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Less Than Candid

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008 10:43 AM

When is something a gaffe, when is it a misstatement, and when is it an out-and-out lie?

In the end, however the media label it, such decisions are made by the voters.

But we have a pair of interesting case studies right now: John McCain saying that Iran was helping to train al-Qaeda operatives and Hillary Clinton saying she came under sniper fire in Bosnia in 1996 and then, oops, never mind.

Liberal bloggers are all over the media to pump up the McCain story, and conservative and liberal bloggers are denouncing or ridiculing Clinton over the Bosnia tale.

When I first saw the tape of McCain's comment on Iran -- which he corrected a moment later after Joe Lieberman whispered in his ear -- I thought it was a blunder, but not necessarily a consequential one. After all, McCain has made eight visits to Iraq and been involved in foreign policy for 20 years. He's no greenhorn when it comes to this stuff. Brit Hume dismissed it as a "senior moment."

But then I learned that the Arizona senator had made that Iran/Qaeda assertion two or three times before. That's serious business. It means either that McCain really believes the link exists and wants to spread it around -- until he got called on it -- or he is so forgetful that he keeps saying so even though he knows it is untrue.

Hillary's fib on Bosnia, which she tried to pass off as a "blip" of a misstatement, strikes me as inexplicable. I mean, either you came under sniper fire after landing in war-torn territory and ran for your life, or you didn't. Plus, there was video of the first lady's arrival. What possible benefit could she have reaped from describing events that do not appear on the tape? The discrepancy finally became a big story yesterday when Hillary fessed up, days after The Post (four Pinocchios), CBS and other media outlets exposed it. The problem for her is that it's one of those easy-to-remember fictions that exposes her to the ridicule of late-night comics.

We'll start with bloggers on McCain, and the Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum:

"MSNBC analyst Chuck Todd tells us why John McCain can get away with routine demonstrations of abject ignorance, like his recent proclamation that Iran is supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq:

" 'Even if he gets dinged on the experience stuff, 'Oh, he says he's Mr. Experience. Doesn't he know the difference between this stuff?' He's got enough of that in the bank, at least with the media, that he can get away with it. I mean, the irony to this is had either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama misspoke like that, it'd have been on a running loop, and it would become a, a big problem for a couple of days for them.'

"Italics mine. Let's recap. Foreign policy cred lets him get away with wild howlers on foreign policy. Fiscal integrity cred lets him get away with outlandishly irresponsible economic plans. Anti-lobbyist cred lets him get away with pandering to lobbyists. Campaign finance reform cred lets him get away with gaming the campaign finance system. Straight talking cred lets him get away with brutally slandering Mitt Romney in the closing days of the Republican primary. Maverick uprightness cred allows him to get away with begging for endorsements from extremist religious leaders like John Hagee. 'Man of conviction' cred allows him to get away with transparent flip-flopping so egregious it would make any other politician a laughingstock. Anti-torture cred allows him to get away with supporting torture as long as only the CIA does it.

"Remind me again: where does all this cred come from? And what window do Democrats go to to get the same treatment the press gives McCain?"

Arianna Huffington complains that the press is "paying scant attention to the fact that the presumptive Republican nominee for president apparently doesn't have a clue about what's going on in the Middle East.

"And with the U.S. death toll hitting 4,000 (with 25 American soldiers killed over the last two weeks, the deadliest fortnight for our troops since September 2007) . . . John McCain's tenuous grasp on what is happening in the region becomes all the more worthy of attention.

"For those who were too busy watching Rev. Jeremiah Wright damn America for the 10,000th time to hear about McCain, let's review: at a stop in Jordan last week, McCain made the ludicrous claim that Al Qaeda insurgents were being trained in Syria. Asked again about it, he dug in deeper, claiming it was '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.' . . .

"Every time McCain packs a suitcase, the press automatically anoints him as 'presidential.' They dutifully did it on this latest trip, even though it came just under a year after McCain's clownish stroll through a Baghdad market, which he declared proof that one could 'walk freely' around Baghdad -- while being guarded by three Blackhawk helicopters, two Apache gunships, and 100 armed soldiers."

That was not his finest hour.

As for the HRC damage control, "Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton tried Tuesday to put a softening spin on her misstatement that she ran from sniper fire at an airport in Bosnia as first lady, saying the comment was a mistake that 'proves I'm human.'

