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“A Distasteful Degree Of Opportunism”: Public Editor; No Problem With Dowd Column, But News Story Needs Correction

Today New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in on the Maureen Dowd-Joe Biden controversy (see my previous post), allowing the columnist to defend her account of the fraught conversation between the vice president and his late son, Beau Biden.

“The column is accurate,” affirmed Dowd, noting that on 60 Minutes, Biden referred to a “Hollywood-esque thing that at the last minute” his son had made a deathbed request that he run for president:

I never reported a last-minute deathbed scene where Beau grabbed his father’s hand. In fact, my column recounted a conversation they had seated at a table after Beau knew his prognosis was bad. He was terminally ill for some time.

She also noted that Dick Harpootlian, the South Carolina Democratic activist, had referred to Beau’s wish for his father to enter the presidential primary in a June Wall Street Journal column.

Sullivan concurred: “A re-reading of the column (and a second look at the vice president’s words on CBS) bear [Dowd] out. There is no mention in the column of a deathbed conversation or hand-grabbing, and there is mention of father and son sitting at a table.”

She has a point. But “deathbed” is not necessarily a literal expression; in Dowd’s August 1 column, she described Beau as having lost control of his face and his speech. She also recounted Joe Biden’s inner thoughts as he spoke with his son, and quoted Beau as pleading that “the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.”

Sullivan did chide political reporter Amy Chozick and the paper’s news editors for repeating and amplifying Dowd’s story in a front-page news article , complaining that the following sentence merited a correction:

Ms. Dowd reported that as Beau Biden lay dying from brain cancer, he tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.

Evidently Sullivan believes Biden merely denied was that this conversation occurred while his son was actually prone — when he sounded as if he was denying the tone of the discussion as reported by Dowd and repeated by Chozick. We may never know exactly what he meant, unless another interviewer asks Biden a few more questions: Did he talk to Dowd himself? Was her account of his conversation with his son (and his own inner thoughts) accurate? And why did he wait almost three months to issue a denial?

On national television, Biden went out of his way to correct the record: “Nothing like that ever, ever happened.” Nothing like that – and Dowd’s column, which set the tone of subsequent sensational coverage in the Times and everywhere else, was a lot like that. The issue isn’t whether Beau Biden was lying down or sitting at a table, but what kind of conversation he had with his father about the presidency, the Clintons, and “Biden values,” which – if Dowd is indeed telling the truth – seem to include a distasteful degree of opportunism.

 

By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, Featured Post, October 27, 2015

October 28, 2015 Posted by | Joe Biden, Maureen Dowd, The New York Times | , , , , | 4 Comments

“A Maureen Dowd Media Conflagration”: Dowdgate? Biden Insists Deathbed Scene With Son Beau Never Happened

Not every day does the Vice President of the United States accuse America’s most respected newspaper of publishing a falsehood about him and his family. Over the weekend that is what Joe Biden alleged, posing a difficult problem for The New York Times.

Appearing on CBS 60 Minutes, Biden denied that the affecting deathbed scene between him and his older son Beau, as famously recounted by Times Op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd, had ever occurred. Dowd’s sensational August 1 column sparked a media conflagration, fired up the “draft Biden” movement, and the scene, not incidentally, was reported on the paper’s front page that same Sunday.

According to Dowd, Beau Biden on his deathbed “had a mission: He tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.” But according to Joe Biden, it didn’t go down that way at all.

Asked by correspondent Norah O’Donnell about the conversations he had with Beau about running for president, he replied:

Well, first thing I’d like to do, and you’re being very polite the way you’re asking me the question because some people have written that, you know, Beau on his deathbed said, “Dad, you’ve got to run,” and, there was this sort of Hollywood moment that, you know, nothing like that ever, ever happened…Beau all along thought that I should run and that I could win…there was not what was sort of made out as kind of this Hollywood-esque thing that at the last minute Beau grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to run, like, win one for the Gipper.’ It wasn’t anything like that.

