False rumors about Wu’s mental health recall attacks on Michael Dukakis in 1988

Then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1987. Photo (cc) City of Boston Archives.

Today’s Boston Globe story about the right-wing whispering campaign suggesting that Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has suffered from serious panic attacks while in office (there is no evidence) calls to mind the rumors about Michael Dukakis’ mental health that circulated during his 1988 presidential campaign.

Dukakis’ Republican opponent, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, helmed one of the dirtiest campaigns in the modern era. Everyone remembers the racist Willie Horton ad, but there were also rumors — grounded in nothing — that Dukakis suffered from depression.

As recalled in this retrospective by Dylan Scott in Stat News, President Ronald Reagan got in on the act, pushing into the mainstream a conspiracy theory that emanated from LaRouchie right:

In early August, in those pre-Twitter days, Reagan made the gossip front-page news. The president said at a White House press conference, in response to a question about Dukakis, that he didn’t want to “pick on an invalid.”

Reagan quickly apologized, but the story was off and running. The New York Times and Washington Post wrote editorials denouncing the attacks. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald published lengthy stories about the rumors and their source.

Dukakis’ 17-point polling lead over Bush collapsed, and, of course, Bush went on to win that November. As Dukakis said, “you don’t drop eight points in a week for nothing.”

The claim may have resonated because there was just enough there for the conspiracists to dig into. Dukakis’ wife, Kitty Dukakis, had long suffered from depression, and, as the Stat piece noted, biographies of Dukakis said that “he had been unhappy after his brother died in 1973 and, again in 1978, after he lost his reelection for governor.” Nothing unusual about that, of course.

So, too, with Wu. Her mother has struggled with mental illness. And in January the Globe published a story that included this line: “A decade ago, when Wu first mentioned to someone outside her close circle that she was considering a run for office, she had a panic attack; she had to walk across the room and crouch down to calm herself.” In other words, years ago and hardly unusual behavior — and also a long way from landing in the hospital, as the current rumors claim.

The false rumors about Wu have almost but not quite broken into the mainstream, according to the Globe’s Emma Platoff. Greg Hill of WEEI Radio (93.7 FM) mentioned them sympathetically, perhaps unaware that there was nothing to them. Platoff also cites a column in late January by the Boston Herald’s Joe Battenfeld, who wrote: “Unfortunately for the Harvard-educated Wu, there isn’t an Ivy League seminar or class to learn how to grapple with these anxiety-inducing problems.” But having read Battenfeld’s column in its entirety, I don’t agree that he was making any reference to the rumors.

One unanswerable question about all this is whether a major media outlet like the Globe should amplify the rumors. Platoff addresses that:

There are those who believe this Globe story will worsen the problem. Experts say it can be a mistake to mention this kind of misinformation in a reputable newspaper; that even debunking a rumor grants it oxygen. But as this false claim spreads through the city’s power centers, it has already leaked into public discourse. And the mayor, who has been open about her mother’s struggle with schizophrenia, was glad to correct the record, saying it was important to call out both mental health stigma and misinformation.

She also quotes Wu herself, who says it’s better to address the rumors head-on than to let them fester. “I want to be transparent about the presence of these tactics, even today, because we need to acknowledge it to be able to change it,” Wu told Platoff. “It does feel connected to larger trends in politics and international politics: If you just repeat something that’s false enough times, at least you can sow a little doubt in the broader public’s mind. And that’s a really dangerous place to be.”

I don’t know whether putting it out there is a good idea or not. As Wu herself acknowledges, it’s already partly out there, so perhaps it’s better to address it head-on. Still, people are going to believe what they want to believe. We are long past the time when facts made any difference. We weren’t even there in 1988.

The Supreme Court’s vote to uphold the Texas abortion law is an affront to democracy

Photo (cc) 2006 by OZinOH

In analyzing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote not to overturn Texas’ drastic new abortion restrictions, a number of commentators have focused on the role played by the three justices nominated by Donald Trump — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

All three, needless to say, are wildly controversial. Gorsuch was chosen after then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused even to take up Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, who’s now attorney general. Kavanaugh was confirmed despite serious and credible allegations of sexual assault. Barrett was rushed through before the 2020 election following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But there is a more systemic problem, and that’s the failure of democracy that made last’s week’s decision possible. Trump, as we all know, lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by about 3 million votes. He won only because the Electoral College, a relic of slavery, provides small rural states with disproportionate power. Yet he got to appoint one-third of the current court.

