Safire-works vs. Howard Dean

By: Mike Hersh - 10/21/03


Was Howard Dean dishonest when he said Sen. John McCain and a reporter misrepresented him? The NY Times' William Safire freely admits McCain called Dean's national security positions "way out of the mainstream." In an effort to substantiate this charge, McCain tried to claim Dean defended "two murdering rapist thugs," and says that "astounded" him. 

Did Dean do that? No, he never did. Even as Safire presents it, McCain has no legitimate basis for this claim: "Mr. McCain cited Dr. Dean's remark that 'the ends do not justify the means,' in reference to the death of Saddam Hussein's sons. 'I was astounded,' the senator said." 

As a Former Nixon speechwriter William Safire knows a thing or two about "fooling all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time." He likes to attack Democrats as dishonest - he called Hillary Clinton a "congenital liar" - but sometimes has a bit of trouble telling the truth himself. 

In his opinion column entitled "Dean's 'Urban Legend'" Mr. Safire implies Howard Dean dishonest as well as infuriated and angry, and peers into his crystal ball to predict, "Dean spinmeisters will abandon...." So what's all the fuss about? Safire claims a paraphrase plus a partial quote proves Dr. Dean is dishonest about what he's said in the past. [all quotations and excerpts from NY Times, October 13, 2003: 

Here are the complete passages Safire offers to demonstrate Dean's dishonesty:

What horrendous McCain smear was quoted in my colleague's story? Here's the passage in The Times, coming after McCain said that Dean's national security positions "are way out of the mainstream"

"For instance, Mr. McCain cited Dr. Dean's remark that 'the ends do not justify the means.' in reference to the death of Saddam Hussein's sons. 'I was astounded,' the senator said. 'The ends were to get rid of two murdering rapist thugs and the means was the use of American military intelligence.' " 

On what basis did McCain claim Dean is "way out of the mainstream" implying he defended "two murdering rapist thugs?"

"Questioned about the deaths of Saddam's sons, Odai and Qusai, in Iraq, Dean dismissed suggestions that it was a victory for the Bush administration. 'It's a victory for the Iraqi people . . . but it doesn't have any effect on whether we should or shouldn't have had a war,' Dean said. 'I think in general the ends do not justify the means.'" 

Apparently Safire missed the flap about his colleague Mo Dowd's misuse of ellipses as well as the moral credo denouncing those who defend ruthlessness by claiming the ends justify the means. Safire gamely backs John McCain's suggestion that Howard Dean is "way out of the mainstream" because he defended Saddam's two slain sons, Uday (or Odai) and Qusay Hussein, and Safire blasts Dean for denying he did so. 

Is Dean dishonest or is Safire spinning? What did Dr. Dean say, according to this "evidence" of support for Saddam's sons? "'It's a victory for the Iraqi people," apparently as opposed to a victory for the Bush administrations in its efforts to justify their war against Iraq. Nothing "way out of the mainstream" there, and no support for "two murdering rapist thugs."

We don't know what Dean said next, what he meant when he said "but it doesn't have any effect on whether we should or shouldn't have had a war." What did Dean mean? Who knows? We don't. William Safire sure doesn't. That's the trouble with ellipses.

If Dean meant the deaths of Saddam's sons "doesn't have any effect on whether we should or shouldn't have had a war," he has a point. Would most Americans support going to war just to kill two loathsome people, no matter how loathsome they might be? Do the deaths of two despicable men justify going to war? According to Safire and McCain, Dr. Dean is "way out of the mainstream" because he says no. 

Increasingly, Americans agree that the ends of this elective war do not justify the means. The means include 100s of American deaths, 1000s of American casualties, the deaths of 10,000s of innocent Iraqis, spending 100s of $billions along with loss of US respect world-wide. 

Although at one point Governor Dean was far ahead of - and therefore leading - public opinion, clearly he is in the mainstream now. Dean's steadfast truth-telling about the Iraq war helped reshape the debate on Iraq. That's what leaders do. 

In case Mr. Safire and Mr. McCain missed it, even Bush and his top officials admit they lack any evidence to support their reasons for the invasion. They lacked that evidence when they made the claims, making the claims lies. That's why Bush and his partisans - like McCain - trumpeted the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein in the first place. Bush backers hoped to drum up support for the war and distract from the questionable Bush policies. 

Howard Dean said "the ends don't justify the means," but because of the ... in the quote, we're not sure exactly which "ends" he meant. As more Americans understand Bush was misleading us by blaming Saddam for 9/11, making exaggerated claims that Iraq would soon threaten us with nuclear weapons and with other faked "evidence" and false rationalizations, they agree with Dr. Dean: Bush's war was wrong. 

Dean was correct saying that killing Saddam's sons was a victory for the Iraqi people, not Bush, which doesn't justify Bush's deceit and failure. Dean was not "soft" on the thugs, he was hard on Bush for lying us into war. 

This refutes Safire's accusation - which itself seems intended to punish Dean for daring to tell the truth about Bush's lies - and McCain's misrepresentations. 

How to square McCain's assertion with facts and trends when already half of all Americans have grave doubts about Bush's Iraq invasion? During his Nixon days Safire learned that if you can't defend your side's lies, you attack the truth tellers. Shamelessly, Safire piled onto McCain's misrepresentation to dishonestly accuse Dean of dishonesty. 

The only reasonable reading of Safire's (and McCain's) sole source for this Urban Legend claiming Dr. Dean defended Saddam's sons shows Dean "never said any such thing," just as he protests. To the Governor's credit, he didn't suffer dishonesty gladly. 

Against all reason, McCain spun a paraphrase and partial quote into a deceptive misrepresentation. Does Safire question McCain for this or challenge's Bush tall tails and lying us into war? No, he's too busy making cheap shots and ginning up support for Urban Legends purporting to show Dean - not Bush - is out of the mainstream. 

This is sloppy thinking, an illogical fallacy, implying that opposing Bush means supporting Saddam and his thugs. Safire's "evidence" shows, Dr. Dean did not defend Iraqi thugs. Dean called their deaths "a victory for the Iraqi people." Still, McCain spun Dean's opposition to war into implied support for Uday and Qusai Hussein based on a paraphrase and a ... partial quote. Still, Safire backs McCain's misleading comments, and bashes Dean.

We saw this sort of shoddy, unprofessional, apparently intentionally dishonest "journalism" throughout the 2000 Presidential Campaign. Back then, the NY Times' Katherine Seelye and others slammed Al Gore as a liar, often using misquotes to bolster their false accusations. Just like Safire did here to Dean. Safire knows better. Or he should. And after recent scandals for misleading its readers, so should the New York Times.

Reason, accuracy and fairness are supposed to count in the media. I had hoped the NY Times learned that bitter lesson after several fabrications appeared in its pages. Mr. Safire should stop spinning and stick to the facts. He should reject the Nixon legacy of lies and the "creative writing" approach which has plagued the NY Times. 

If you agree with me, please write to Mr. Safire, his readers and his bosses:

E-mail Mr. Safire:
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E-mail Letters to the Editors:
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Editorial page editor:
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The Executive Editor:
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The Managing Editor:
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Mike Hersh is a contributing writer for Liberal Slant


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