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Romney distorts a distortion

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Michael Gerson
November 29, 2011
— Mitt Romney’s tough, controversial first television ad—directed at President Obama, not Romney’s primary opponents—could be a preview of the fall election. It also raises an ethical question: Is it permissible to distort a distortion?

The ad, called “Believe in America,” clearly takes Obama’s words out of context. It quotes him saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Obama’s full quote, taken from an Oct. 16, 2008, campaign appearance in New Hampshire, was: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’”


We know of this creative editing, not because it was exposed by media fact-checkers, but because the full context was posted by the Romney campaign on its website along with the ad. Romney advisers are unapologetic.


The Obama campaign, in contrast, is apoplectic, calling the ad “deceitful.” The Democratic National Committee protests that the Romney campaign is engaged in “dishonesty.” The media have joined the criticism. Press coverage has claimed that Obama’s words “originally were from Obama’s opponent,” and that the president was “actually quoting an aide to John McCain.”


Since Obama’s words were taken out of context, it is worth examining their context. The quote that Obama hung on the McCain campaign can be found in an Oct. 5, 2008, column by Thomas DeFrank in the New York Daily News. It is attributed to an anonymous “top McCain strategist.” In the argot of unattributed quotes, this could be anyone from the campaign manager to an outside media adviser. In either case, the anonymous source was not officially speaking on behalf of the McCain campaign.


So Obama, as his closing argument to the nation, repeatedly used a statement that was never “actually said” by McCain or by his campaign. An accurate, fully fact-checked Obama speech would have read: “An unknown strategist, who may or may not be formally associated with the McCain campaign and who gave an unattributed quote to a New York tabloid, actually said, and I quote…”


During the 2008 election, the Obama campaign also hammered McCain for being “disturbingly out of touch” for his statement that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” Actually, McCain’s quote was: “Our economy, I think, still—the fundamentals of our economy are strong, but these are very, very difficult times. I promise you, we will never put America in this position again.”


McCain was clearly arguing that America’s economic strengths would eventually overcome America’s economic difficulties—a case Obama has made many times as president. But candidate Obama’s concern for context was, well, selective.


This is not to argue that two wrongs make a right. It is only to note that, in a presidential election, the truth often gets its hair mussed. And Obama has frequently done the mussing.


Obama’s short, rocket-fueled political career has involved a tension. He has gained a reputation for hope and change while practicing a brass-knuckle style of politics. The University of Chicago professor is also a Chicago politician—as both Hillary Clinton and McCain discovered. More than half of the ads run by Obama’s general election campaign were negative. McCain was attacked for being “erratic in a crisis”—a thinly veiled reference to his temperament.


As president, Obama has asserted that Republicans want the elderly, autistic children and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves,” and that the GOP plan is “dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance.” In what context would these claims be true?


Obama’s campaign team is hardly known for its desire to raise the political tone.


“David Axelrod,” says Obama biographer David Mendell, “has always been skillful at creeping into your room in the middle of the night and slicing out your heart, somehow without leaving behind a single fingerprint or drop of blood that ties him or his candidate to the crime.”


Good heart-slicing skills can be useful in presidential politics. But they preclude the option of self-righteousness. The Obama campaign wants to enforce rules on others it does not abide by itself. This does not make the rules outdated or make Romney’s ad right. But it makes Obama a suspect referee.


In political advertising, it is not impurity that rankles most. It is the pretense of purity.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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