understand the roots of black anger. He challenged black voters to move beyond their sometimes "shocking ignorance." All told, Obama sought in his ambitious address to deliver tough love to both sides of the racial divide, while simultaneously trying to appeal to the better angels of our nature. I know that the Robert Kennedy analogies have gotten a heavy workout in recent months; this speech, however, was an RFK classic, and I'm old enough to remember that '68 campaign.

Was Obama effective? That will depend on how it is received, particularly by the millions of white voters who, in the midst of forming their first impressions of Obama, may have been spooked by Wright's most incendiary remarks. Indeed, Obama's immediate audience was probably the white working-class, culturally conservative voters who may prove pivotal in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary; a lot of those folks undoubtedly were not charmed to learn that Obama's favorite pastor, for two decades, was a guy who intoned "God damn America" from the pulpit.

Obama clearly needed to put his firm imprint on this burgeoning dispute; to spin it to his advantage; to squelch the nagging questions about what he as a congregant had heard or not heard; to explain Wright and rhetoric and race in a way that would fit with the overarching narrative of his aspirationally post-racial campaign. Above all, he needed to supplant the video images of a ranting Wright with fresh clips of himself speaking to the issue without apology, and with his sights still fixed on the high road.

The speech was effective, if only in the sense that he accomplished most of those goals. For starters, he 'fessed up that he indeed had heard Wright say some loopy stuff during Sunday sermons: "Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely..."

Then he laid out his disagreements: "(Sometimes Wright) expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam. As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems..." Moreover, some of Wright's comments have "denigrated the greatness and goodness of our nation."

Skeptical white voters, listening to those passages, might still wonder whether Obama had ever protested to Wright in private. Obama did not address that question. And Obama is still open to the flip-flop charge, since, just a few days ago, he had suggested that none of Wright's strongest rhetoric (perhaps slogans such as "US of KKK A") had ever directly reached his ears...whereas now he says some of it did, albeit unspecified. But at least, by confronting the awareness question, Obama may avoid being nagged further on that front.

But one of his trickiest tasks was to rebuke Wright for sounding insufficiently patriotic (thereby reclaiming the flag for himself), without sounding as if he was throwing Wright under the bus in the service of his own political ambitions. So he said that Wright has a good side that doesn't show up on YouTube, that Wright is an ex-Marine who "has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over 30 years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS."

Most importantly - and this was his challenge to white voters - Wright was shaped, for better or worse, by his experiences growing up in an America segregated by race, an America where blacks were relegated to second-class status: "For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table...And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning."

This was gutsy stuff, perhaps impolitic. It's always risky to tell white voters that they are willfully clueless about how black people really feel. Although Obama also made sure that he honored the legitimate grievances of the white working stiff: "They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense."

But Obama also challenged his own brethren, the heart of his political base, by suggesting that the harsh rhetoric in black churches is too often a dead end: "The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America...That anger...all too often distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change...It means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans - the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny."

Then he pivoted to the high road, challenging all sides: "For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words...

"We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.'"

One hardy piece of political advice is: Cut your losses, and turn things to your advantage. Obama today tried just that, to knock down a bad story and challenge the electorate in a manner consistent with his core campaign theme. I won't hazard a guess on whether he succeeded; the risk is that too many skeptics will cherry-pick the passages that tick them off, and ignore the rest. But Obama's future as a potentially transformative politician may hinge on the outcome.


Tonight, I'll be in the CNN studio in New York, for Campbell Brown's show (8 to 9 pm). No doubt I will be asked something about the Obama speech, and maybe I can find something new to say.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Obama plays by the Friday Rule

Barack Obama says he's a new kind of politician, but, when necessary, he knows how to play by the old unwritten rules. One such rule decrees: Always release bad news on a Friday, when the news audience is arguably the smallest.

And so, last Friday, there were two developments. Obama told the Chicago Tribune that, hey, you know what, as a matter of fact, it must have slipped his mind, but his former buddy, the indicted real estate hustler Tony Rezko, actually had raised a lot more money for his political campaigns than he had previously stated. Obama had said that Rezko, prior to being collared by the feds on corruption charges, had raised $150,000 for his first three political races; but late Friday, Obama said it was actually $250,000.

With respect to a particularly nagging question - why would Obama agree to let Rezko help him swing a deal for his new home in 2005, at a time when Rezko was under federal investigation? - Obama told the Tribune that, as a matter of fact, he had asked Rezko about his questionable dealings while the house deal was being worked out...and Rezko had basically shrugged off Obama's concerns. Which apparently was good enough for Obama; as he told the Tribune late Friday, "my instinct was to believe him."

So Obama gave Rezko the benefit of the doubt. And it was also clear, in another Friday development, that he had given his pastor, the Rev. Jerimiah Wright, the benefit of the doubt.

In a statement posted online Friday, Obama essentially said that he knew nothing about Wright's most provocative sermons, such as the time Wright essentially blamed America for 9/11 and the time Wright suggested that the phrase "God damn America" was preferable to "God bless America." Obama's key line: "(Those) were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation." But there was a lot of wiggle room in that sentence. Had he not heard about the controversial preachings from others, at the time? He now says that those preachings were "inflammatory and appalling," but did he believe that at the time?

