I wouldn’t have noticed, except that you asked

I wasn’t going to touch this one. Really. The “fool me once” gaffe is more sad than it is funny. And my personal favorite–

Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.

–set such a standard that it’s going to take the mother of all gaffes to top it. So I just chuckled at Bush’s gaffe about Mandela last week and intended to let it go.

And then I came across the conservative response. Let us start with the gaffe itself, in its broader context. Or, at least, within its paragraph from the White House transcript:

Part of the reason why there is not this instant democracy in Iraq is because people are still recovering from Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule. I thought an interesting comment was made when somebody said to me, I heard somebody say, where’s Mandela? Well, Mandela is dead, because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas. He was a brutal tyrant that divided people up and split families, and people are recovering from this. So there’s a psychological recovery that is taking place. And it’s hard work for them. And I understand it’s hard work for them. Having said that, I’m not going the give them a pass when it comes to the central government’s reconciliation efforts.

Now, it’s an interesting statement insofar as the President went out of his way to set up the Mandela line. That, more than anything, is what puzzles me.

As people chuckled and rolled their eyes, and some reminded that Nelson Mandela is, indeed, still alive, and others pointed out that it wasn’t very respectful to imply that the South African icon had died, conservatives threw a frothing fit.

Patrick McIlheran, a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist wrote a blog piece decrying the reaction:

Slow down and read the quote. “…killed all the Mandelas.” Do you presume from this that the president, then, believes the former South African president to have been a whole group of people?

Or could it be possible that Bush was speaking metaphorically? I know, it’s an article of faith on the left that he can’t spell “metaphor” much less use one, but might it not be possible that, when asked “Where’s Mandela?” in an Iraqi context, Bush might have taken it to mean, “Where is the emergent Iraqi national savior who can reconcile warring factions?” I mean, two paragraphs previous, the guy was talking about national reconciliation in Iraq, so it’s reasonable to guess this is how he took it.

And so, having taken “Where’s Mandela?” in that way, might it not be further possible that Bush picked up the metaphor to suggest that Saddam killed all the potential national reconciliators? That Iraq’s potential national reconciliator, its Mandela, so to speak, is lying in a mass grave? I mean, all this has going for it is that it makes sense of what the president said.

Fair enough, sir, but slow down and read the quote again. There are plenty of ways to say it, and this is the one Bush chose. “Mandela is dead,” said the President. McIlheran preferred to take a demeaning attitude toward the criticism, noting that a “flack” from Mandela’s foundation had “chirped” that the Nobel winner was still alive; in this it seems the Journal-Sentinel’s “generally … right wing guy” overlooked reports that South African officials were flooded with calls from viewers of the live news conference who worried that Nelson Mandela actually had died. McIlheran would prefer to make excuses for the President’s crass joke, call the critics deranged, and demean Nelson Mandela. Good show, man.

But McIlheran is not alone in attempting to focus on only one part of the gaffe, and this is where the conservative response gets even more bizarre. Warner Todd Huston, over at Stop The ACLU, blasted Reuters:

Apparently al Reuters doesn’t understand the concept of “context” because they’re idiotically claiming that in his Thursday press conference Bush said that Nelson Mandela is dead ….

…. Heartwarming that Reuters is so concerned over Mandela’s health, isn’t it?

But here’s the problem. During the press conference, Bush was not talking about the actual Nelson Mandela. He was talking about people like Nelson Mandela and speaking metaphorically. And listening to Bush’s entire segment, while not artfully stated, makes it clear that he was not talking about the actual Nelson Mandela ….

Huston, like McIlheran, highlights only the latter part of the gaffe, and asks,

Could it be any more obvious that Bush is saying that there aren’t any Iraqis filling the same sort of role in Iraq that Nelson Mandela filled in South Africa? Could it be any more clear that Bush was saying that Saddam “killed all the Mandelas” of Iraq?

Indeed, sir, you are correct. Except, what about the phrase, “Mandela is dead”? I mean, it would have been just as easy, and considerably less bizarre to say, “There are no Iraqi Mandelas.”

And as people argue about what Bush meant, it is curious to note the actual transcript. Those who complain about the criticism would be better served to use the White House transcript. Strangely, and, perhaps, hair-splittingly, one might be able to make an issue out of punctuation. McIlhernan’s quote comes from the White House transcript. Huston’s is unsourced inasmuch as it does not match the Reuters article he linked to. And several other conservative blogs seem to have passed around an AFP transcript. Both the AFP and Huston’s unsourced quotes split the gaffe into two sentences. The White House transcript uses a comma, and the Reuters article in Huston’s crosshairs has no punctuation at all (and also lacks the extraneous apostrophe, but that’s beside the point).

