Former Texas senator Phil Gramm ran for president in 1996. He raised $20 million, spent nearly all of it, and won zero delegates. Political observers had long thought such a feat was impossible, and it remains astonishing even in hindsight. Recently we were reminded how he managed to pull it off.
Earlier this month, Gramm gave an interview to the Washington Times in which he asserted that the U.S. economy wasn’t in a recession. We are, however, in a “mental recession,” he said–a loss of consumer confidence, stoked by hysterical media reports, that threatens to tip the economy into a real recession.
This is all true. You could look it up: A recession is two consecutive quarters of economic contraction, and the economy didn’t contract last quarter. But Gramm was pilloried for his factual statement. Before his interview with the Times, it was assumed (by professional assumers) that Gramm would be offered a high-ranking economic-policymaking job in a McCain administration, maybe even secretary of the Treasury; now assumers are assuming he’ll never get such a cool job–especially after he made matters worse by insisting a day later that the fact he had asserted was, in fact, a fact: “Every word I said was true.”
To which the general reaction was: So what? Gramm’s candidate John McCain said that he “didn’t agree” with the fact that Gramm had cited. Clambering down from the high ground of the factual and the objective, McCain slipped himself into the slough of the subjective and the romantic, where politicians and voters now prefer to luxuriate. “I believe that the person here in [the absolutely crucial swing state of] Michigan who just lost his job isn’t suffering from a mental recession,” McCain said empathically. Most of the media reports offered an even bolder response to Gramm. Okay, said David Wright, the reporter who covered the story for ABC, maybe the “economic fundamentals are sound,” as Gramm asserted. “But that’s no consolation to folks who worry about their mortgages and are paying these high prices at the pump.”
In other words: What Gramm said was true, but it didn’t matter. He wins on the merits–he said the economy wasn’t in a recession, and it wasn’t–but he deserves a reprimand anyway. He had stumbled into a zone of politics where you’re not supposed to say something true, and where you get punished if you do.
Have you noticed how big this zone is getting? The political landscape is littered with people who have been castigated, fired, or forced to apologize for the gross infraction of saying something true. Last December the co-chairman of Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign, Bill Shaheen, suggested that Barack Obama’s admitted use of drugs as a young man might somehow–just maybe–be cited to Obama’s detriment by Republicans in the presidential campaign. He was asked to resign for committing the truth offense, and not a peep, true or false, has been heard from him since.
Charlie Black, an adviser to John McCain, was luckier. He’s still emitting peeps, even though he made an abstract point about the campaign as unforgivably true as Shaheen’s.
Black’s transgression came in an interview with Fortune magazine, when he was asked about the political consequences of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The question itself was kind of tasteless, but Black answered anyway.
“Certainly it would be a big advantage to him,” Black said. Most news outlets reported the comment as news, even though it’s hard to imagine that any newsroom in the country employs a single reporter who doesn’t know that Black’s point was true. Yet when reporters informed McCain of Black’s assertion, McCain disavowed it: “I strenuously disagree,” he said.
McCain almost certainly knows that Black’s statement was correct, of course. But McCain also knows how the life cycle of political controversy works: The surest way to quiet a controversy created by saying something true is to say something untrue. Then the general air of insincerity is restored, and we can all calm down.
This was the effect of Obama’s repudiation of his supporter Wesley Clark, the former general and a onetime presidential candidate of Gramm-like ineptitude. In a television interview a few weeks ago, Clark called McCain “a hero to me” and then said this: “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.” It’s hard to disagree with that–which is why no one does, not really. Is there anyone who thinks that every Vietnam-era POW fighter pilot is qualified to be president? How about the ones who didn’t get shot down? How about the ones who got shot down but didn’t become POWs? Where does the presidential qualification lie–in getting shot down, in getting captured, or in just being a fighter pilot?
People were too mad at Clark to take the time to ask such questions. The reaction was so hostile and immediate that Obama repudiated his supporter the next day. In a speech, Obama chose to rephrase Clark’s statement into a statement Clark hadn’t made, and then to disavow it boldly, courageously, forthrightly. “No one,” said Obama, eyes flashing, “should ever devalue [McCain’s] service, especially for the sake of a political campaign.”
Clark hadn’t devalued McCain’s service, of course. He’d just spoken a truth–a truism, almost. For Obama, however, the repudiation of Clark was a two-fer: Not only did he misrepresent what Clark had said–thus pushing the political conversation back toward its usual falseness and misdirection–but he also got to look bipartisan. In this era of raging, vicious partisanship, Americans crave bipartisan misrepresentation.
Nobody, I’ll bet, understands this better than Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 vice presidential candidate who committed the year’s most spectacular example of the truth offense. Ferraro beats out several competitors. These include Austan Goolsbee, an economic adviser to Obama who was criticized for uttering the truth that his candidate will moderate his opposition to free trade once he’s in the White House, just as, historically, all anti-free trade presidential candidates have done. Ferraro tops even Samantha Power, the Obama adviser who made the unmentionably true assertion that Obama, if elected, would “revisit” his campaign pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq in 16 months.
True, true, all offensively true: but not as unmentionable as the truths that Geraldine Ferraro let slip. “In 1984,” Ferraro said a few months ago, “if my name was Gerard Ferraro instead of Geraldine Ferraro, I would not have been chosen as a vice presidential candidate.” True! In the same way, Ferraro said, referring to Obama’s amazing rise in presidential politics, “If Obama were a white man, he would not be in this position.” Double true! Obama called her statement “absurd” and an example of “slice and dice politics”–a charge that would have stung if anyone had known what “slice and dice politics” meant.
Ferraro flailed away in protest at the resulting controversy, growing so desperate that she even agreed to appear with Bill O’Reilly. But she was doomed, and she probably knew it. One voice was raised in defense of her truth telling, though: that of Bob Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television. He’s black too.
“Geraldine Ferraro said it right,” said Johnson: Obama wouldn’t be leading the presidential race if he were a white politician from Illinois with four years’ experience in the U.S. Senate.
Then Johnson lamented the quality of talk in the presidential campaign. “It’s almost impossible for anybody to say anything.”
Listen to this man! He speaks the truth. So you may not hear from him again till the campaign is over.