Category Archives: Politics

Ben Carson, Politico and the truth

Ben Carson in Nashua, New Hampshire, in July. Photo (cc) by Marc Nozell.

Ben Carson in Nashua, New Hampshire, in July. Photo (cc) by Marc Nozell.

The doubts raised by Ben Carson and his defenders are beginning to recede. Politico’s story that the Republican presidential candidate had “fabricated” his oft-told tale about being offered a “free scholarship” to West Point is looking reasonably strong, though not perfect.

In an editor’s note that now appears at the top of the story, Politico says it stands behind staff writer Kyle Cheney’s reporting while conceding that the Carson campaign had not admitted to any falsehoods. Media blogger Erik Wemple of The Washington Post has a good rundown.

We still don’t know exactly what happened. My theory is that Politico’s editors took a solid story and got themselves into trouble by cranking the volume up to 11. But even though Carson is not admitting to anything (see this New York Times account of the uncharacteristically belligerent news conference over which he presided on Friday), the evidence is piling up that he is, in fact, a serial fabricator.

Particularly devastating is this Wall Street Journal article (sub. req.*) by Reid Epstein that recounts the questions raised about Carson’s autobiography in recent days. It offers some new details as well. This passage is a jaw-dropper:

In his 1990 autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” Mr. Carson writes of a Yale psychology professor who told Mr. Carson, then a junior, and the other students in the class—identified by Mr. Carson as Perceptions 301 — that their final exam papers had “inadvertently burned,” requiring all 150 students to retake it. The new exam, Mr. Carson recalled in the book, was much tougher. All the students but Mr. Carson walked out.

“The professor came toward me. With her was a photographer for the Yale Daily News who paused and snapped my picture,” Mr. Carson wrote. “ ‘A hoax,’ the teacher said. ‘We wanted to see who was the most honest student in the class.’ ” Mr. Carson wrote that the professor handed him a $10 bill.

No photo identifying Mr. Carson as a student ever ran, according to the Yale Daily News archives, and no stories from that era mention a class called Perceptions 301. Yale Librarian Claryn Spies said Friday there was no psychology course by that name or class number during any of Mr. Carson’s years at Yale.

When the dust settles, I suspect that Politico’s tactical retreat is not going to look like a very big deal. We are left with a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination who appears to have concocted multiple elements of his life story and who has made bizarre or offensive (or both) statements about Muslims and the presidency, Jewish victims of the Holocaust and (yes) the pyramids.

The next Republican debate is Tuesday night. It will be interesting to see if Carson is willing to show up and face the music not just from those nasty moderators but from his fellow candidates as well.

*You do know how to access Wall Street Journal articles if you’re a non-subscriber, right? Just search for a phrase from the article in Google, click and you’ve got the whole thing. It’s OK — Rupert knows about it.

George Bush Sr.’s no-class putdown of Michael Dukakis

Michael Dukakis. Via

Michael Dukakis. Via

While you are enjoying George H.W. Bush’s putdowns of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and, yes, George W., pause for a moment and consider his vicious characterization of Northeastern’s Michael Dukakis, one of our great public citizens, as a “midget nerd.”

No, I don’t necessarily expect a 91-year-old to know that “the M-word” is considered offensive to people in the dwarfism community. But one of the reasons it’s offensive is that it’s nearly always used to demean and degrade someone. (Dukakis, obviously, is not a dwarf; he is merely on the short side of average.)

The elder Bush has his good qualities, but he could be a nasty piece of work. You may recall that his late henchman, Lee Atwater, issued a deathbed apology for the “naked cruelty” and racism of Bush’s campaign against Dukakis in 1988, in which Atwater said he “would strip the bark off the little bastard.” Somehow I doubt Bush is going to say he’s sorry.

CNBC plays into the right’s extravagant sense of victimhood

272px-CNBC_logo.svgPreviously published at

For Republican politicians, whining about the media comes as naturally as invoking misty memories of Ronald Reagan. It’s a sure-fire applause line, as complaints about the liberal press play into the right’s extravagant sense of victimhood. And there are occasions when those complaints are actually on the mark.

Wednesday night’s presidential debate was one of those occasions. The CNBC panelists turned in a performance that I’m sure was intended as an aggressive attempt to hold the Republican candidates to account. It came off instead as sneering and disrespectful in tone, petty and irrelevant in substance.