In other words, with respect to both Rezko and Wright, what matters more: his contemporaneous behavior, or his after-the-fact statements issued in accordance with the Friday Rule? Most importantly, I'm just asking: Do these episodes provide insights into Obama's character? Do they tell us anything important about Obama's judgment?

If what happened in Iowa this weekened is any guide, however, the Rezko and Wright affairs probably won't damage Obama among Democratic activists. Twenty four hours after his Friday disclosures, Obama actually picked up more delegates, thereby widening his national lead over Hillary Clinton. Such were the results Saturday at the Iowa county conventions.

I know, you thought Iowa was all over. But the January caucuses were actually only the first step toward delegate selection; phase two occurred at the county level. And apparently, Obama gained as many as nine new adherents - primarily refugees from the defunct John Edwards campaign. As one Iowa participant reportedly remarked, "If (Wright's words) didn't come out of (Obama's) mouth, I don't care about it."

But, as I mentioned Friday, the Wright factor may matter more down the road. As a nominee, Obama would need the working-class white Democrats who are currently voting for Hillary Clinton. If many of these voters come to believe (or are encouraged to believe) that Obama had chosen to be willfully oblivious about, among other things, "God damn America," the '08 autumn showdown with John McCain could be extremely close.


Catching up on old stories the other day, I ran across this paragraph, buried deep within a March 10 article about the Clinton campaign's internal turmoil:

"Mrs. Clinton showed a tendency toward an insular management style, relying on a coterie of aides who have worked for her for years, her aides and associates said. Her choice of lieutenants, and her insistence on staying with them even when friends urged her to shake things up, was blamed by some associates for the campaign’s woes. Again and again, the senator was portrayed as a manager who valued loyalty and familiarity over experience and expertise."

Insular...sticking with inept aides...valuing loyalty over expertise...

Gee. Does that sound like anybody we know?

By the way, one of the most underreported stories lately is how Clinton's lead over Obama, among superdelegates, has steadily eroded since early February. According to trackings by CBS News and The New York Times, 303 superdelegates had declared for a candidate back on Feb. 2; of those declarants, Clinton was ahead by a margin of 105 (204 to 99). Contrast that to March 14, when 322.5 had declared a preference (superdelegates affiliated with Democrats living abroad get half a vote each); on that date, according to the trackers, Clinton's margin was down to only 20.5 (221 to 201.5).


Here's the quote of the weekend, seeking to explain why the Republican prospects for winning back the House and Senate seem so dim: "It's no mystery. You have a very unhappy electorate, which is no surprise, with oil at $108 a barrel, stocks down a few thousand points, a war in Iraq with no end in sight and a president who is still very, very unpopular. He's just killed the Republican brand."

He's just killed the Republican brand...Those are the words of Tom Davis, a prominent House Republican. And the reason that Davis felt free to speak so boldly is because he's bailing out of the House. It's amazing how the happy prospect of voluntary retirement will sometimes inspire a lame-duck politician to commit candor.


Speaking of Iraq, this week the war is five years old. McCain, who continues to get a free ride from Democrats, thanks to their obsession with their own troubles, is touring Iraq as we speak (in his role as senator, thereby allowing him to make a de facto campaign stop on the taxpayer's dime). Meanwhile, I offered some thoughts on that ignominious milestone in a Sunday print column, sort of a mordant tone poem.


In recent years, The New York Times has been embarrassed by staffers who made stuff up (Jayson Blair), and wrote phony WMD stories on page one (Judith Miller). So I found it puzzling, several months ago, that the paper would hire, as an op-ed columnist, neoconservative Bill Kristol, whose hawkish whoppers on behalf of the Iraq war have long been documented. (Among many examples, here he is in 2003: "There’s been a certain amount of pop psychology in America...that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni, and that the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all.")

There are many quality conservative columnists; I am a George Will fan, for instance. The problem with hiring an ideologue, however, is that you give up a certain amount of journalistic quality control. In his very first column, he misattributed a quote to the wrong conservative ally. And yesterday, more importantly, Kristol, in his eagerness to tie Obama to Wright, stated in his Sunday column that Obama had been seated in the congregation last July 22 during one provocative Wright sermon. Kristol attributed this information to a report from journalist Ron Kessler; however, he did not tell readers that Kessler's story had appeared on Newsmax, which is one of those fevered right-wing websites that is - how shall I put this delicately - known primarily serving up red meat.

Anyway, it turns out that Obama was actually in Florida last July 22, addressing an Hispanic organization, and not in the Trinity Church; there is even a YouTube clip from his speech that day. Kessler, meanwhile, had based his own report on a single source who has now backed away from his original claim. And this statement now tops his column, as it appears online: "The Obama campaign has provided information showing that Senator Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error."

Perhaps a certain institution, by lowering its journalistic standards, should also be expressing regret.