Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Daily Kos, Hillary Clinton, and Al Gore

Hypocrisy and rationalization grate regardless of the source. But somehow they always seem worse coming from those who claim purity of motive. Barack Obama and his internet cheerleaders promise a new politics, leaving behind the name calling and trivial attacks of the past. What they deliver, however, is generally more of the same.

Apparently, Hillary Clinton spoke several times of arriving in Bosnia back in 1996 under the threat of sniper fire, and having to race for shelter upon landing. Video of the event seems to contradict this claim, showing the First Lady and her daughter spending time on the tarmac greeting the locals, apparently unconcerned about the dangers lurking in the hills above. Naturally, this ludicrously unimportant matter has come to dominate this week's political news.

First, it remains unclear exactly what Senator Clinton was trying to accomplish with this story in the first place. Even if true, it would hardly make her a paragon of physical courage. Perhaps she simply figured that if enduring torture in Vietnam makes John McCain a foreign policy expert (which, of course, it does not) then dodging sniper fire in Eastern Europe gives Hillary a perspective on the world that Senator Obama cannot match. If that was, indeed, her gambit, it was pretty useless: whatever foreign policy experience Clinton accumulated in her world travels would have come from face to face meetings with international leaders rather than any brief taste of danger she may have experienced along the way. So really, this story is a nothing-burger to begin with.

In any event, Clinton disavowed the tale yesterday, acknowledging that she misspoke. Here's what she says now:

"I was told we had to land a certain way, we had to have our bulletproof stuff on because of the threat of sniper fire. I was also told that the greeting ceremony had been moved away from the tarmac but that there was this 8-year-old girl and, I can't, I can't rush by her, I've got to at least greet her -- so I greeted her, I took her stuff and then I left. Now that's my memory of it."

Who knows? Maybe the candidate misremembered events that occurred over a decade ago. It happens. Maybe the words "sniper fire" stayed with her even after other memories receded. Or perhaps—and let's face it, most likely—she thought she had an impressive story to wow her audiences and make her look dashing and daring, Hillary the Superhero. In short, she probably told a little campaign fib, the sort that was commonplace and unimportant until the age of YouTube and its associated legions of obsessive, unemployed internet fact-checkers armed with bags of Cheetos and dreams of stardom.

Over at the Obama for President branch campus at Daily Kos, the hive was buzzing with all the intensity of Encyclopedia Brown ready to call out the perpetrator of some sandlot crime. From the reaction of the Kossacks to this fairly inconsequential exaggeration, you would have thought that Senator Clinton had been caught bellowing, "God damn America!" This is, if the liberal blogosphere is to be believed, bigger than Teapot Dome, Watergate, and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping combined.

Here is the overwrought musing of one recommended Daily Kos diarist, doing the right wing's work for them:

"OK. The CBS story tonight is HUGE. It really rips Hillary apart on the Bosnia issues and just keeps nailing her. It's brutal. They really take her on. At this point, it's a beautiful dream come true."

This is, one assumes, a slightly different beautiful dream than the one espoused by Senator Obama on those days when he still talks about bringing America together. Karl Rove couldn't have said it better himself. To be fair, though, Rove would never have been so callow as to say it out loud. That is best left to the amateurs. (The breathless, sophomoric headline to this post, incidentally, is "She is SO screwed".)

Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga, the proprietor of the site, even chimes in with his own triumphant snark:

"If Hillary Clinton lied about snipers in Bosnia because of sleep deprivation (doubtful, given it's a lie she's said at least four times), then what will she do when she gets that call at 3 a.m.? Remember, she's clothed and wearing makeup at that hour, so chances are, she's not getting much sleep."

Sure, we don’t all have the talent to write for David Letterman, but that's really not the important point here. Rather, it is instructive to keep in mind a simple fact: this is precisely what the political media did to Al Gore back in 2000. They seized on a few minor exaggerations and built them up into something HUGE.

Remember when Gore said that his mother used to rock him to sleep with the "Look for the Union Label" song, an advertising jingle that wasn't written until he was well into adulthood? Or during his first debate with George W. Bush, when Gore falsely told of visiting Texas during some wildfires, accompanied by the FEMA director (he was actually attending a fundraiser in Houston)? Or how about the time Gore inaccurately claimed that his mother-in-law paid more for an arthritis drug than the price charged when the same medicine was used to treat the candidate's dog? Ah, good times.

That's three exaggerations for Gore versus one for Hillary. Nevertheless, to this day, the liberal blogosphere, Daily Kos included, rages at the mass media for elevating these minor missteps into major campaign stories, thus easing Bush's ruinous entry into the White House. And they're right: the 2000 campaign was distorted and trivialized in any number of ways by a press corps that either detested Al Gore or was too lazy to develop a new script (or both).

But it turns out that the bloggers and their allies didn't really object to the unfairness of the coverage. They objected to the fact that it was unfair to their candidate. When this same sort of meaningless gotcha journalism is trained on the enemy du jour, the Daily Kos crowd can hardly contain their delight. Meet the new politics; same as the old politics.

Barack Obama's liberal internet supporters bristle at the suggestion that they constitute something of a cult of personality. And it is, in the main, an unfair charge. But it would be an easier charge to refute if they didn't adopt cult-like tactics in trying to destroy their opponent, particularly one who agrees with them on almost all the issues.


Erica said...

This bugs me: "Barack Obama and his internet cheerleaders promise a new politics... What they deliver, however, is generally more of the same."
Obama never claims to be Jesus, turning the other cheek when he gets hit so you can hit him again. The race stayed relatively high-minded until the week before Texas/Ohio, when Clinton threw the kitchen sink at him and said she was the only tough fighter in the race. Once he lost Ohio to her fear-mongering, Obama needed to show Democrats he wasn't weak like Kerry or Mondale or Dukakis. So he has.

The Man Who Was Never Born said...


That's a fair point and maybe I should have explained it better. There's no question that Obama needs to respond vigorously to attacks, whether from Hillary Clinton or the Republicans. No Democrat wants to see a repeat of 2004 or 1988.

But if you're trying to change the tone of politics, you need to be a bit more selective as to how you respond. Claiming that Clinton's qualifications are overstated is a fair response. So are the attacks on her Iraq War vote. But going after her this hard on what was either a faulty twelve-year old memory or a harmless exaggeration is the sort of stuff the GOP did to Al Gore. It is the kind of politics Obama has promised to banish.

(By the way, in this particular instance, Obama's supporters are far guiltier of pouring it on than the candidate himself. And many of these same supporters, as I say in the post, are still angry at the treatment Gore received for similar exaggerations.)

redbarb said...

Is it simply exhaustion from constant politicians that leads candidates to spring ridiculous stories about themselves or others? Surely Hillary Clinton has stories of her travels as First Lady that could illuminate her character beyond the caricature she has fought since 1992, why not tell those stories? And why does the traditional and new media spend more time on this than the war in Iraq? Even Keith Olbermann has obsessed over Clinton's exaggeration and neglected the latest chapter in our Iraqi failures.

The Man Who Was Never Born said...

Yeah, Ol' Keith has become pretty unwatchable since he became a full time Obama cheerleader.

As for Hillary, I don't know. Even if the story had been true, it is, as you say, not especially illustrative of anything important.