Asked about the compromise on the debt limit that Congress seems likely to approve, Ted Cruz responded with a devastatingly accurate summary of the proceedings that had unfolded up to that point.

“The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said as the audience applauded (exact quotes based on a transcript published by The Washington Post). “This is not a cage match. And, you look at the questions — ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?’ ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?”

In case you missed the debate, let me assure you that Cruz was not exaggerating. Those were actual questions asked by debate panelists Carl Quintanilla, John Harwood and Becky Quick. Several other CNBC hosts popped up in cameos, with the unhinged stock-market cheerleader Jim Cramer and the original Tea Party instigator Rick Santelli competing to see who could yell louder.

“All of the highlights — ALL of them — will be about candidates slamming the terrible questions and conduct of debate,” tweeted conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt afterwards.

On CNN, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus seethed with righteous indignation when Dana Bash stuck a microphone in his face. “I’m very disappointed in the moderators, and I’m very disappointed in CNBC,” he said. Bash and Anderson Cooper, who was on the anchor desk, agreed that they’d never seen anything quite like Priebus’ pique. “For him to come out and bash the network, I was pretty surprised,” said Bash.

If there was a takeaway worth noting other than CNBC’s conduct, it involves who might have actually won the encounter. Count me among those who believed the most important contest was between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the theory being that one of them is likely to emerge as the nominee after the novelty candidacies of Donald Trump and Ben Carson fade.

And yes, there was a clear winner. That’s Rubio you see bouncing around the ring, fists in the air, while Bush is lying unconscious on the canvas with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. With his campaign fading and his continued viability on the line, Bush delivered what may have been the worst in a series of uninspiring debate performances, although I would have no problem letting him make my fantasy-football picks for me. (He’s 7-0!)

Rubio, meanwhile, was crisp, focused and able to turn aside tough questions without quite answering them, as he did with one from Harwood about the Tax Foundation’s criticism of his tax plan.

Rubio skillfully went after the media as well. When Quintanilla asked him about an editorial in the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, suggesting that he resign for missing too many Senate votes, Rubio responded that the paper had endorsed Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry and Barack Obama despite their having compiled similar records. “This is another example of the double standard that exists in this country between the mainstream media and the conservative movement,” Rubio said. Later, after Trump denounced Super PACs (with no follow-up from the intrepid panelists about Trump’s recent close encounter with a Super PAC), Rubio interjected, “The Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC — it’s called the mainstream media.”

But Bush versus Rubio was the undercard. The main event matched Trump against Carson. According to the most recent New York Times-CBS News poll, Carson now leads Trump nationally for the first time, with a margin of 26 percent to 22 percent. Everyone else is in single-digit territory.

So how did they do? I’m not in a good position to judge. I have no patience for Trump’s arrogant anger about Mexican immigrants or for Carson’s soft-spoken absurdities about the Holocaust. For what it’s worth, social-media analyst Dan Diamond tweeted that Carson led the field after the debate by gaining 6,200 new followers on Twitter (he has 838,000 overall). Coming in second was Rubio with 4,200 (924,000 overall) and Trump third with 3,500 (4.7 million). We’ll probably have to wait a day or two for a more scientific poll.

The story that’s likely to linger, though, is CNBC’s conduct. Two generations ago, Spiro Agnew denounced the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” thus helping to define the conservative case against the media. On Wednesday night, Carl Quintanilla and company turned in a performance that will be remembered by the media’s conservative critics for a long time to come.

Woodward: The Post is ‘more authoritative’ than the Times


Woodward in 2010. Photo (cc) by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin.

Previously published at

Is The Washington Post “more authoritative” than The New York Times? You might expect investigative reporting legend Bob Woodward to say so. After all, Woodward has spent nearly his entire career at the Post, and institutional loyalty runs deep.

Still, Woodward’s remarks — delivered at a stop on his latest book tour Tuesday night in Harvard Square — come at a time when they’re likely to garner more attention than they otherwise might. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who bought the Post from the Graham family nearly two years ago, is sinking money and resources into the paper. And media analysts like Ken Doctor are saying that the Post is making its first serious run at the Times in many years.

Asked by a member of the audience about changes in the media business, Woodward responded with an unsolicited paean to Bezos. “I think he’s helping us as a business,” Woodward said. “It’s a better website. I find things much more authoritative, quite frankly, than The New York Times, to be honest.”

