CNN’s Candy Crowley can’t say she wasn’t warned: Both presidential campaigns had signed a memorandum of understanding seeking to curb her role in “intervening” in the presidential town hall-style debate that went down Tuesday night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Yet she did anyway, stirring up what promises to be a durable debate — one that will last at least till the next debate Monday night.
At issue is Crowley’s decision to do a bit of on-the-spot fact-checking of Mitt Romney’s contention that President Obama didn’t acknowledge an “act of terror” in Benghazi, Libya, until 14 days after the Sept. 11 attack.
MR. ROMNEY: I think it’s interesting; the president just said something, which is that on the day after the attack, he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror. You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed.
MR. ROMNEY: Is that what you’re saying?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor.
MR. ROMNEY: I — I — I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
Crowley jumped in, saying, “It — he did in fact, sir.”
Suddenly, the president’s Sept. 12 remarks at that Rose Garden event are getting a closer look. Those remarks occupy 13 paragraphs in a document on the official White House Web site.
Let’s start with the first three graphs, which reprise the attacks and their tragic consequences:
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. Every day, all across the world, American diplomats and civilians work tirelessly to advance the interests and values of our nation. Often, they are away from their families. Sometimes, they brave great danger.
Yesterday, four of these extraordinary Americans were killed in an attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi. Among those killed was our ambassador, Chris Stevens, as well as Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith. We are still notifying the families of the others who were killed. And today, the American people stand united in holding the families of the four Americans in our thoughts and in our prayers.
The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack. We’re working with the government of Libya to secure our diplomats. I’ve also directed my administration to increase our security at diplomatic posts around the world. And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.
Bolded text is inserted to highlight an important moment for the purposes of the debate over the debate: Here’s where Obama — or his speechwriter — might have inserted the fact that it was a terrorist attack. After all, “outrageous and shocking terrorist attack” flows just fine in the context of a Rose Garden address.
The next four paragraphs step back and advance the president’s need for presidentiality:
Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.
Already, many Libyans have joined us in doing so, and this attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya. Libyan security personnel fought back against the attackers alongside Americans. Libyans helped some of our diplomats find safety, and they carried Ambassador Stevens’s body to the hospital, where we tragically learned that he had died.
It’s especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save. At the height of the Libyan revolution, Chris led our diplomatic post in Benghazi. With characteristic skill, courage and resolve, he built partnerships with Libyan revolutionaries, and helped them as they planned to build a new Libya. When the Qaddafi regime came to an end, Chris was there to serve as our ambassador to the new Libya, and he worked tirelessly to support this young democracy, and I think both Secretary Clinton and I relied deeply on his knowledge of the situation on the ground there. He was a role model to all who worked with him and to the young diplomats who aspire to walk in his footsteps.
Along with his colleagues, Chris died in a country that is still striving to emerge from the recent experience of war. Today, the loss of these four Americans is fresh, but our memories of them linger on. I have no doubt that their legacy will live on through the work that they did far from our shores and in the hearts of those who love them back home.
Those paragraphs present little in the way of clear opportunities to address terrorism.
Now to the essential part:
Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks. We mourned with the families who were lost on that day. I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.
As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe.
No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.
In the first paragraph of this passage, the president references two attacks: those of Sept. 11, 2001, and those of Benghazi. Then he moves on to some loftiness. The next turn is the pivotal point. Obama says that “No acts of terror will ever . . . ” That statement lacks any definitive, concrete reference points, providing grist for critics of Crowley and her extemporaneous fact-checking. Accordingly, they argue that the president has no case when he says he called the Benghazi attack an “act of terror” on Sept. 12. And Crowley has no case when she slaps Romney back.
Yet: It’s reasonable for Crowley to conclude that the “no acts of terror” language reaches back just a few lines to encompass the original Sept. 11 attacks as well as this year’s Sept. 11 attacks. Just as it was reasonable for Crowley to tell Romney that he was “correct” about the two weeks in which the administration kept a misleading explanation in play.