While the facts behind this bizarre drama remain mysterious, the motivations seem obvious. Certainly Dowd, whose corrosive hatred of Hillary Clinton is the stuff of soap opera, wanted to encourage the entry of Biden into the Democratic presidential primary (as did many of her colleagues in the Beltway press corps). As for Biden, the dramatic scene in Dowd’s column encouraged supporters and sympathizers to rally behind his possible campaign, which may explain why he failed to shoot down the story until now.

While the vice president allowed this anecdote to persist for two months — notably failing to deny it when he appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or when Politico reported that he was its source — he seems to have no compelling reason to prevaricate about the matter now.

That leaves a big dark cloud of doubt over Dowd and the Times editors. (In today’s edition, a story on an inside page about Biden’s 60 Minutes interview glancingly notes his denial of “news reports about conversations with his dying son,” while neglecting to mention the role of the newspaper and its star columnist.) Presumably the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, will inquire how this happened on behalf of perplexed readers. The explanations should be interesting.

 

By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, Featured Post, The National Memo, Ocetober 26, 2015

 

October 27, 2015 Posted by | Joe Biden, Maureen Dowd, The New York Times | , , , , | 2 Comments

“Biden Urges Us To Regain Our Sense Of National Purpose”: The Vice President Struck A Chord Too Long Missing From Our Public Debates

After Joe Biden’s Rose Garden announcement, news reports naturally focused on his decision not to seek the presidency. But the overarching theme of his short address was something more powerful and less political: This is a great country that ought to be more optimistic about its potential, more ambitious in its goals, more confident about its future.

That theme underlay Biden’s clarion call for a “moonshot” to cure cancer. As he noted — “It’s personal,” he said — his grief over the untimely death of his son, Beau Biden, fueled his sense of urgency. The younger Biden, Delaware’s attorney general, died in May at the age of 46, after a long battle with brain cancer.

Still, the vice president struck a chord too long missing from our public debates, too little heard in our partisan warfare: We have the ability to accomplish great things when we summon the will to do so.

“I know we can do this. The president and I have already been working hard on increasing funding for research and development, because there are so many breakthroughs just on the horizon in science and medicine. The things that are just about to happen, we can make them real with an absolute national commitment to end cancer as we know it today. … If I could be anything, I would want to be the president that ended cancer, because it’s possible.”

Whatever happened to that feisty spirit in our civic life? Whatever became of our sense of never-ending achievement, of unbridled national ambition, of great national purpose? Why don’t we reach for the stars anymore?

Instead, we’ve become brittle, limited in our expectations, dour in our outlook, afraid that the nation’s best days have already passed. While the lingering effects of the Great Recession, as well as the global threat of terrorism, have undoubtedly worked to dampen our optimism, history teaches that we’ve faced down more daunting odds before.

Indeed, the long-running Cold War, when the Soviet Union represented an existential threat to the United States, inspired the great space race that led to Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. The United States poured money into the sciences, down to the high school level. That period of bountiful scientific research benefited not only NASA, but also countless other streams of inquiry — including the pioneering communications work that led to the Internet.

Since the 1970s, though, Congress has slowly drained away money from the sciences, a process that has sped up over the last few years. In their current obsession with reducing federal government spending, GOP budget cutters have hacked away at everything from medical research to space exploration.

Nowadays, Congress can’t even agree to fund things that we know work. While all reasonable people agree that the country needs to repair and rebuild its aging infrastructure — bridges, highways, dams — Congress cannot manage to set aside the funds that are necessary.

During his first presidential campaign, President Obama called for a massive revamping of the nation’s electric grid, a plan to put in place the energy infrastructure for the 21st century. But that’s rarely even discussed anymore.

Instead, a small minority of vociferous partisans holds up routine legislation, such as raising the debt ceiling to pay the bills we’ve already incurred. That’s how a great nation behaves?

It’s not clear that even a massive infusion of research dollars — Biden’s “moonshot” — would lead to a “cure” for cancer. Scientists would likely even debate the use of the phrase, since cancer is not a single disease but rather a group of diseases that share the phenomenon of abnormal cell growth.

Still, Biden’s call for pouring national resources into the search for better treatment options makes sense. When President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon!” our scientists weren’t certain we could do that either. But they dared to dream big dreams. Why don’t we do that anymore?