And when asked by his interlocutor, Washington insider-turned-Harvard academic David Gergen, whether newspapers remain committed to investigative reporting, Woodward replied: “I know The Washington Post is, because I asked Jeff Bezos. He has the money. We talked about this. He said I could quote him on this, and I will. He said, ‘Rest assured, Marty’ — Baron, the editor — ‘will have the resources he needs.’”

Woodward will forever be remembered as one-half of the twentysomething reporting duo (with Carl Bernstein) who broke open the Watergate story and brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. Now a no-longer-boyish 72, Woodward was on hand to promote his latest book, “The Last of the President’s Men.” In it, Woodward tells the story of Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide who revealed the existence of the White House taping system before a congressional committee, thus providing the evidence that Nixon really was a crook.

Several hundred people crowded into the First Parish Church for Woodward’s reading, sponsored by the Harvard Book Store. The book is based on some 40 hours’ worth of interviews Woodward conducted with Butterfield, as well as a trove of documents. Butterfield, Woodward said, provided invaluable insights into the inner workings of the Nixon White House, especially of the early years. “For two years, there was no taping system,” he said. “In a sense Butterfield became the tape recorder.”

The event began on a light-hearted note, with Gergen — who served four presidents, including Nixon — asking, “When did you all sense that you were on to something much bigger than you’d thought?” Woodward’s response: “When Nixon resigned.”

The conversation, though, took a darker turn as Woodward described Nixon’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in “The Last of the President’s Men” is that Nixon ordered more and more bombs to be dropped during 1972 — the year he was up for re-election — even though he secretly acknowledged it had accomplished “zilch.” The reason, Woodward said, was that polling showed the bombing campaign was popular with the American public.

“It’s close to a war crime,” Woodward said.

Equally nauseating was Nixon’s response to journalist Seymour Hersh’s revelation in 1969 that American troops had massacred civilians in the village of My Lai. Nixon ordered Butterfield to go after everyone involved in exposing it, including the soldier who blew the whistle, Life and Time magazines and a perceived enemy who Woodward said was described by Nixon as “a liberal Jew.”

The mood brightened considerably when Gergen asked Woodward how he would go about investigating the leading 2016 presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Woodward said he would talk about Trump first, and then brought down the house with this: “Can we ask the audience a question? How many people want the next president to be somebody who has no touch with reality?”

As for Clinton, Woodward turned the tables and questioned Gergen.

Woodward: “You worked with her.”

Gergen: “I did.”

Woodward: “Do you trust her?”

Gergen paused before answering: “I have found — I don’t think she — I don’t think she tells lies. I think she’s careful with the truth.”

Woodward, after the laughs had faded away: “You didn’t get to work for all these presidents for no reason.”

Notwithstanding Woodward’s enthusiasm for Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Post, his talk was, in some respects, an elegy for the kind of journalism Woodward represents. Whether you prefer the Post or the Times, at their best they stand for a rigor that often seems to be on the wane.

For all the faults of the 1970s-era press, there was something approaching a national consensus that made it possible for a story like Watergate to keep building. These days, the media are too fragmented, with too many so-called news outlets aligned with partisan interests. Fox News chief Roger Ailes would release his flying monkeys to go after the liberal media and it would all end in a standoff.

Though Woodward’s establishment-oriented journalism is sometimes criticized, including by none other than the aforementioned Hersh, he nevertheless represents something important: the power of the press to do good through thorough, indefatigable reporting aimed at rooting out the truth rather than serving some ideological cause.

Thanks for the assist from Kylie Ayal, a third-year journalism student at Boston University, who supplied me with a copy of her audio file of the event after I managed to erase mine by mistake.

Is Mitt the one? For House speaker, that is!

Mitt Romney in 2010. Photo (cc) by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

Mitt Romney in 2010. Photo (cc) by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

Previously published at

House Republicans appear to have reached their End of Days. David Brooks of The New York Times, a moderate conservative who at one time would have epitomized Establishment Republicanism, has analyzed the situation brilliantly. So has Gene Lyons, a liberal, at The National Memo.

The immediate crisis is that the House of Representatives appears incapable of electing a speaker to succeed John Boehner. The problem is that Republicans on the extreme right vow not to respect the choice of the Republican caucus. That means no one will get a majority once the speakership comes to a full vote in the House, since nearly all of the Democrats will vote for their party’s leader, Nancy Pelosi.

So I have an idea, and I thought I’d toss it out there. We’re already having a good discussion about it on Facebook. How about a moderate Republican who’s not currently a member of the House (yes, it’s allowed) and who would be supported by a majority of Republicans and Democrats. How about — as my friend Catherine Tumber suggested — Mitt Romney?

