Gentlemen: Sometimes to your irritation, I have spent the past 16 months writing the Fact Checker column for The Washington Post, vetting the statements uttered by politicians in both parties. I know you don’t really like the Pinocchios I bestow on a regular basis to both of you for inaccurate or misleading remarks (except when they’re pinned on the other guy). But, based on the reader e-mails I receive every day, I can assure you that voters are hungry for clear, understandable prose — without spin, dissembling or hype.
So, with the presidential election looming in exactly six months, I would like to issue a challenge to you both: Give at least one campaign speech, on a substantive policy issue, lasting at least 15 minutes, that does not contain a single factual error or misstatement. That means no sugar-coating of your record, no exaggerated claims about your opponent’s record, and no assertions that are technically true but lack crucial context. If you do, not only would you win the ultimate Geppetto Checkmark — which I award on those rare occasions of complete accuracy — but you would earn the gratitude of the American people, who are eager for hard truths.
The rise of political fact-checking is a testament to this eagerness. Along with The Post, FactCheck.org, housed at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning operation of the Tampa Bay Times, vet your claims daily. The Associated Press, the New York Times, ABC News and CNN have also designated individual reporters to check politicians’ claims.
Based on my experience writing my column, and my extensive conversations with your staff members, I know that you and your aides spend a lot of time discussing exactly how to frame something. There is bound to be a natural tension between a catchy phrase and exactitude.
Don’t give in to temptation — stick with the facts.
I like to think that my “little Pinocchios” (as one White House aide referred to the Fact Checker’s rating scale) have had an effect. One administration official recently explained to me how, when faced with a choice of figures, the administration took the more modest number in hopes of avoiding any Pinocchios. As for the likely Republican nominee, I’ve noticed, Mitt Romney, that you tweak your words ever so slightly after a negative column.
Our Pinocchio Tracker indicates that you have been the two major 2012 presidential candidates with the lowest average number of Pinocchios. (Your claims are rated on a scale of one to four Pinocchios: Four indicates a whopper; a Geppetto Checkmark counts as zero. The tracker produces an average rating from all of the columns. President Obama has been rated 45 times and Romney 34times as of Friday evening.) In fact, you are nearly tied, with the president at 1.91 and the former governor at 1.97. No other candidate has come close: Michele Bachmann ended up at 3.08, Ron Paul at 2.6, Rick Santorum at 2.53, Newt Gingrich at 2.44 and Rick Perry at 2.41.
Still, an average of nearly 2 is nothing to brag about. On the scale, two Pinocchios means “significant omissions and/or exaggerations.” As you know, it does not necessarily mean factual error. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.
Surely you can both do better than that.
Now, I realize that truth-telling is not the only quality needed for a successful presidency. In 1976, after the national trauma of Watergate, Jimmy Carter famously promised the American people: “I’ll never lie to you.” But he was turned out of office in favor of Ronald Reagan, who didn’t always have full command of the facts but was perceived to have stronger leadership skills — and to know where he wanted to take the country.
And during the 2000 presidential campaign, when I started fact-checking at The Post, Vice President Al Gore was so worried about my ratings that his campaign would call me before each presidential debate to try to explain how he derived some of the facts he was going to use that night. But he lost to George W. Bush, who apparently didn’t care how many times I decried as misleading his claim that his proposed tax cut would have little impact on the deficit.
Mr. President and Gov. Romney, to help you and your staffs, here’s a guide to what you should avoid if you want to deliver a 100 percent honest and factual speech.
Let’s start with the easy stuff.
For you, Gov. Romney, that would mean not claiming that, as president, Obama went on an “apology tour” overseas. I know you wrote a whole book with the title “No Apology,” so it’s probably hard to let go, but let go you must. I’ve looked at all of the speeches the president gave abroad, and there’s nothing close to an apology there. Maybe one could argue that he had an apologetic tone, but even that is stretching it. This claim is worth four Pinocchios, and it’s really hurting your average.
Meanwhile, Mr. President, you have a tendency toward over-congratulatory rhetoric. I realize that you get a lot of criticism and so there is a natural tendency to push back. But let’s keep things a little more credible. For instance, you did not pass the “biggest middle-class tax cut in history,” a statement that earned you four Pinocchios.
And Chrysler did not repay “every dime and more of what it owes American taxpayers.” You were able to make that claim only by not counting the loan that President George W. Bush authorized for the company. That too-cute-by-half trick earned you three Pinocchios.
Mr. President, you also have an unfortunate fondness for straw men, as when you said about the auto industry: “There were some folks who were willing to let this industry die.” But Republicans did not take that position; there were mostly tactical differences over how to rescue carmakers, such as whether to use the bankruptcy process and what kind of deal the unions would get. I gave you two Pinocchios for such rhetorical overreach. You actually have a good story to tell about the auto industry — why lard it with exaggeration?
Everyone plays games with numbers. But you two are running for president, so you need to live by a higher standard.
