Misinformation is the norm for political conventions

For all the outrage (on the left) about misrepresenta-t­­ions and mis-information in Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for vice president, my reaction was: par for the course.

We are, of course, talking about a political convention. The whole point is for the party to put its best foot forward to the American people. By its very nature, that means downplaying unpleasant facts, highlighting the positive and knocking down the opposing team.

In fact, until Ryan showed up in the traditional role of a vice president attack dog, my impression was that, given the nasty, brutish attacks by both sides in this campaign, the Republicans were generally on good behavior.

The first night was a bit odd, since it was devoted to the political exploitation of a single Obama gaffe — “You didn’t build that” — the Republicans blatantly misrepresent. The theme was so overdone, with virtually every speaker making reference to it, that it may have actually diluted the impact of the attack.

Ryan was so quickly labeled a fibber by the Obama campaign that one suspects it was a deliberate effort to tear down his reputation as a policy expert, similar to using attacks on Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital record to undermine his reputation as a skilled business executive.

But worst convention speech ever? Please.

The gold standard for convention speeches filled with misrepresentations remains the speech of then-Sen. Zell Miller (R-Ga.) at the 2004 GOP convention attacking Democratic nominee John Kerry. Miller, who as a Democrat delivered the keynote address at the 1992 convention that nominated Bill Clinton, delivered a slashing attack that was breathtaking in its dishonesty.

Miller accused Kerry of voting against a vast array of weapons systems, making it appear as if Kerry had repeatedly voted to kill urgently needed tools for the military — when in reality the charge was based on a single vote nearly 15 years earlier. More important, these were weapons that then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (and the vice president in 2004) had urged Congress to kill. Miller also suggested that a quote Kerry had given to the Harvard Crimson 35 years earlier, when he had just returned from serving in the Vietnam War, represented his current policy toward the United Nations.

Now, that’s a speech for a fact checker! The Washington Post did not have the Fact Checker column then, but it ran a front-page article detailing how he misled viewers with his language.

Four years ago, our colleagues at FactCheck.org catalogued a series of errors and misstatements by John McCain, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin in their speeches. (Joe Biden got a pass.) All of them airbrushed their pasts or mischaracterized their opponents.

Palin, for instance, gave a self-serving account of her support for the “Bridge to Nowhere”— claiming she said “thanks but no thanks”— when in fact she had supported it until it was largely killed by Congress. This is a bigger failure to tell the whole story than Ryan criticizing Obama for doing nothing with the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction recommendation, without noting that he himself voted against the commission report .

Obama, meanwhile, knocked McCain for voting 90 percent of the time with his own party; he did not mention that he himself voted 97 percent of the time with Democrats. Obama and McCain also mischaracterized each other’s proposals, using sometimes slippery facts.

For all the tough ads on television, this cycle’s GOP convention was largely a kinder, gentler affair. In his acceptance speech, Romney toned down his rhetoric. He repeated some claims that have earned him Four Pinocchios (such as Obama going on an “apology tour” overseas), but he passed up many others, such as reprising an attack on an Obama administration change in welfare rules that his campaign claims is his most effective ad.

Contrast Romney’s approach with Bob Dole’s in 1996, when Dole also faced a young Democrat (Bill Clinton) who had overreached in his first two years and lost control of Congress. Dole’s speech was remarkably tough and uncompromising — and it still reads that way 16 years later.

“It is demeaning to the nation that within the Clinton administration a corps of the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned, should have the power to fund with your earnings their dubious and self-serving schemes,” Dole thundered. “Somewhere, a grandmother couldn’t afford to call her granddaughter, or a child went without a book, or a family couldn’t afford that first home, because there was just not enough money to make that call, buy the book or pay the mortgage or, for that matter, to do many other things that one has the right and often the obligation to do. Why? Because some genius in the Clinton administration took the money to fund yet another theory, yet another program and yet another bureaucracy.”

Dole mocked then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for her best-selling book, “It Takes a Village,” and even attacked the Clintons for where they sent their daughter to school. And he had this to say to teachers unions: “If education were a war, you would be losing it. If it were a business, you would be driving it into bankruptcy. If it were a patient, it would be dying. And to the teachers unions I say, when I am president, I will disregard your political power, for the sake of the parents, the children, the schools and the nation.”

Romney’s speech had none of that angry, dismissive tone. In fact, his speech in many ways was a carbon copy of the acceptance speech by the last Massachusetts politician nominated to run for president — John Kerry. Both began with an earnest effort to tell a gauzy version of their life story. Both, more in sorrow than in anger, recounted the failings of the incumbent president. And both sketched their policy prescriptions with rosy assumptions. They even both had a five-part plan to improve the economy.

Ultimately, convention speeches are about making the argument for your team. We should fully expect politicians to make their case using facts and figures that either tilt positive about their accomplishment — or negative about their opponents. As the fact-checking business has blossomed in the news media, it has been increasingly hard for politicians to get away with such truth-shading without someone noticing.

Both political parties will stretch the truth if they believe it will advance their political interests. It’s been a rough campaign so far, but the GOP convention that just ended was strictly in the mainstream for such party celebrations.

Read more FactChecker columns at washingtonpost.com/factchecker

Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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