The most recent punditocracy kerfuffle involves Mitt Romney’s first paid presidential television advertisement. Ironically titled keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Deliberately left out of the ad were the preceding words: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote…”
While many pundits have condemned the ad, some, like the Washington Post’s pro-torture pundit, ex–Bush official Michael Gerson, pointed out that Obama’s original quote was not so kosher in the first place. It repeated a remark made by an unnamed “McCain strategist” as if it were an official campaign pronouncement. What has been most interesting, however, has been the reaction from those in the Romney campaign. They are thrilled. “We obviously got under their skin,” Romney said. “There was no hidden effort on the part of our campaign,” he added. “It was instead to point out that what’s sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander.”
This shamelessness has paid off. Almost all of the coverage the ad has generated has treated it as the precursor to what Jeremy Peters of the New York Times calls “the aggressive and sometimes misleading [actions] not typically used until much further along in a campaign season.” Employing the time-honored MSM tactic of false equivalence—perhaps the MSM’s deepest ideological commitment—Michael Levenson of the Boston Globe examined the controversy by quoting Rick Reed, a GOP media strategist who worked on Romney’s 1994 Senate campaign, who said, “Both campaigns will go right up to the edge and get away with as much as they can.” And Frank Bruni, whose coverage of the 2000 Bush campaign for the Times set a standard for triviality coupled with contempt for the issues—to say nothing of his readers—employed a similarly misleading context for his high-profile harrumphing. “This presidential race is shaping up to be an especially mean and mendacious ride,” he explained, “and not just because the two Republicans currently in the lead, Romney and Newt Gingrich, have demonstrated a formidable talent for improvisation, starting with thorough revisions of their own positions on health care, climate change and such…. But their specific contortions and distortions are no more worrisome than the backdrop against which this campaign unfolds, one of toxic partisanship and breathless hyperbole.”
Actually, “toxic partisanship” is a problem only if, like Rodney King and the grand poobahs of the punditocracy, you think we should all be able to “just get along” and put aside our differences for the good of an imaginary America about which the likes of Tom Friedman wax poetic. In the real America—the one these reporters are supposed to be explaining to their readers, listeners and viewers—the leading Republican presidential candidate is announcing himself to be a proud liar. He does not defend the accuracy of his advertisement. Rather, he calls it “sauce for the gander” and then his advisers marvel at the “hysteria” it causes in the other side’s campaign.
If I knew someone who, when caught in a lie, announced himself to be proud of it, I would hesitate to take anything that person ever said again at face value, particularly if I knew he had a history of reversing himself on fundamental views and then denying the truth of this as well. (When asked about some of these reversals by Fox News anchor Bret Baier, Romney complained that the interview was “overly aggressive” and “uncalled for.”) Whenever I’d quote a claim by that person, I’d write, for instance, “Mitt Romney, an admitted liar, said today…” or “The proud liar Mitt Romney claimed today…” But I think we can be sure that this won’t happen. What Romney’s ad, together with the punditocracy reaction, achieved was to place Romney’s lie in the same category as harsh truths. Yes, Obama did not perfectly identify the source of his quote; but it was an accurate quote, and everyone understood it to represent the views of the McCain campaign accurately as well. The opposite is true of Romney’s advertisement, but so long as reporters are willing to allow him to confuse the issue as one of “partisanship” and “aggressive” campaigning, well, he has a license to lie. Then again, given the many dishonest claims to which any potential Republican 2012 nominee must promise fealty, patient and persistent lying is the only path to the presidency. Apparently, the punditocracy is on board for the duration.
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With the announcement of Barney Frank’s retirement, a number of reporters have written to complain of what a meanie the Congressman has been over the years. They would ask a stupid question and Barney would reply, “That’s a stupid question.” I would submit that few developments in our political life would be more salutary than if reporters were forced to account for their willful stupidity, so bully for Barney on that score. But more important for an accurate assessment of the man’s character, I think, is a story I recall from an interview I did with him nearly twenty years ago. The subject was his colleague Ron Dellums, whom I had been assigned to profile by The New Yorker. As the interview ended, I asked Barney, as I did in all my interviews, if I had failed to ask him something I should have. Out of the blue, he brought up the one thing in the world he wanted everyone to forget: his problems with the gay prostitute who had worked out of his basement apartment and almost destroyed his career. Barney brought it up because he wanted me to know that almost alone among his colleagues, his friend Dellums had stuck by him. Barney started to cry as he told the story. I’m kinda tearing up just writing about it. It was an incredibly moving, deeply impressive act of self-sacrifice in the service of public truth-telling and personal solidarity. I share it in a spirit of awe and admiration.