Fast-talking, mob-saving New York Lawyer Murray Richman famously said, “When the word is in your mouth, you are the master. When the word is out of your mouth, you are the slave.”
Anyone who reads my commentaries with any regularity knows that I am a stickler for the facts. The facts played an important part in my research for my last book, Shameless; regarding the flagrant disregard of such by opinion-meisters Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Regular readers know that I frequently reference fact-check standard bearers FactCheck.org andPolitifact.com when it comes to the facts out of the mouths of politicians.
Can President Obama and GOP hopeful Mitt Romney deliver one truthful campaign speech?
That’s the challenge laid down by The Washington Post’s fact-checker in residence, Glenn Kessler.
“Give at least one campaign speech,” Kessler writes in an open-letter to both (May 6), “on a substantive policy issue, lasting at least 15 minutes, that does not contain a single factual error or misstatement. That means no sugar-coating of your record, no exaggerated claims about your opponent’s record, and no assertions that are technically true but lack crucial context. If you do, not only would you win the ultimate Geppetto Checkmark — which I award on those rare occasions of complete accuracy — but you would earn the gratitude of the American people, who are eager for hard truths.”
Hard test to say the least, but frankly, the American people deserve nothing less.
Kessler begins with a little backstory.
“Our Pinocchio Tracker indicates that you have been the two major 2012 presidential candidates with the lowest average number of Pinocchios. In fact, you are nearly tied, with the president at 1.91 and the former governor at 1.97. No other candidate has come close: Michele Bachmann ended up at 3.08, Ron Paul at 2.6, Rick Santorum at 2.53, Newt Gingrich at 2.44 and Rick Perry at 2.41….”
Republican candidate Jon Huntsman had the lowest score at 1.50.
To fully appreciate Kessler’s evaluation process, it’s important to understand the Pinocchio scale: “…claims are rated on a scale of one to four Pinocchios: Four indicates a whopper; aGeppetto Checkmark counts as zero. The tracker produces an average rating from all of the columns. President Obama has been rated 45 times and Romney 34 times as of Friday evening… two Pinocchios means ‘significant omissions and/or exaggerations.’ As you know, it does not necessarily mean factual error. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people…”
Better than that, Kessler offers three suggestions to both Romney and Obama for delivering a 100 percent honest and factual speech.
No basic untruths
“For you, Gov. Romney, that would mean not claiming that, as president, Obama went on an ‘apology tour’ overseas. I know you wrote a whole book with the title No Apology, so it’s probably hard to let go, but let go you must. I’ve looked at all of the speeches the president gave abroad, and there’s nothing close to an apology there. Maybe one could argue that he had an apologetic tone, but even that is stretching it. This claim is woth four Pinocchios, and it’s really hurting your average.
“Meanwhile, Mr. President, you have a tendency toward over-congratulatory rhetoric. I realize that you get a lot of criticism and so there is a natural tendency to push back. But let’s keep things a little more credible. For instance, you did not pass the ‘biggest middle-class tax cut in history,’ a statement that earned you four Pinocchios.
“And Chrysler did not repay ‘every dime and more of what it owes American taxpayers.’ You were able to make that claim only by not counting the loan that President George W. Bush authorized for the company. That too-cute-by-half trick earned you three Pinocchios….”
So far so good, Glenn. Keep going.
No phony accounting
“When examining any numerical trend, you have a tendency to start counting from the moment that makes the president look either best (for the Obama campaign) or worst (for the Romney campaign). I have long thought that it is a bit silly to start measuring job growth from the day a president takes the oath of office, as if everything suddenly changes on a dime. One Romney aide even suggested that they could start counting from the 2008 election, arguing that the markets were already reacting to Obama’s upcoming presidency.
“But Mr. President, when you talk about jobs created during your administration, you often only count the months of positive private-sector job growth, not all the months since the recession officially ended.
“Meanwhile, Gov. Romney, you sometimes reach back even further. You recently earned three Pinocchios for claiming that business start-ups have dropped by 100,000 per year during Obama’s presidency, a figure reached only by starting the count in March 2007, nearly two years before he took office. And frankly, it wasn’t even necessary — business start-ups have dropped under Obama. But it is a much less interesting figure of 12,000, rather than that nice, round 100,000.”
You’re on a roll, Glenn.
No suspect experts
“Gov. Romney, you earned two Pinocchios last fall for blithely repeating a tale that you heard from one of your advisers, former secretary of the Navy John Lehman: that the United States in World War II built 1,000 ships a year with just 1,000 people in the Bureau of Ships, compared with nine ships per year today with 25,000 people in the equivalent department.
“On the face of it, those statistics sound too clever to be true…There are 500 people involved in ship purchasing now, and ships built today are vastly more complex than the ones built during World War II. No disrespect to the folks over at theHeritage Foundation or the Center for American Progress, but this also means that your speeches should not rely on data from such organizations with a clear partisan bias. Stick with information from nonpartisan outfits such as the Congressional Budget Office or the Joint Committee on Taxation.
“Nor should you always trust information you find in the newspapers, even The Post. You need to check the information before you cite some report or poll that conveniently fits your narrative.
“Mr. President, your staff was unhappy when I gave you two Pinocchios last month for quoting a poll that had been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine, suggesting that millionaires supported the ‘Buffett rule,’ which would impose a tax surcharge on people with an adjusted gross income of more than $1 million. The poll was a self-selected online survey, raising obvious questions about the conclusions that could be drawn from the data. Moreover, many of the ‘millionaires’ it surveyed wouldn’t be affected by the rule, assuming it could ever overcome a Senate filibuster.
“I realize that your staff found this statistic in a reputable publication, but that’s no excuse. A president simply cannot be making incorrect or unfounded claims to the American public. Moreover, it is well documented that there is broad public support for the Buffett rule, so this claim was really unnecessary.”
While spin seems to be the standard M.O. for anyone running for anything from dog catcher to presidential primary candidate, the two remaining individuals “who want to run the United States,” as Kessler says, “ought to be able to give a 15-minute speech without deceiving the American people.”
Frankly, Glenn, I would take it step further: ANYTHING that comes out of the mouth or the campaign of either candidate, whether it’s an ad or a debate ought to go through a rigorous screening before putting it out into the public, and both men ought to be held accountable for all misstatements or misleading of the facts.
Anything less, should be unacceptable.