When examining any numerical trend, you have a tendency to start counting from the moment that makes the president look either best (for the Obama campaign) or worst (for the Romney campaign). I have long thought that it is a bit silly to start measuring job growth from the day a president takes the oath of office, as if everything suddenly changes on a dime. One Romney aide even suggested that they could start counting from the 2008 election, arguing that the markets were already reacting to Obama’s upcoming presidency.
But Mr. President, when you talk about jobs created during your administration, you often only count the months of positive private-sector job growth, not all the months since the recession officially ended.
Meanwhile, Gov. Romney, you sometimes reach back even further. You recently earned three Pinocchios for claiming that business start-ups have dropped by 100,000 per year during Obama’s presidency, a figure reached only by starting the count in March 2007, nearly two years before he took office. And frankly, it wasn’t even necessary — business start-ups have dropped under Obama. But it is a much less interesting figure of 12,000, rather than that nice, round 100,000.
Sometimes a statistic is technically accurate but misleading. Gov. Romney, you often say that more than 92 percent of the jobs that have been lost under Obama have been women’s jobs. There is some truth in that observation, but the figure is mostly a timing issue; the numbers are vastly different if you start one month later. (You include all of January 2009, even though Obama took the oath on Jan. 20.)
And Mr. President, when you try to rebut criticism of your rejection of the initial application for the Keystone XL pipeline, you like to claim that under your administration, “we’ve added enough oil and gas pipeline to circle the Earth and then some.”
Yes, nearly 28,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines have been built since 2009, and the circumference of the Earth at the equator is 24,000 miles. But as I documented, the bulk of the gain has come from gas transmission lines that go into homes and buildings, not oil pipelines. In fact, your gain over two years amounts to a little less than than 1 percent of the total miles of pipelines in America (2.38 million miles). Clearly someone at the White House did not think that was very impressive — but it would be a less exaggerated way to frame it.
Gov. Romney, you earned two Pinocchios last fall for blithely repeating a tale that you heard from one of your advisers, former secretary of the Navy John Lehman: that the United States in World War II built 1,000 ships a year with just 1,000 people in the Bureau of Ships, compared with nine ships per year today with 25,000 people in the equivalent department.
On the face of it, those statistics sound too clever to be true. And indeed, a little checking found that to be the case. There are 500 people involved in ship purchasing now, and ships built today are vastly more complex than the ones built during World War II.
The lesson is that you have to be careful whom you rely on for information. You can’t just check your sources — you need to check your sources’ sources, too.
No disrespect to the folks over at the Heritage Foundation or the Center for American Progress, but this also means that your speeches should not rely on data from such organizations with a clear partisan bias. Stick with information from nonpartisan outfits such as the Congressional Budget Office or the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Nor should you always trust information you find in the newspapers, even The Post. You need to check the information before you cite some report or poll that conveniently fits your narrative.
Mr. President, your staff was unhappy when I gave you two Pinocchios last month for quoting a poll that had been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, suggesting that millionaires supported the “Buffett rule,” which would impose a tax surcharge on people with an adjusted gross income of more than $1 million. The poll was a self-selected online survey, raising obvious questions about the conclusions that could be drawn from the data. Moreover, many of the “millionaires” it surveyed wouldn’t be affected by the rule, assuming it could ever overcome a Senate filibuster.
I realize that your staff found this statistic in a reputable publication, but that’s no excuse. A president simply cannot be making incorrect or unfounded claims to the American public. Moreover, it is well documented that there is broad public support for the Buffett rule,so this claim was really unnecessary. In fact, look at this e-mail I received from a congressional staff member after my column appeared:
“If our speechwriter had a stat like that in a speech, the first thing I would have done is ask him WHERE he got that. And I would have had a researcher verify it. If they would have come back and told me is was an ONLINE poll, an OPT-IN poll, I would have blown my stack. . . . There’s plenty of poll data out there that backs them up, [so] why would they use such a tenuous stat? This is the White House, not some freshman congressman. It’s really bizarre.”
Everyone knows why politicians try to fudge the facts — to try to give themselves every bit of edge in a brutal campaign. Many studies show that negative advertising works (witness your success in the primaries, Gov. Romney). So maybe you’ve convinced yourselves that it’s okay to fib a little bit here and there, to stretch the truth, as long as it gets you to the ultimate goal.
But it doesn’t have to always be that way. Just once, go out there and give a speech unadorned with the usual suspect facts and embellishments. Will you be rewarded by the voters for your honesty? I am not sure, but it might be worth a shot.
Here’s the bottom line: The two people who want to run the United States ought to be able to give a 15-minute speech without deceiving the American people. Can you meet that challenge? I will be watching.
Readers: Now it’s your turn to play speechwriter. Write a factually correct, distortion-free campaign speech for Obama or Romney, in 400 words or less on a substantive policy issue or debate. List all the sources you’ve used, include your full name and e-mail address, and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. If the facts check out, we’ll publish the best speech next week.