And believe it or not, that difference is important. There is no question, when reviewing the video, that Bush spoke two separate sentences. The first was, “Well, Mandela is dead.” The pause is unmistakable. And this, contrary to McIlhernan, Huston, and other conservatives’ suggestions, is the phrase that is at the heart of the gaffe.

So we’re down to punctuation, on the one hand, while to the other we haven’t even arrived at the truly bizarre part.

Indeed, the strangest part of this is that some conservative bloggers have chosen to lash out after Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show. At the National Review Online, Greg Pollowitz (quoting AFP, for those keeping score), simply sought to clarify the quote, noting, “Since Jon Stewart ended his clip of the President with ‘dead,’ the President looked kind of foolish, as Mr. Mandela is very much alive.”

Over at TownHall, Mary Katharine Ham picked up on Pollowitz’s clarification, and lashed out at The Daily Show:

There’s no way they saw the “Mandela is dead” clip without seeing the context. But the facts got in the way of an easy political joke. And, Stewart has the nerve to get all self-righteous on “Crossfire?” Ha.

Tipping a hat to both Ham and Pollowitz, RedState’s Finrod escalated the absurdity:

Disgusting. Is Jon Stewart getting hints on how to be a newsman from Dan Rather? What’s he going to do for comedy in 16 months when Bush leaves office and he doesn’t have Bush quotes to warp and distort any more?

And to think he had the gall to criticize Crossfire for not being helpful to the political scene.

Okay, if you’re a conservative, pay close attention. If you’re a liberal, join the chorus. I’m only going to say this once:

The Daily Show is not a real news show. It is a comedy show. Jon Stewart is a comedian. Tucker Carlson didn’t seem to understand that during the Crossfire shootout, and for some reason conservatives seem to be having a problem understanding that fact now.

It’s not difficult to understand.

And that’s the thing. In the long run, I probably would have forgotten this whole thing by next week. Bush is known to say some truly bizarre things, and by my measure, this is a minor Bushism. It’s the sort of thing I probably would have chuckled at if someone mentioned it months, or even years down the line, as I remembered it for the first time since it happened. But now, thanks to conservatives, I’ll be remembering this one much more clearly, and not so much for the fact of the President’s gaffe. Rather, I’ll be remembering this episode as another example of conservative dishonesty, another example of conservative stupidity. Because McIlhernan needs to overlook facts in order to feel better about a chirping flack; Huston needs to stoop to silly phrases like “al Reuters”. And both need to snip the quote and pretend part of it doesn’t exist. And then there’s Finrod, Pollowitz, and Ham, who need to pretend Jon Stewart is a real journalist in order to stoke their self-righteous fury.

I’ll tell you my Bushism story. There were two of them that got me. One was the, “Now watch this drive,” quip that was harmless except for its crass timing. Big deal. The other was the “fool me once” disaster. I didn’t actually think I was hearing it. And then I didn’t realize the magnitude of what I had heard. When it blared all over the news that night, I was stunned. I mean, really.

Bushisms are amusing. They wouldn’t be a big deal for the press or anybody else except for their frequency and the pretense of intelligence conservatives attempt to keep about the President. Conservatives need to get over this one. The only thing more pathetic than beating a dead horse is trying to resuscitate its skeleton.

Accept the fact that Bush once again made a fool of himself. He went out of his way to set up what he thought was a catchy line, and it backfired. Really, I would have gone right on by this one, except that I had the misfortune of stumbling across McIlhernan’s angry spew. And then, curious, I was stupid enough to wonder what the rest of the conservative response was. So far, it’s only reinforcing the notion that my conservative neighbors really are morons. After all, I can only go by what you give me to work with, and this is what you’ve given.

Get over it. And get over yourselves.

GOP Candidates: We’ll make it easy for you to decide

You know, when George W. Bush was the candidate, it was understandable that the Republicans wanted to avoid potential public meltdowns in the form of televised debates. This presidential cycle, however, brings us an interesting twist: as candidates for the GOP ticket decline various debates, prominent Republicans are publicly warning that these apparent scheduling conflicts will come back to haunt the party in 2008. Perry Bacon, Jr., writes for the Washington Post:

Key Republican leaders are encouraging the party’s presidential candidates to rethink their decision to skip presidential debates focusing on issues important to minorities, fearing a backlash that could further erode the party’s standing with black and Latino voters.

