Last Night: Dumbing Down Honest Abe; A Conservative Who’s Right

Neal Gabler calls out the media for being lazy on Hillary Clinton's Lincoln reference in the second debate and cheers for a conservative columnist's principled critique of the Republican ticket.

Last Night: Dumbing Down Honest Abe; A Conservative Who's Right


Another installment in our ongoing effort to monitor how politics is covered on prime-time television (and, occasionally, other major media).


Abe Is No Laughing Matter

Onions to Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN, and everyone else in the media who laughed off Hillary Clinton’s comment on Abraham Lincoln in last Sunday’s debate.

Clinton, you may recall, was asked by moderator Martha Raddatz about a passage in a speech Clinton gave to a trade association of apartment building owners, developers, lenders and managers that had been released by WikiLeaks. In the passage, Clinton was purported to have said: “You need both a public and private position on certain issues.” Referring too this Raddatz, continued: “So, Thu, from Virginia asks, ‘Is it okay for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues?'” Clinton answered by invoking the Lincoln of the Steven Spielberg biopic, as she did in the speech itself, saying, “I was making the point that it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want to do and you have to keep working at it.  And, yes, President Lincoln was trying to convince some people, he used some arguments; convincing other people, he used other arguments. That was a great — I thought a great display of presidential leadership.”

Sliced red onions

Onions (Photo: Darwin Bell [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Trump cackled that Clinton was now blaming Abraham Lincoln for her lies, and got a laugh – a laugh that rattled through much of the post-debate dissection. It was an example both of media laziness, which is an epidemic in the press, and of the media’s lack of nuance, which hurts our democracy far more than many other press derelictions and shortcomings. Everything in our political discourse has to be simplified, dumbed down, not because the American people are necessarily morons, but because the press won’t ever expend the effort and intelligence to parse complexity. Maybe, after all these years of turning into entertainers, they don’t know how.

Clinton’s comment wasn’t particularly complex. She was talking, quite candidly, in fact, about political maneuvering, which is one of the central themes of Spielberg’s film. Lincoln was willing to do a lot of things that weren’t especially savory because he felt that the ends did justify the means – in this case, the end being the end of slavery via the 13th Amendment. What Clinton said in her speech, as reported by WikiLeaks, was this: “If everybody’s watching, you know, all of the backroom discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position,” and she goes on to compare political negotiation to sausage-making. It isn’t pretty, even if you like the results.

Clinton on WikiLeaks and Lincoln

Video courtesy the Internet Archive

One of course can dispute this, and one can certainly take exception to it. It is a challenge to complete transparency. What Clinton is saying is that complete transparency makes it nearly impossible to get anything done and that sometimes you have to dissemble. Was this true to Lincoln? Well, according to Lily Rothman in TIME, that is exactly what Lincoln did. Rothman cites biographer David Herbert Donald, who wrote that Lincoln was fearful of derailing the 13th Amendment, should congressmen learn that Confederate commissioners were on their way to Washington to seek peace. So, when asked about the rumor, Lincoln said flatly that there were no commissioners in the city, which was technically true, but only technically. They were not in the city yet — just on their way.

Clinton, then, was talking truthfully at the debate – both about the fact that she was referencing Lincoln and about the fact that Lincoln did prevaricate. Whether what she said in the speech was true – that is, whether dealmaking sometimes requires less than forthrightness – is a matter for debate – real debate. Graham Vyse in The New Republic actually seemed to question the wisdom of Hillary’s honesty about the uses of dishonesty in the service of the public: “As substantively defensible — even virtuous — as dealmaking can be, taking this tack runs the risk of confirming the public’s worst fears about Clinton: that she’s dishonest and lacking in core conviction.”

The big ha-ha wasn’t such a big ha-ha, after all. The press could easily have used this as an occasion to discuss what sort of dealmaker Hillary Clinton would be as president. Or they could have used it to launch a broader discussion of how ideological and partisan walls have prevented legislation from being passed when the pragmatism that Clinton and Lincoln advocated might have worked. Instead, the press took the path of least resistance, which was to treat Clinton’s honesty about dealmaking as dissembling.

This is unfortunately only one example of many. Last week, I discussed another: The Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler’s thick-headed analysis of Tim Kaine’s discussion during the vice-presidential debate of the Status of Forces agreement in Iraq. Kessler couldn’t seem to get his head around the Iraqis not agreeing to allow American troops to stay there and then reversing course with the rise of ISIS. To me, that doesn’t seem so difficult to understand. The world is nuanced. When we are fortunate, our politicians can be nuanced too. It seems the media have a really hard time with nuance. And we, once again, are the losers.

A brave conservative
Purple orchids

Orchids (Photo: Ramesh NG [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Orchids to Jennifer Rubin, columnist of The Washington Post. I confess that I haven’t always been an admirer of hers. Her columns often struck me as conservative boilerplate: If you read one column, you read them all. But unlike so many of her confreres on the right, Rubin was devoutly anti-Trump from the get-go, and unlike many of even the Never Trump conservatives, she has provided a powerful, intelligent and principled critique of Trump – and not only Trump. Even the Never Trumpsters were yearning for Trump to depart to open the way for Mike Pence to take the nomination. Rubin wasn’t fooled. This is what she wrote in a blog titled, “Why Pence is Worst of All“:

Next to Trump, there is no more reprehensible creature in all this than Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. He’d like us to think he is a devout Christian. He nevertheless lies over and over again when Trump’s words are read back to him. Today he defends Trump’s slimy attacks on Bill Clinton, the nadir of presidential politics. He insists Martha Raddatz mischaracterized his Syria remarks which Trump rebuked. That’s a lie, too. . . .

The GOP glorifies ignorance and dishonesty, touting Pence as a hero of some sort. He is not an unhinged ignoramus like Trump. No, Pence knows better and surely knows what he is doing. He had the power to walk away, putting a stake through Trump’s campaign and saving the GOP’s soul. He didn’t. He and the GOP deserve one another; center-right voters and the country deserve a new party.


And this:

The GOP certainly needs principled, forward-leading candidates. But what it needs is a new constituency. The Fox TV audience/the talk show addicts/the birthers are incapable of sustaining viable candidates. The GOP as it is will never amount to an electoral majority, in part because what excites it turns off almost every other group. The crass, vulgar, angry and irrational mob that thrills when Trump acts like a madman is not a base around which a successful national party can be built

And this:

Those Republicans who have stuck with Trump to the bitter end justifying the most heinous conduct  — Jason Miller, Kellyanne Conway, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), his gaggle of vile surrogates and most especially the evangelical throng that still vouches for him — should be banished from polite company. They’ve failed the most elementary test of honesty and decency.

Rubin disembowels Trump, those who stand with him, and the things for which he stands as well as anyone in the political media. (I make an exception for Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee and Bill Maher.) That it comes from the right is both a surprise and a blessing.



Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, TIME magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.