Please understand that by “moderate” I mean moderate by the standards of 2015. Boehner may be the most conservative House speaker of modern times, but he’s a moderate by comparison with the right-wingers who are holding the House hostage. And so is Romney, who’d finally get the big job in Washington that he’s long lusted for.

Under this scenario, the Republicans would necessarily pay a high price for their inability to govern. House rules would have to be changed to give the Democrats more of a voice and maybe even a few committee chairmanships. The idea is to form a coalition government that cuts out the extreme right wing.

The chief impediment would be that Democrats might not want to throw the Republicans a life preserver under any circumstance, especially with the presidential campaign under way. But it would be the right thing to do, and I hope people of good will consider it. Or as Norman Ornstein, who predicted this mess, so elegantly puts it in an interview with Talking Points Memo: “We’re talking about the fucking country that is at stake here.”

The debate’s big losers: CNN and new media platforms

Photo by xx

Photo (cc) by Gregor Smith

Previously published at

My view of the winners and losers in Tuesday night’s Democratic debate is pretty much the same as what I’ve seen from other observers. Hillary Clinton won with a strong, polished performance (and was likable enough). Bernie Sanders was uneven but had his moments. And Martin O’Malley emerged as the only real alternative to the two front-runners, as Jim Webb fizzled and Lincoln Chafee popped.

So let me turn instead to the biggest loser of the debate: CNN, which for whatever reason just can’t seem to get its act together. Moderator Anderson Cooper is a smart, authoritative presence, but during the debate he was both too authoritative and too present. He interrupted constantly. Every candidate’s answer, it seemed, played out against a backdrop of Cooper trying to get him or her to stop. Sometimes a strong hand is needed. But politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley instructed us. Let them mix it up.

Far worse was CNN’s weirdly tone-deaf wallowing in racial and gender stereotypes. It was well into the debate before we heard from a black journalist, Don Lemon. So naturally he drew the assignment of asking about the Black Lives Matter movement. As “Beat the Press” contributor Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab tweeted:

Later on, the first question about immigration came from — yes — Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Español. After that, someone on Twitter wondered sardonically if Dana Bash had been designated to ask about abortion rights. Not quite. But Bash did ask Clinton about family leave, which prompted an exchange on the challenges faced by working mothers. Hey, CNN: minority and female journalists are capable of asking about gun control and campaign-finance reform, too.

It was not a great night for new media, whether you’re talking about new new media (Snapchat), old new media (Twitter) or ancient new media (Facebook). Facebook actually co-sponsored the debate, but I couldn’t find anything especially compelling. I did run across one amusing video on CNN’s Facebook page (flagged by local social-media guy Steve Garfield) on a behind-the-scenes look at debate preparations. As it ended, the host, Chris Moody, turned toward the camera and said, “It’s been real. Thanks, Snapchat.” Realizing his mistake, he turned to others and repeated his mistake. “I said Snapchat.” A pause. “Bye, Facebook. Sorry, Facebook.” To quote a famous debate moment: “Oops.

Twitter is still the go-to place for real-time conversation during a news event. But I kept checking a running story on the debate that was posted in Twitter’s brand-new Moments section, and what I found was pretty weak. It was too mainstream; tweets were posted in chronological rather than reverse chronological order; and there was little of the sense of unexpected discovery that draws me to Twitter. As described by Mathew Ingram of Fortune, Moments is supposed to be a curated news experience aimed at users who find “real” Twitter too confusing and time-consuming. Maybe it will catch on, but I just didn’t see much value in it.

As for Snapchat, well, better luck next time? At a recent appearance at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Snapchat’s chief journalist, Peter Hamby, waxed enthusiastic about the Live Stories the mobile-only service posted after the two Republican debates. Maybe we’ll have to wait until Wednesday, but as I write this — around midnight on Tuesday — there’s nothing. And CNN’s Snapchat channel is still devoted entirely to a preview of the debate.

Again, we’ll have to wait for Wednesday. But I could sneak back downstairs and watch post-debate reaction on my old-fashioned TV. Isn’t online media supposed to offer a sense of immediacy that legacy platforms lack?


Will the media call out Trump on his anti-vaxxer nonsense?

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

By any reasonable standard of what constitutes acceptable public discourse, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign should have ended on Wednesday at about 10:50 p.m.

