Better Angels

"...all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." ---Abraham Lincoln, First Innaugural Address

Monday, December 27, 2004

You just can't make this stuff up...or can you?

A few weeks ago, Atrios linked to the Daily Howler's takedown of the media's inability to fact-check a la the "who among us does not love NASCAR" foolishness. It was one of those strange moments of blog serendipity, as I was just about to research an different Kerry quote that seemed just as suspect. So bouyed by the Howler, I took a stab at it and found yet another Kerryism of doubtful provenance. It took a few weeks, due to the holidays, but here is is in time for the third day of Christmas.

In the December 20 issue of
Newsweek, George "Here, Tucker, let me help you with that tie" Will has the "Last Word" on the year that was 2004. He opens with this:
In 2004 an IBM supercomputer set a world record with 36.01 trillion calculations per second. The U.S. electorate may have made its calculation the instant John Kerry, who is not a supercomputer, explained why Toy's restaurant in Canonsburg, Pa., "is my kind of place":
"You don't have to—you know, when they give you the menu, I'm always struggling: ah, what do you want? He just gives you what he's got, right? ... whatever he's cooked up that day. And I think
that's the way it ought to work, for confused people like me who can't make up our minds."
So that's why he lost! Foget that whole values thing: he admitted he couldn't make up his mind! He's confused! Like another Jim DeMint, who...won his race. Nevermind, bad analogy. See! He really was a flip-flopper!

Except, you know, I don't remember ever hearing this story before, (and I think you all know I'm pretty much hip to the news cycle) so I sort of doubt this little tale made as much of an impact in the election as say, vote tampering did. (Oops! I wasn't sposed to say that, was I?)

Here are the facts: On
September 6, 2004, John Kerry travelled to Canonsburg, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and spoke to a group of neighbors from Dale and Judy Rhome's front porch. He talked about a number of issues, but the one that made the biggest impression on the media assembled was one you may remember:

Following his remarks, Kerry took questions from concerned voters, including one from a 70-year-old woman who had 14 throat surgeries and recently returned to work in order to afford her prescription medicine.
While telling her story in only a whisper, several Bush supporters shouted chants and insults
making it harder for people to hear the woman. Kerry responded to the hecklers.
“While the Bush people were rudely shouting, a 70-year-old woman who has had several throat operations was trying to be heard. It’s proof that they don’t want to hear the truth.”

In fact, in the straight news articles written about this campaign stop, not one reporter mentions the restaurant remarks. The story first surfaces in that night's New York Times online "Political Points" column, by David Halbfinger. He writes:

Mr. Kerry stepped boldly into the verbal minefield early, arriving at a front-porch session with supporters in Canonsburg, Pa., near Pittsburgh. As he likes to do, he brandished a bit of local color to show he wasn't just any interloping politician blowing through town.

But in so doing he seemed to forget that Republicans have been tearing him down for months as a vacillating, indecisive, finger-in-the-wind politician of the worst order.

"Everybody told me, 'God, if you're coming to Canonsburg, you've got to find time to go to Toy's, and he'll take care of you,'" Mr. Kerry said, dropping the name of a
restaurant his motorcade had passed on the way in. "I understand it's my kind of place, because you don't have to - you know, when they give you the menu, I'm always struggling: Ah, what do you want?"He just gives you what he's got, right?" Mr. Kerry added, continuing steadily off a gangplank of his own making: "And you don't have to worry, it's whatever he's cooked up that day. And I think that's the way it ought to work, for confused people like me who can't make up our minds."