"Yet Mrs. Clinton quickly found herself explaining a new comment, that it was the first time in 12 years she had told the story wrong," says the NYT.

After criticism from Barack's side, Mrs. Clinton's campaign responded with an e-mail catalog of Mr. Obama's 'exaggerations and misstatements.' The campaign cited his saying that he was a law professor -- he was a senior lecturer -- and that his parents fell in love because of the historic 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., even though he was born in 1961. He later said he was referring broadly to the civil rights movement."

At Real Clear Politics, Tom Bevan says Hillary will be seriously wounded:

"Voters won't react kindly to the revelation that Clinton tried to take them for a ride about the circumstances of her trip to Bosnia, and saying she 'misspoke' ain't gonna do the trick.

"It may not hurt as much as Rev. Wright hurt Obama, but this hurts Clinton. She already faces questions with the public about her honesty and trustworthiness, and this episode taps directly into a vein of the most unpleasant aspects of her political life. On a more direct level, it undermines her claim of superior experience, an argument that appears to have been paying dividends against Obama over the last few weeks.

"Clinton had put herself out there as the person who could answer that 3am call because of her experience as first lady and because she claimed to have been in the kind of tough and dangerous situations that had steeled her for the 'red phone moment.'

"We now know those claims, at least with respect to Bosnia, were untrue. Instead of a simple 'embellishment,' her account of the Bosnia trip looks to be severely fictionalized. That's an issue for Clinton -- and it's made more serious by the fact that it was completely unnecessary."

Carpetbagger's Steve Benen also doesn't get it:

"Like John McCain's confusion about al Qaeda last week, the explanation looks a little more suspect given that Clinton did not just get the version of events wrong once -- the NYT noted that Clinton 'described the sniper fire in similar terms at least twice in recent weeks.' It's easy to 'misspeak' once, it's harder to explain when one makes the same mistake on multiple occasions."

Andrew Sullivan, as usual, is driven up the wall by Hillary:

"The Bosnia lie is a microcosm of the experience exaggeration on which the entire rationale of her candidacy lies. Clinton does have one solid substantive executive experience and the result of it was that she effectively killed universal healthcare for well over a decade. And she has one transcendent legislative judgment call, Iraq, and it was catastrophically wrong. This is her record on the kind of big issues that define a presidency."

Guess who's trying to revive the Jeremiah Wright controversy?

"Hillary Clinton had stayed out of the fray over the inflammatory remarks made by Barack Obama's long-time pastor," the Boston Globe reports.

"But yesterday she told reporters and editors at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that she would have left her church if her pastor had said the kinds of things about the US government and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. did.

" 'He would not have been my pastor,' Clinton said. 'You don't choose your family, but you choose what church you want to attend.' "

Her aides insisted yesterday she was just answering a press question, but she had repeatedly ducked such questions last week, when the furor raged without her having to lift a finger.

After HRC visited the Philadelphia Daily News, the paper's Will Bunch notes that she said the following:

"And also remember that pledged delegates in most states are not pledged. You know, there is no requirement that anybody vote for anybody. They're just like superdelegates."

That draws some flak online, from the likes of Josh Marshall:

"It's basically a non-point because campaigns don't choose just anyone to serve as a delegate. They pick the absolute hardest core supporters of their candidate. So the odds of any delegate getting flipped are basically nil.

"It's also another example of the fog of nonsense that has increasingly enveloped the Clinton campaign. Spin is one thing. And it's not a bad thing. But to have utility it must be tethered to some relevant facts, some kind of reality. Otherwise it just descends into ridiculousness."

Are presidential candidates allowed to take a vacation? Does Obama's decision to take a week off mean he's burned out? Thinks he's got it wrapped up? Is caving under pressure from his wife?

And should we in the press just leave him alone?

"For days," says Politico, "the Obama campaign refused to confirm where the senator and his family were heading on a short Easter vacation, even as rumors spread among the press corps that they were bound for the Virgin Islands. So that presented a conundrum for news organizations: Should they send a correspondent on the -- presumably enjoyable -- assignment to the Caribbean, to investigate the white sand beaches and clear blue waters? As it turns out, CNN was the lone cable network to play a game of 'Where in the World is Barack Obama?' Chris Welch, an off-air producer covering the Obama campaign since the Iowa caucuses, headed out to the islands. . . . Even so, Fox got the scoop on the vacation location -- which they've replayed several times throughout the day."