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Winner for commentary, 2007; The National Memo, October 24, 2015

October 25, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Joe Biden, Scientific Research | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Authentic Candidates Suck”: What’s Really Behind This Peculiar And Counterproductive Media Obsession With ‘Authenticity’

We’re hearing a lot this week about authenticity, as in Joe Biden has it and Hillary Clinton does not (Kevin McCarthy, meanwhile, maybe a little too much of it). Except that in fact, the reason that authenticity is in the news is that these long-held and superficial media assumptions about Biden and Clinton have been challenged this week by the revelation in Politico that the vice president leaked a story about son Beau’s deathbed wish himself. The Biden camp did not deny that a conversation may have taken place but did deny that any such theoretical conversation that might have happened was intended as a trial balloon that used paternal grief as a launching pad to a candidacy.

Here’s the quick catch-up, if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Back in August Maureen Dowd of the Times wrote this column about how Biden might run for president because it was Beau Biden’s dying wish that his father challenge Hillary Clinton. Dowd, appearing to paraphrase her source, wrote that Beau argued to his father that “the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.” She revealed nothing at the time about her sourcing. Everyone assumed it came from somewhere inside Biden world, but quite possibly without his knowledge, from someone who wanted to see him run.

But from Biden himself? To America’s most prominent Hillary-hating columnist? It has not seemed, to a number of observers of the situation, like a very “authentic” thing to do, for this man who gets so many points from the media for his authenticity.

I raise the episode not to assess Biden on the authenticity scale, but to argue that authenticity is overrated in the first place. I hate authenticity. Authenticity sucks. It’s a substitute for critical thought and actual argument, and the political media harp far too much on it.

Here is my theory about why they do. Political reporters (not columnists) feel the need to be objective, and of course properly so. They’re not supposed to be seen as taking sides. As such, they have to refrain from passing judgments on candidates’ ideological positions. To do that—to decide that Bernie Sanders’s stance on monetary policy is better than Marco Rubio’s—would constitute bias. And that’s the biggest no-no you can commit in the straight-news reporter game.

Yet, reporters are human beings (mostly!), and human beings have a natural need and urge to pass judgments—to make some kind of moral order out of the chaos that swirls around us. And since they can’t do it on the basis of ideology, then they have to do it on the basis of something else. And that something else is sincerity. So for the political reporter it doesn’t matter so much what so-and-so believes. What matters is that he believes it, and conveys that he believes it, with sincerity.

I can’t tell you the number of straight-news reporters who’ve said to me over the years something like: Yes, OK, Ted Cruz or Lindsey Graham or whoever may be a little out there, but you know what? At least he really means it. What you see with him is what you get. To which I would rejoin, well, that’s fine, but so what; all that means to me is that when he starts World War III or resegregates our school system via his court appointments or gives the 1 percent another whopping-big tax cut, he’ll be doing so sincerely. But this (as I knew going in) was always a loser of an argument to an objective reporter, because they divorce themselves emotionally from the whole idea of outcomes.

And this is how political journalists end up assessing politicians with such a preponderant emphasis on their authenticity. They aren’t allowed to make subjective ideological judgments, so they make them on the basis of personality. It’s why they dwell excessively on matters like explaining to you which candidate you’d rather have a beer with. That was one great scam, by the way, back in 2000—persuading the American public that they’d all rather have a beer with the candidate (Dubya) who didn’t drink beer!

So. Back to Biden and Clinton. I have eyes and ears and I can readily see why Biden comes across as more authentic. Of course a lot of this has to do with gender, because the gestures and habits that create the impression of authenticity—the glad-hand, the backslap, the knowing wink—are gestures that code male. But not all of it has to do with gender. There is no doubt that Clinton is a bit stiff in public and is stand-off-ish with journalists, and of course we did just see an example of her reversing field on a major issue (the TPP).

She also completely and utterly lacks the Defuse Gene—the ability to make a budding scandal melt away with a quip that carries just the right balance of self-deprecation (i.e., acceptance of some responsibility for the mess) and needed perspective-keeping (i.e., what I’m accused of here isn’t so awful in the grand scheme of things). Instead she seems always to have had the Detonate Gene—her handling of these things has almost always made them worse.