The leading contenders for the Republican nomination have indicated they will not attend the “All American Presidential Forum” organized by black talk show host Tavis Smiley, scheduled for Sept. 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore and airing on PBS. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) all cited scheduling conflicts in forgoing the debate. The top Democratic contenders attended a similar event in June at Howard University.

It’s hard to argue with the warnings. Newt Gingrich said, “For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African American or Latino audience is an enormous error,” and called the scheduling excuse “disingenuous” and “baloney”. Former Congressman Jack Kemp–the GOP vice-presidential candidate in 1996–noted, “We sound like we don’t want immigration; we sound like we don’t want black people to vote for us ….” And it’s true. Gathering for a debate under the moderation of Tavis Smiley would help to diminish that perception, though a debate appearance here and there would only be a starting point. Minority communities seem wary of the Grand Ol’ Party, which could not even rally support among its ranks for the president’s immigration proposal. Instead, Republicans sent a strong message that they are afraid of Mexico and Mexicans. Perhaps this sentiment among Republicans is why the candidates all, with the exception of Arizona Senator John McCain, declined invitations to debate on the nation’s largest Hispanic television network, Univision. It took an unnamed advisor at an unnamed GOP campaign to make the pertinent response: “What’s the win? …. Why would they go into a crowd where they’re probably going to get booed?”

The answer, of course, is twofold. First, attending the Morgan State University and Univision debates would at once show respect to communities that feel alienated by the GOP’s outlook and also demonstrate that the candidates are not afraid of tough questions from tough crowds. Secondly, the candidates would have a chance to counter the jeers and boos, to put forward policy proposals that could win over what is perceived as a hostile crowd.

It is easy enough to theorize that most of the candidates lack such policy proposals, and even that they lack such courage. The question of respect, though, is perhaps the most haunting. Candidates can win without courage, and without bright policy proposals; consider the current president, who is busy botching a second term. Voters will follow pocketbook promises and jingoism, as we’ve seen in recent years; they will not follow someone they perceive as lacking respect for them.

Fred the Fooler

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

(The Who, 1971)

• • • • •

Will Republican supporters be fooled again? History suggests this is likely, although we should probably separate the GOP base and the evangelical Christian flock from the rest of the crowd. Party faithful are often those trying to do the fooling, and the evangelical bloc generally aren’t fooled.

The GOP finds itself in a difficult position. Although Republicans do not face a “perfect storm” (the phrase is overused of late), many stumbling blocks present themselves, and perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that they have only themselves to blame.

During my childhood in the 1980s, Republicans complained that Democrats were too liberal, a charge that continues through the Clinton era and into the Bush; anybody remember Jeff Gannon’s “divorce” question? The Clinton era, however, also raised accusations that Democrats had sold out their principles in order to win votes. True, Clinton charismatically stole valuable portions of the GOP platform, capped with a budget surplus. The era of talk radio, which exploded during the Clinton years, has sharpened political rhetoric across the spectrum; voters realize more and more that there are few, if any liberals left among Democrats, and this makes the liberal slur something of a political caricature. The GOP is left with the character charge, that Democrats have sold out their principles. We see this in the Republican sentiment–and one echoed by Osama bin Laden–that the Democrats sold out when they voted earlier this year to continue funding the Iraqi Bush War. After all, as GOP critics and America’s enemy-in-chief alike point out, the people elected a Democratic majority in order to stop a disastrous war.

The problem with this argument is that it overlooks the basic Constitutional dynamics of Congress. No critic of the war vote I have encountered has been willing to explain how congressional Democrats would override a Bush veto. Don’t look at me; I can’t figure it out, either. Certainly, we might accept that Osama bin Laden does not understand this point. We might also wonder if he knows and prefers to overlook the point; the latest videotape demonstrates a marked improvement in style and method, and suggests bin Laden is becoming more adept in the American way of marketing ideas.

What, however, is the GOP’s excuse? How well does it reflect on the argument if the rhetoric is ignorant of the realities it addresses? What if both bin Laden and the GOP are depending on ignorance?

After at least fifteen years of complaining about the Democratic Party’s lack of principles, and after pushing that argument so far that the GOP now shares common ground with Osama bin Laden, Republicans face a principle crisis of their own.