Moreover, all three of Trump’s justices were confirmed by a Senate controlled by the Republicans even though they represented fewer people than the Democrats. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were confirmed during the first two years of Trump’s term, when the Democratic senators represented 56% of the population nationwide compared to the Republican share of 44%. That margin had narrowed slightly by the time Barrett was confirmed, but 53% of the population was still represented by Democratic senators compared to 47% by Republicans. (See my analysis.)

The other two justices who voted to uphold the Texas law were Clarence Thomas, appointed by George H.W. Bush, who was a majority president, and Samuel Alito, appointed by George W. Bush during his second term, which he won by a majority after losing the popular vote the first time around. But that’s just two votes. If Obama and Clinton had named three justices instead of Trump, it’s easy to imagine that the Texas law would have been suspended by a 7-2 vote. It’s just as easy to imagine that the Texas legislature wouldn’t have passed such a perverse and draconian law in the first place.

This is not democracy. Nor is it republicanism, since a properly designed republic is supposed to represent a majority of the electorate by proxy. It’s fair to ask how long this can go on before the majority stands up and demands an end to government by the minority.

President Bush and Judge Tauro were champions of disability rights

President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Two giants in fighting for the dignity of people with disabilities have died. The better known is President George H.W. Bush, whose long list of accomplishments includes championing the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he signed into law on July 26, 1990. Here’s an excerpt from his remarks that day:

Three weeks ago we celebrated our nation’s Independence Day. Today we’re here to rejoice in and celebrate another “independence day,” one that is long overdue. With today’s signing of the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom. As I look around at all these joyous faces, I remember clearly how many years of dedicated commitment have gone into making this historic new civil rights act a reality. It’s been the work of a true coalition, a strong and inspiring coalition of people who have shared both a dream and a passionate determination to make that dream come true. It’s been a coalition in the finest spirit — a joining of Democrats and Republicans, of the legislative and the executive branches, of Federal and State agencies, of public officials and private citizens, of people with disabilities and without.

Judge Tauro. Via Open Jurist.

The other champion of disability rights is retired federal judge Joseph Tauro, who, as Bryan Marquard put it in The Boston Globe, “issued rulings that forced the state to spend millions more to care for the developmentally disabled and to create lifetime individual treatment plans for patients.”

As a district court judge, Tauro presided over lawsuits aimed at calling attention to the horrendous and shameful treatment of the developmentally disabled at our state hospitals. He was involved in those cases for more than two decades. I was especially struck by this from the Globe obit:

In 1973, Judge Tauro first toured the Belchertown facility with Benjamin Ricci, a college professor whose son was at the school. Before letting the judge leave, Ricci brought him to a remote part of the grounds “where there was a graveyard that had no gravestones, just plugs on the ground with numbers on it,” Judge Tauro recalled in a 2006 Globe interview.

“And he said, ‘I know you can only do so much, but do you think you can make them give all these people gravestones?’ I came very close to crying when he made that request. I just nodded at him, and of course I had that burned in the back of my head,” Judge Tauro added. “And we, fortunately, did a lot more than that.”

RIP to both President Bush and Judge Tauro, who dedicated themselves to a life of public service.

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It may not be over until the Republican House votes

Mitt Romney in 2012. Photo (cc) by Mark Taylor.
Mitt Romney in 2012. Photo (cc) by Mark Taylor.

Instant update: Well, no. As several friends have pointed out to me, the Twelfth Amendment specifies that the House would have to choose among the top three finishers. Someone who didn’t run would not be eligible.

Now that we know Bill Kristol’s efforts to draft a serious independent candidate come down to some guy named David French, who may not even say yes, it strikes me that the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld is in a position to do very well indeed.