Rather than just cover Carville's "Judas" charge, Marc Ambinder examines the underlying issue:

"James Carville cannot even explain why Gov. Bill Richardson owes something as prestigious as his presidential endorsement to Hillary Clinton. It is self-evident to him that Richardson has betrayed Clinton. The Clintons gave him so much, it seems, that anything but complete fealty is traitorous."

Despite "an internal logic to Carville's argument," Ambinder continues, "a large part of the Democratic Party has demonstrated conclusively that their loyalty to the Clintons and their appreciation for a decade well done does not extend to an automatic stamp of approval for Hillary Clinton's candidacy."

I've written the last couple days about the debate over that Politico piece, by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, that journalists should stop the pretense and just admit the Democratic race is over.

Now David Brooks asks whether Hillary is just being selfish since, in his estimation, she has only a 5 percent chance of winning: "For nearly 20 years, she has been encased in the apparatus of political celebrity. Look at her schedule as first lady and ever since. Think of the thousands of staged events, the tens of thousands of times she has pretended to be delighted to see someone she doesn't know, the hundreds of thousands times she has recited empty clich¿s and exhortatory banalities, the millions of photos she has posed for in which she is supposed to appear empathetic or tough, the billions of politically opportune half-truths that have bounced around her head. No wonder the Clinton campaign feels impersonal."

Time's Michael Scherer has some Politico-related thoughts on grabbing attention online:

"Assume, for instance, that 12 news organizations do the same story on the same day about how Hillary Clinton has a tough road ahead of her to get the nomination. Which story is going to get the most links and therefore the most readers? Is it the one that cautiously weighs the pros and cons, and presents a nuanced view of her chances? Or is it the one that says she is toast, and anyone who thinks different is living on another planet? . . .

"Left unsaid in this is something which the Politico's editors and writers (not to mention everyone else in the news business, including me) know well. If you say something provocatively, in a new way, or with an unexpected spin, you will succeed online. If you play it safe, you will not. So we see the difference in style between the Politico story and, say, Adam Nagourney's more nuanced story on the same topic a day earlier or again in another story Tuesday. Suffice it to say, Friday's Politico story earned a Drudge link over the weekend, and Nagourney's did not. That's money in the bank for Politico.

"This trend . . . is a blessing and a curse. It is forcing better writing, quicker responsiveness, and it is increasing the value of actual news-making and clear-eyed thinking. But it is also increasing pressure on reporters to push the boundaries of provocation. I am not sure that the Politico story crossed any boundaries, or distorted the truth. I do believe that what Allen and VandeHei did is very much the future of news."

Update: Drudge did link to Nagourney's latest NYT effort, and, in a hall-of-mirrors effect, to Scherer's own critique.

The Washington Post's Facebook application -- a compass that gauges your views, from liberal to conservative -- has been downloaded 350,000 times. And speaking of The Post, the City Paper floats the rumor that with a new publisher (Katharine Weymouth) having taken over, Executive Editor Len Downie might pack it in soon:

"When asked about all the gossip, the 65-year-old Downie merely confirmed that it existed: 'The newsroom's full of all kinds of rumors,' he said. When pressed on whether he wanted to knock down those rumors, Downie showed a degree of message discipline often found in his paper's own pages: 'The newsroom's full of all kinds of rumors,' he repeated."

Have you seen the new inside design of the NYT, which for some conspiratorial reason launched yesterday on the same day as the WP's more modest revamp? I couldn't believe the paper, in this belt-tightening era, would waste the first two pages on a boring index (although Page 4's guide to what's on the Web site is an intriguing idea).

Jeff Jarvis, who once supervised the creation of an index at the Chicago Trib, doesn't mince words:

"I hate the new and expanded news summary The New York Times introduced on pages 2 and 3. It's inefficient, wasteful, and ultimately insulting . . .

"The problem with The Times' latest effort is first that it's inefficient and inappropriate to the form. They forget one of the still-great advantages of the interface of the paper: As I browse, I see every story and I get to decide then and there how deep to dive in: the headline or caption may tell me enough, the lede may, the first five grafs may. The beauty is that it's all right there. If instead, I see a story of interest on The Times' new page 2, I have to go shuffling through the paper to find it and keep reading."

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