The Magazine

We Can't Handle the Truth

The surest way to create a campaign controversy.

Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.