How well? Ross Perot got 19 percent in 1992. I think he could have gotten at least 25 percent if he hadn’t wigged out, quit and then returned to the race. And Johnson is running against major-party candidates who are far less appealing than George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. This isn’t really fair to Hillary Clinton, whose main problem is that she’s been viciously attacked for 25 years, but there you go.

The real issue, of course, isn’t Clinton; it’s that there are plenty of principled conservatives and Republicans (like Tom Nichols) who are never going to vote for a racist demagogue like Donald Trump. How many? We’ll find out. But possibly enough to throw the election into the Republican-controlled House.

Which means that the Romney 2016 campaign isn’t quite dead yet.

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

Michael Dukakis. Via Northeastern.edu
Michael Dukakis. Via northeastern.edu.

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.

Media Nation’s top 10 posts of 2012

be02f758328311e2b55612313804a1b1_7Work-force reductions at The Boston Globe. The end of WFNX as an over-the-air radio station. “Local” news from the Philippines. Possible bankruptcy at GateHouse Media.

These were a few of the top 10 Media Nation posts of 2012 as determined by Google Analytics and WordPress’ own internal statistics.

Most people who read Media Nation come in via the home page, which means that any notion of a “top 10” is dubious. Usually it means that a particular post got retweeted a lot on Twitter or was linked to by a popular media website such as JimRomenesko.com.

But the list isn’t entirely without meaning — and one takeaway for me is that Media Nation’s role as an aggregator and a curator may be its most important. I’ll keep that in mind in the year ahead.

Here is my top 10 for 2012.

1. The Boston Globe keeps on shrinking (July 23). Despite some encouraging signs in the form of rising digital-subscription numbers and a continued commitment to first-rate journalism, The Boston Globe, like nearly all daily newspapers, continues to struggle financially. Last summer Media Nation obtained a memo from Globe publisher Christopher Mayer announcing another wave of downsizing at the Globe and its sister paper, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester.

2. Donna Halper on the future of radio (May 17). Friend of Media Nation Donna Halper was kind enough to write a guest commentary, and her post turned out to be the second most popular of 2012. Halper wrote following an announcement by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group that it would sell WFNX’s broadcast frequency, 101.7 FM, to Clear Channel. Fortunately for local music fans, by the end of 2012 WFNX and the Globe’s RadioBDC were engaged in a spirited competition of online-only local music stations — the real future of radio.

3. Long-distance “local” journalism (July 5). The public radio program “This American Life” and the journalist Anna Tarkov reported extensively on Journatic, which helps community newspapers cuts costs by outsourcing some of their local coverage. At its worst, news was being compiled by underpaid Filipino workers writing under fake bylines. Dubbed “pink slime” journalism by one former practitioner, Journatic underscored what debt-ridden corporate chains will do to survive — and thus demonstrated the importance of independent local journalism.

4. And Joe Scarborough thinks “Morning Joe” is awesome (Jan. 1). A full-page ad in The New York Times for the wretched MSNBC program “Morning Joe” started the gears whirring when I noticed one of its celebrity endorsers was Tom Brokaw. Who, uh, appears on “Morning Joe.” I got to work, and soon found that Politico, which was quoted as praising the program, had an undisclosed partnership. The ad even stooped to using seemingly positive quotes from two reviewers who actually didn’t like it much at all. Disingenuous, to say the least.

5. More bad news for GateHouse Media (March 19). By now it’s not exactly news when executives at GateHouse Media, struggling with $1.2 billion in debt, pay themselves handsome bonuses. (Nor is that unusual at newspaper companies.) In 2012, though, there was a wrinkle at the chain, which owns some 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts. Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine paged through the company’s financial disclosures and discovered that officials were openly raising the possibility of a bankruptcy filing.

6. David Gregory debates himself (Oct. 1). The host of “Meet the Press” was brought in to moderate the second televised debate between Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren. Unfortunately, it was all about David Gregory. Good thing the candidates were forced to weigh in on whether Bobby Valentine deserved a second year as Red Sox manager. Warren blew the question but won the election.

7. From Newtown, a plea for media restraint (Dec. 17). I republished an open letter from John Voket, associate editor of The Newtown Bee, to his colleagues at the New England Newspaper & Press Association following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Voket wrote about “reporters and media crews invading the yards and space of grieving survivors, school staff and responders,” and asked editors “to remind your correspondents that most are still requesting to be left alone.” A heartfelt message from ground zero.