Halbfinger seems to have spent the majority of the campaign finding evidence to support the "flip-flopper" label the GOP cooked up for Kerry. (For some of the more egregious examples, see the Daily Howler, Bart Cop, Columbia Journalism Review and Reading A1)

The story was also picked up by a British paper, the pro-war, pro-Blair London Telegraph, in a September 7
article by Alec Russell, filed from Canonsburg:

Mr Bush's campaign staff will have loved his opening comments, praising the limited menu of a local cafe. Mr Kerry said it was perfect "for confused people like me who can't make up our minds about what we're going to eat" - words which would fit perfectly into a pro-Bush attack ad.
I first assumed that this was independent confirmation of Halbfinger's account, since it was filed the following day. But then I calculated the time zones. When Halbfinger filed his column, it was already Wednesday in London, meaning that Russell could have filed his column first and Halbfinger simply picked up his quote. Picked it up and truncated it in order to make Kerry out to seem even more confused.

Of course it's possible that both reporters heard Kerry the same thing, recorded it and transcribed it and came to the same conclusion: Kerry was just giving the Republicans ammo for the flip-flop meme. But that doesn't change the fact that Halbfinger conveniently left off the "about what we're going to eat," making Kerry sound like he's admitting he can't make up his mind about anything.

Not surprisingly, it was Halbfinger's quote that most often got picked up, rather than Russell's.

On September 7th, Slate's
Chris Sullentrop quoted Russell's version of the Kerry quote, commenting that Kerry's extemporizing was "damaging." It's unclear from the article if Sullentrop was present when the words were uttered or if he simply read Russell's column.

National Review Online also picked up the quote on Sept 7th, using the Halbfinger version. The NRO piece ended up being reposted on Free Republic. From there it spread to countless blogs and other online sources and made its way to several more traditional media sources:

Toronto Star Sept 13:

Kerry, meanwhile, has become a dream for political satirists and the proverbial fish in the barrel for the Bush war room. The man vilified as a waffler, played right into that perception at a stop in Pennsylvania where he waxed rhapsodically about a local restaurant which brings the daily special to the table with no menu.
"That's the way it ought to work for confused people like me who can't make up our minds," he told supporters.

LA Times - Sept 13 -
Sen. John F. Kerry has been accused by his Republican critics of being wishy-washy and wavering on matters of national security — a claim he adamantly denies.

But when it comes to ordering in a restaurant, the Democratic presidential candidate admits
he sometimes has difficulty.

During a Labor Day stop in Canonsburg, Pa., Kerry praised a local restaurant because the choices were limited to whatever the cook decided to serve.

"My kind of place, you know, because when they give you the menu, I'm always struggling," the Massachusetts senator said. "He just gives you what he's got, right? You don't have to order. It's whatever he's cooked up that day, and I think that's the way it ought to work for confused people like me who can't make up our minds."

American Spectator Sept 17 -
Obviously, Kerry isn't a particularly appealing figure, but his problems run deeper than that....This not only pleases nobody, it reinforces one of Kerry's chief liabilities, the perception that he's a flip-flopper. (His praise at a campaign stop for a restaurant with only one choice, rather than a menu, as being great "for confused people like me who can't make up our minds" didn't help on that front, either.)

LA Times - Sept 17
At his very best, Kerry is capable of adequately delivering a prepared speech. But when speaking off the cuff, he has an inexplicable penchant to play into his opponents' hands.Bush implies (outrageously) that Kerry wants to go soft on terrorists? Kerry responds that he wants a "more sensitive war on terror.
Bush portrays Kerry as an out-of-touch, Francophile elitist? Kerry tells GQ, "I love sports. French skiers."
Bush paints Kerry as indecisive? Kerry volunteers that at restaurants, "You know when they give you the menu, I'm always struggling, what do you want?" It's as if he has somehow internalized his opponents' attacks upon him.

Weekly Standard September 20 - The article leads into the Canonsburg story with "There have been other mistakes:"

The Economist Nov 4th - quotes the NY Times version as its "Kerryism of the Campaign"

And then came Will's "year in review" column. Note how in 3 months the comments in Canonsburg have turned from a derisive remark propagating the "flip-flop" charge to the comment that alinenated the US Electoate and cost Kerry the election! That's your "liberal" media at work!