The front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination have not been attractive to Republican voters. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani brings to the race a difficult family history, support for abortion and gay rights, and a stance favoring gun control; add that he shares with Democratic candidate Senator Hillary Clinton a political flexibility that causes party faithful to gnash their teeth and mutter in frustration (beware the phrase “political savvy”), and it becomes very easy to see why many conservatives would be nervous about sending this powerhouse to the show. Former Massacusetts Governor Mitt Romney might still face resistance over religious issues. If Republican voters are not upset about the Huckabee campaign’s slurs against Catholics, they might also choose to turn a deaf ear to concerns about Romney’s Latter-Day faith. But Romney faces certain challenges: he is vulnerable about his investments much in the same way critics charge of Democratic candidate and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards. And Romney is starting to appear as the new waffle king. In February, Washington Post reporter Ruth Marcus covered Romney’s political makeover: abortion, gay rights, and gun control. Marcus even points out Romney’s evolving position on why he voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 primary, and concludes her article noting, “Those considering Romney in 2008 have reason to wonder what a politician who admits so freely to that kind of manipulation is willing to do to win their votes.”

Hold on. What’s this? A third leading candidate, or, as it has been for a while, non-candidate? Former lobbyist, Tennessee Senator, and, of late, Hollywood-elitist Fred Thompson, after riding in from the desert and galloping alongside the contest, has finally hopped off his horse and onto the train. One of three Republicans to poll consistently above the “undecided” vote, Thompson is regarded as a potential savior in a GOP field that has proven uninspiring.

As Toby Harnden writes for the Telegraph:

Many Republicans believe that their front runner Rudy Giuliani is too liberal to win the party nomination while Mitt Romney, leading in the key first-voting state of Iowa, is struggling to persuade voters that his recently acquired conservative positions are genuine.

They yearn for a new Ronald Reagan, another B-list actor who was dismissed as a lightweight but who went on to help end the Cold War and become a conservative icon.

The problem with Thompson as a Republican savior is that he, too, brings the kind of baggage that seems problematic compared to the GOP’s history of targeting Democrats’ lack of principles: he worked for eighteen years as a lobbyist whose clients included Jean-Bertrand Aristide (notorious human rights abuser) and National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association (pro-choice); in 1994 he said that he considered lobbying an honorable profession, which is a remark akin to what drew much criticism for Hillary Clinton. Add to that family concerns: a trophy wife younger than his children from the first marriage. The evangelical bloc has already noticed. Earlier this year, Dr. James Dobson challenged Thompson’s Christianity, though later he tempered his comments by saying that he was glad to hear the candidate profess to be a believer.

The latest challenge to Thompson’s principles is his attempt to portray himself as the conservative outsider. Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King, however, notes in his latest column that “no other White House hopeful, Republican or Democrat, can come close to matching Thompson’s insider credentials.”

From 2003 to 2005, Thompson presided over the Federal City Council, very much a Washington insider group; Thompson succeeded former Senator Bob Dole, who in turn succeeded former House Speaker Tom Foley. The Council is presently headed by Frank Keating, another insider whose career includes high-ranking jobs with the Justice Department and HUD under two presidents, a nomination to the federal judiciary that was never confirmed, two terms as Governor of Oklahoma, consideration as Attorney General under the current President Bush, questions about gifts worth a quarter-million dollars, and, of late, President and CEO of the American Council of Life Insurers; he was even considered by some as a potential GOP candidate for the current cycle.

Thompson, himself, has been involved in Capitol Hill politics since the Watergate era. From his arrival as a Judiciary Committee lawyer, through eighteen years as a lobbyist, time in the U.S. Senate, work to build the disastrous Department of Homeland Security, and presidency of one of Washington’s strongest insider assemblies, Fred Thompson has been close to the American center of power.

Such issues damage Thompson’s credibility; it is hard to imagine him as an outsider. As King writes:

As the ranking Republican on the Government Operations Committee and a chief sponsor of homeland security legislation, Thompson helped bridge the differences between the White House and Senate Democrats. I recall sitting in a meeting with The Post’s editorial board as Thompson stumped for support of the compromise. The bill passed and was signed by Bush with fanfare in the waning days of the 107th Congress. But don’t look for signs of that landmark achievement in Thompson’s résumé.

His Fred 08 Web site contains a captivating biography of his life as “a small town kid of modest means and modest goals.” It touts his achievements in Tennessee and Washington, but there’s nary a word about his role in the creation of DHS. He also didn’t mention it in his announcement speech Thursday.

Perhaps the omission is because the Department of Homeland Security is a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to perform straightforward tasks in the most convoluted ways ….

…. Now listen to Thompson the Outsider this week: “When we look to Washington, we see a bureaucratized government that is increasingly unable or unwilling to carry out basic government functions, including the fundamental responsibility of securing our borders against illegal immigration and enforcing our laws.”

Republican voters may wish for another Ronald Reagan, but if they think to find that candidate in Fred Thompson, it seems they’ll be getting fooled again.

There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again. (President George W. Bush, September, 2002)