8. Calling foul on politicians who lie (Aug. 30). It would be hard to come up with a more falsehood-laden performance than U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Ryan’s lies prompted me to wonder how far the balance-obsessed media would be willing to go in labeling them for what they were.

9. At CNN, getting it first and getting it wrong (June 28). My instant reaction to CNN’s false report that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. At least CNN executives flogged themselves in the public square. As we later learned, Fox News made the same mistake — and refused to apologize.

10. An unconscionable vote against the disabled (Dec. 5). My reaction to Senate Republicans’ rejection of a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled — a treaty modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, championed by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.

Ghosts of 2011. Oddly enough, the single most popular post of 2012 was one I wrote in 2011 — a fairly terse item on Jay Severin’s return to the Boston airwaves, a comeback that proved to be brief. As I wrote last year, I’ve put up several Severin posts that have generated huge traffic, and I have no idea why.

Republicans find another group to alienate: the disabled

Bob Dole in 2008. Photo (cc) by Kevin Rofidal and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Bob Dole in 2008. Photo (cc) by Kevin Rofidal and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

It’s hard to imagine a more disgraceful moment for the modern Republican Party.

The Senate was voting on whether to accept a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled — a treaty that was reportedly modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the great accomplishments of President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.

Former Republican senator Bob Dole, 89, sitting in a wheelchair, was on hand to lend his support. Dole, of course, was disabled long before old age rendered him a wheelchair-user — a consequence of his heroism in World War II.

And Republican senators voted against the treaty, 38-8. Not a single Democrat voted against it. Sixty-one senators were in favor — five short of the two-thirds needed.

We in Massachusetts, at least, can hold our heads high: Sen. Scott Brown was among the hardy band of Republicans who voted in favor. And Democratic Sen. John Kerry delivered what the New York Times called “his most impassioned speech all year” in urging his fellow senators to approve the treaty.

After losing the election in part because they alienated African-Americans, Latinos, gay men and lesbians, you would think that Republicans wouldn’t be looking for another group to infuriate.

You would be wrong.

Alexander Haig, 1924-2010

Alexander Haig

Alexander Haig, a longtime Media Nation favorite, has died at the age of 85. My high regard for Haig is based on the three most famous incidents of his career. I can’t pretend to know what Haig was thinking, but my strong suspicion is that his contributions to the nation were never fully understood or appreciated.

First, as Richard Nixon’s chief of staff during the final days of Nixon’s presidency in 1974, Haig paved the way for Nixon’s peaceful departure from office — no sure thing at the time. There have been suggestions, never proven, that Haig was in on secret discussions with the Pentagon to disregard any orders from Nixon that could lead to a military coup or a nuclear strike. At the very least, Haig served as an honest broker between Nixon and then-vice president Gerald Ford, who may have promised a presidential pardon during this tense, dangerous period.

Second, Haig sacrificed his career as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state by reassuring a jittery public following the attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981. Haig may not have realized it at the time, but his words before the television cameras — often misquoted as “I’m in charge” — were misinterpreted by his enemies (deliberately, I would argue) to make it sound as though he was attempting his own coup, superseding then-vice president George H.W. Bush. (Haig’s actual words: “As of now, I am in control here, at the White House.”) Haig deserves credit for stepping up at a moment when others were running around like Chicken Little. As it turned out, that moment effectively marked the end of Haig’s public service; he left office the following year.

Finally, and I say this at least partly tongue-in-cheek, Haig entered the 1988 Republican presidential primaries for the sole purpose of sparing the country from George H.W. Bush. Haig had to know he personally had no chance of winning. Thus my suspicion is that he hoped to do enough damage to Bush in order to steer the nomination to Bob Dole. Haig’s classic putdown of Bush in a 1987 debate — “I never heard a wimp out of you” — was aimed at playing off a famous Newsweek cover story about Bush headlined “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.'” And when Haig, inevitably, pulled out of the race, he endorsed Dole. Bush prevailed, of course. But Haig did what he could.