But I don’t care whether she’s authentic. In fact, I don’t care whether any of them is authentic. I just care what they do. I’d much rather have a president who inauthentically raises the minimum wage and passes paid family leave than one who authentically eliminates the federal minimum wage and does what the Chamber of Commerce tells him to do on all such matters.

Now I recognize that I’m an extreme case. But I do think—and let’s end on this quasi-hopeful note—that the American people are somewhere in between the two extremes of me on the one hand and objective reporters on the other. Americans care about authenticity, but not as much as reporters do, and not nearly as much as reporters think they do. And they do care about positions.

They care a lot about positions, actually. No, they’re not sitting there combing through issue books and thinking about what the optimal payroll tax formula might be. But the voting public—the nonvoting portion of the public is another matter—has a pretty decent sense of what parties and candidates stand for. And these things still matter to most people, and it’s my job—and yours if you’re with me—to make them matter more. The cult of authenticity must be smashed.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, October 10, 2015

October 11, 2015 Posted by | Authenticity, Political Media, Political Reporters | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Why Joe Biden Should Run”: It Can Only Make The Democratic Party Better

On the night of October 11, 2012, Barack Obama loped across the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, looking as if he were trying hard not to grin. It was a change of mood; eight days earlier, he had done poorly in his first Presidential debate with Mitt Romney, and the feeling in his campaign was gloomy. But, that evening, Vice-President Joe Biden had had his first debate with Paul Ryan, during which he called out the Romney campaign on its “malarkey.” Some commentators thought that he had looked foolish—he’d laughed a lot, and when Biden laughs, he throws back his head. (Mark Salter, the Republican operative, called the Obama-Biden debate combination “sleepy cop/crystal-meth cop.”) But even many of the critics thought that he’d won. He had reminded a lot of people of why they wanted a Democrat in the White House, particularly on questions like income inequality. One of those people seems to have been Obama himself. He’d watched the debate on Air Force One and, though there wasn’t a plan for him to speak to reporters, he swung over to where they were standing.

“I’m going to make a special point of saying that I thought Joe Biden was terrific tonight,” the President said. “I could not be prouder of him. I thought he made a very strong case. I really think that his passion for making sure that the economy grows for the middle class came through. So I’m very proud of him.”

Obama also seemed, in the days to come, more proud of himself. Having Biden with him on the ticket in 2012 helped him win and, it seemed, helped make him a better President when he did. That was the case when what was scoffed at as yet another instance of Bidenic indiscipline—getting ahead of his boss by saying that he was “absolutely comfortable” with full legal recognition of same-sex marriage—led Obama, too, to say what he actually believed, and arrive at a place where he felt proud to be.

The idea that a person could make those around him better came up again this past weekend, when Obama delivered the eulogy for Biden’s son, Beau, who had died of brain cancer, at the age of forty-six. The Vice-President, by all accounts, was hit hard by his son’s death. In 1973, he had taken his Senate oath next to the hospital bed where Beau lay, at age three, after surviving the car crash that had killed Biden’s wife and daughter. He was also the son who had served in the reserves in Iraq, been elected as the district attorney of Delaware, and one day, perhaps, could go even further in politics than his father had. “He even looked and sounded like Joe, although I think Joe would be first to acknowledge that Beau was an upgrade—Joe 2.0,” Obama said. He added, “That’s who Beau was. Someone who cared. Someone who charmed you, and disarmed you, and put you at ease. When he’d have to attend a fancy fund-raiser with people who took themselves way too seriously, he’d walk over to you and whisper something wildly inappropriate in your ear.” (Joe Biden, for his part, has been known to whisper wildly inappropriate things, but when he was, for example, caught on an open mic telling Obama that the passage of the Affordable Care Act was “a big fucking deal,” he was reminding Obama that he should take something seriously.) At the funeral, Obama said that he loved Biden. The two have a weekly lunch; the most recent one was on Wednesday, Biden’s first day back at work since Beau’s death.

But Obama is almost done being President. Who else can Biden make better? Put another way, why doesn’t Biden run for President in 2016? Hillary Clinton may not want him to. But it might do her good, even if she is, as everyone says, the inevitable candidate. And it can only make the Democratic Party better.

