Kevin Drum writes:
The Washington Monthly: THE POLITICAL PAST TENSE....In his column this week griping about blogger bile, Joe Klein lets us in on a trick of the trade. He's describing a blog post he wrote shortly after the vote on the war supplemental:
Congresswoman Jane Harman of California called as the debate was taking place. "Look, I would love to have cast a vote against Bush on this," she told me....
And then Harman changed her position. After we spoke, she voted against the funding. The next day, I was blasted by a number of left-wing bloggers: Klein screwed up! I had quoted Harman in the past tense — common usage for politicians who know their words will appear after a vote takes place. That was sloppy and... suspicious! Proof that you just can't trust the mainstream media.
Huh. Is it true that politicians routinely speak in the past tense in situations like this? This makes sense (and I've done it myself) if you're taping a radio show that won't air for a while, which makes the time context unclear to the audience. But in news articles that's not really true. The time context is usually obvious.
Anyway, I've never heard this before, so it's an interesting tidbit to know. Do all politicians do this? For print and broadcast, or just print? Or what? Inquiring minds want to know.
I think that there is a little more here that Kevin Drum misses. Let's roll back the tape and watch Joe Klein:
The Iraq Vote - Swampland - TIME: I was wrong, sadly, last week to say that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would vote for the Iraq supplemental bill. They voted against.... Voting against it means you're in favor of a precipitous departure from Iraq.... It's difficult... to have much respect for Clinton and Obama, who... are opposed to an immediate withdrawal, but voted for a measure which, if passed, would force one.... Yesterday I spoke with Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Ca.) just back from Iraq, who voted for the bill--as did a majority of Democrats who are not running for President. "Look, I would love to have cast a vote against Bush on this. We need a new strategy and I hope we can force one in September," she told me. "But I flew into Baghdad on a troop transport with 150 kids, heading into the field. To vote against this bill was to vote against giving them the equipment, the armor they need. I couldn't do that"...
Now there are two things wrong with Klein here. The first--the big one--is the claim that voting against the supplemental "would force" "a precipitous departure from Iraq." That's simply wrong--(i) "precipitous" needs to be redefined to mean "slowly and gradually over the next year or more," (ii) voting against this version of the supplemental has to trigger not a new round of Pennsylvania Avenue negotiations but an immediate reversion to the earlier supplemental, (iii) Bush has to--this time--sign the earlier supplemental, and (iv) all language in the supplemental has to be automatically rolled into the fiscal-2008 Defense appropriation for Klein's claim to have even a colorable chance of not being totally false. But let that pass.
But there is a second thing wrong with Klein here. It's the authorial viewpoint Klein adopts. The viewpoint he adopts is the viewpoint of someone writing and reporting about the supplemental vote after it takes place. After the roll call vote, he looks and sees which prominent Democrats he respects voted for the supplemental, and finds that Jane Harman voted against it. He talks to Jane Harman on a person-to-person level. She discusses her inmost thoughts with him. He is a Washington insider, with special sekrit access to the thoughts and ideas of powerful decisionmakers.
Suppose that a basement-dwelling bathrobe-clad weblogger had written Klein's passage. It would have read somewhat differently. Perhaps:
I thought that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would vote for the Iraq supplemental bill. But the clowns voted against it! By voting against it they voted for an immediate, cowardly withdrawal from Iraq, sacrificing the lives of thousands of our dedicated Iraqi allies! You can't respect them.
But there are Democrats you can respect. I have here a statement Democratic representative Jane Harman's office issued yesterday, before the vote, explaining that she planned to vote against it:
I would love to have cast a vote against the administration on this. We need a new strategy and I hope we can force one in September. But we have to think of the troops first. I flew into Baghdad on a troop transport with 150 kids, heading into the field. To vote against this bill was to vote against giving them the equipment, the armor they need. I could not do that.
UPDATE: Ooops! Jane Harman voted against the supplemental on this. I guess she found that she could vote against the troops and against giving them their equipment after all.
This second version makes no pretenses at being a Washington insider with special knowledge and insight into the hearts and thoughts of powerful decisionmakers. It makes no pretense at being able to get Jane Harman on the phone in the immediate aftermath of an important vote. It makes no pretense that one's interactions with Harman are one-on-one person-to-person talks that reveal inner thoughts rather than guarded and scripted interactions that are part of a superb politician's presentation of her public image.
One of the important things going on here is that Klein's error let slip the secret that the insider status which is supposed to create the knowledge that Time pays Joe Klein to convey to the readers is worth much, much less than Klein (and Time) with it were. After all, Harman didn't tell Klein what she was thinking, did she? She didn't say "I'm under enormous pressure here, with powerful political and policy arguments cutting both ways," did she?