That’s when he set his extravagantly sprayed hair on fire by indulging in some truly dangerous myths about vaccines. It was, by any measure, a deeply irresponsible exercise. I’d call it pandering, except that it’s possible he believes his own foolishness.

It began when CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper invited candidate Ben Carson, a physician, to lambaste Trump for repeating the false claims of the anti-vaxxer movement linking vaccines to autism. Carson responded mildly — too mildly. And that gave Trump an opportunity to pounce.

“I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” Trump began. A few seconds later came this: “Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Sadly, neither Carson nor the other physician-candidate, Rand Paul, wanted to rile the conspiracy theorists they’re hoping to win over. So both men oh-so-respectfully disagreed with Trump while actually endorsing his statement that parents ought to be able to spread out the timetable for their children to get vaccinated.

“It is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time,” Carson said. Added Paul, who’s traveled down this road before: “I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom.”

In case you’re not up on all the details, Julia Belluz of Vox offers an overview of the “elaborate fraud” behind the thoroughly debunked link between vaccines and autism. As for Trump’s spread-them-out advice and Carson’s and Paul’s weasely responses, science journalist Tara Haelle wrote in Forbes:

Vaccines are very precisely manufactured to include only what is absolutely necessary to induce enough of an immune response that the body can protect itself against those diseases. So a smaller dose wouldn’t protect a child. It would stick a child with a needle for no reason at all. And spreading out vaccines? That just increases the risks to the children, including leaving them more susceptible to the diseases for a longer period of time.

So what was CNN’s responsibility in promoting Trump’s life-threatening views? Some, such as Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan, took to Twitter to argue that Tapper shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.

I disagree. If, God help us, Trump actually got elected president, he’s going to be besieged by anti-vaxxers demanding that he translate his rhetoric into policy. Then, too, Michele Bachmann in 2011 and Chris Christie earlier this year did enormous damage to themselves by embracing the anti-vaccine movement. Why should it be any different this time?

Still, Wednesday night felt like a botched opportunity to educate viewers about the importance of vaccines.

Media reaction to Wednesday night’s anti-vaxxer moment was slow out of the gate, but by later Thursday and on Friday it had picked up. A particularly intriguing tidbit comes from Stat, a life-sciences vertical that’s part of The Boston Globe. According to reporters Eric Boodman and Ike Swetlitz, Trump is both a donor to and supporter of Autism Speaks, which emphatically rejects the anti-vaxxer myth.

In the immediate aftermath of the debate, the most addled take was offered by The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes (God love him), who wrote that Trump “surprised everyone, including Dr. Ben Carson, by being well-informed on the use of vaccines. As usual, he was a powerful presence.” You can’t make this stuff up.

The New York Times Tuesday morning had little except for a line in Gail Collins’ column and an item by Margot Sanger-Katz in its liveblog; later in the day it posted a strong article by Sabrina Tavernise and Catherine Saint Louis. The Washington Post published a long post by Michael E. Miller headlined “The GOP’s dangerous ‘debate’ on vaccines and autism.” Here’s how Miller described Carson blowing the big moment Tapper handed to him:

For months, Carson has touted his medical expertise while on the campaign trail. And in the weeks since the first debate, the famed surgeon has risen in the polls as a milder-mannered, more rational alternative to Trump.

Now was his chance for a home run; a big hit as swift and incisive as any surgical operation.

Instead, Carson bunted.

In Politico, Ben Schreckinger speculated that Trump’s “weak command” of the issues — including vaccines — may be the prelude to his long-anticipated decline. “The conversation has moved beyond Donald Trump,” he wrote. Added Jamelle Bouie of Slate: “The good news is that this debate might mark the beginning of the end for Trump, who struggled to tackle substantive questions on foreign policy, his advisers, and what he’d actually do as president of the United States.”

We’ll see. Some 51 percent of respondents to a survey posted at the Drudge Report thought Trump won; Fiorina came in second with just 19 percent. It was totally unscientific, of course, but more than 680,000 people took the time to register their views.

Overall it was a dispiriting night. It was somehow appropriate that it ended with the news that right-wing hatemonger Ann Coulter was ranting on Twitter about the “f—ing Jews.” I mean, really. What else?

The vaccine issue, though, deserves to linger — and fester, and grow, until all but Trump’s most unhinged supporters understand that this man has no business being anywhere near the White House.

Published previously at and The Huffington Post.