Last year, Evan Osnos spoke to the Vice-President for a New Yorker Profile, and, Osnos wrote, “I asked Biden how he will respond if opponents say he is too old to be President. ‘I think it’s totally legitimate for people to raise it,’ he said. ‘And I’ll just say, Look at me. Decide.’ ’’ Biden is seventy-two. Hillary Clinton is sixty-seven. More tellingly, Biden added, “I watched my father. I made a mistake in encouraging him to retire. I just think as long as you think you can do it and you’re physically healthy….”

The Clintons have become very wealthy as a result of their book deals, speaking fees, and other endeavors—they have made thirty million dollars just since Hillary left the State Department. (Bill Clinton recently said that he would consider giving up paid speeches—after Hillary wins.) Joe Biden is not a very wealthy man. By one estimate, his net worth is between thirty-nine thousand and eight hundred thousand dollars; by another, with his mortgage figured in, it is a negative number. (Biden: “But I got a great pension and I got a good salary!”) Which way does that cut, for each of them? Perhaps it makes a Biden campaign less feasible, in that he has less flexibility; it might also make it more desirable, depending on one’s definition of independence.

Last week, Hillary Clinton almost lost to Bernie Sanders in a Wisconsin straw poll (the tally was forty-nine per cent to forty-one), but Sanders, who can reasonably be called a socialist, is not likely to be the one who makes clear what her real general-election vulnerabilities are, or how to overcome them. Biden would. He may have no chance of winning. But he is a more plausible candidate than anyone Clinton is facing now, and perhaps the best answer to the fear that, as the Republicans fight it out among themselves, she will drift through until the convention, with a stray glance at Martin O’Malley, and enter the general election unprepared for the fight. Obama was right about Biden’s debate with Ryan: rewatching it is a good reminder of his ability to speak plainly and in detail about Democratic economic policies—something that involves more than just throwing out lines about level playing fields. (Republicans have been doing that, too.) Maybe Hillary Clinton, in a speech she’s scheduled to give on Saturday, will find a way to make those themes work for her. She hasn’t yet.

And, although she served four years as Secretary of State, Biden has a deeper background in foreign policy, with years as a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a skepticism about things like troop deployments that might appeal to noninterventionists—who can be found across the spectrum. His 2006 proposal for Iraq—reshaping the country into a loose three-part federation—also much derided, does not, in light of recent events, look all that bad. (As it is, a sectarian Shiite-dominated central government unwilling to give a voice or commit resources to Sunni and Kurdish regions has contributed to the rise of ISIS.)

But how, might one ask, could Biden win in a general election when Obama, his boss, is so unpopular? That question points to what may be one of the most interesting results of having Biden in the race. Hillary Clinton would have to decide where she really stands on the Obama Presidency, in all its aspects, and say what she thinks about it. (He was her boss, too.) Her advisers have made it clear that she’s counting on the Obama coalition; how tied are their votes to the Obama legacy? Clinton needs a response that doesn’t just involve hinting that everything would have been better if she’d been elected in 2008. She tried out some jabs at Obama, in an interview with the Atlantic last August, in which, quoting one of his mantras, she said, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” and called his choices on Syria a “failure.” Her spokesman said afterward that she hadn’t meant to criticize the President, and looked forward “to hugging it out.” The message there, whatever it was, got muddled. Biden’s presence might clarify it, and present some interesting choices to Democratic primary voters—and to Obama, who might not endorse anyone before the nomination, but could give a few hints of his preference along the way.

The President, in his eulogy, spoke to Beau Biden’s children. “To Natalie and Hunter, there aren’t words big enough to describe how much your dad loved you, how much he loved your mom. But I will tell you what, Michelle and I and Sasha and Malia, we’ve become part of the Biden clan. We’re honorary members now. And the Biden family rule applies. We’re always here for you, we always will be—my word as a Biden.” That might have some resonance for their grandfather, as well. Why not run?

 

By: Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, June 12, 2015

June 14, 2015 Posted by | Democrats, Election 2016, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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