July 25th, 2008

Obama: where are the fact-checkers?

John F. Cullinan of National Review points out that Obama is wrong in his characterization of present-day Belfast. Then Cullinan asks a question I think worth pondering, concerning Obama’s propensity towards such errors:

Such carelessness with easily verifiable facts is troubling, given Obama’s 300-person mini-State Department and all the former senior Clinton Administration officials along for the ride. Does no one check facts? Or are staff too awed by the One to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear? Or do they all think the rest of us are too dumb or awestruck to notice?

It’s not just that Obama is subject to slips of the tongue, or strange off-the-cuff remarks such as the one about having to deal with world leaders for 8-10 years, or the difference between a bill and a Senate Committee; after all, it’s impossible to fact-check a candidate’s extemporaneous remarks. This is about his scripted errors, mistakes that occur in speeches that are written and supposedly fact-checked with tremendous care. And they’re not just about facts, although factual errors are part of it; they’re about concepts, and especially the understanding and interpretation of historical events.

A good example of this type of error was Obama’s characterization of Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba as tiny countries that are no threat to us compared to the Soviet Union in the Cold War (I deal with the problems with his statement here). Another has to do with his praise for the 1961 Kennedy/Khrushchev summit (here’s a good takedown of Obama’s simplistic and wrongheaded understanding of that historic showdown). The example Cullinan cites is of this second variety.

This is my hunch for the answers to Cullinan’s questions:

(1) Perhaps they fact-check; one would certainly hope so. But they don’t seem to concept-check; no doubt Obama sets the themes there, and he doesn’t seem to be a person open to being challenged, even if his speechwriters were wont to do so.

In a sobering trend, fact-checking in general, even in magazines, is somewhat of a dying art anyway, especially among the younger set. There’s a clue there: Obama’s speechwriters are young, very young.

There are three: 26-year-old head writer Jon Favreau, 26-year-old Adam Frankel, and the self-described “elder statesman” 30-year-old Ben Rhodes. If you follow the links to each name, you’ll find a trio of intelligent men with impressive-sounding resumes—although Favreau’s is a bit sparse. There’s also a host of other advisors with imposing credentials (see also this), as Cullinan point out.

I’m unfamiliar with the usual procedure for scrutinizing campaign speeches, but my guess is that majority of Obama’s advisers can’t possibly be viewing the scripts beforehand—the process would be too unwieldy. Some may take a look at a speech if it’s in their area of expertise, but the main vetters are probably his speechwriting staff.

I understand that youth does not necessarily mean historical ignorance, but it does mean that a candidate should be extra careful to make sure his/her young speechwriters have a very strong grounding in the subject.

Obama may be unable to do this because he himself has a certain lacuna where in-depth historical knowledge ought to be. That should make him especially aware of hiring people who can fill in the gaps, but in order to do this he would have to acknowledge his own weakness, something for which he’s shown little capacity to date.

What does Obama look for an a speechwriter? Here’s an indication, based on his hiring of head writer Favraeu:

Favreau met with Obama and Gibbs in the Senate cafeteria in the Dirksen office building on Capitol Hill on the senator’s first day in his new job. Obama didn’t want to know about Favreau’s résumé, but he did want to know about his motivation.

“What got you into politics, what got you interested?” he asked.

Favreau told him about the social service project he started in Worcester, defending the legal rights of welfare recipients as the state tried to move people off the rolls and into work.

“What is your theory of speechwriting?” Obama asked.

“I have no theory,” admitted Favreau. “But when I saw you at the convention, you basically told a story about your life from beginning to end, and it was a story that fit with the larger American narrative. People applauded not because you wrote an applause line but because you touched something in the party and the country that people had not touched before. Democrats haven’t had that in a long time.”

The pitch worked. Favreau and Obama rapidly found a relatively direct way to work with each other. “What I do is to sit with him for half an hour,” Favreau explains. “He talks and I type everything he says. I reshape it, I write. He writes, he reshapes it. That’s how we get a finished product.”

(2) Cullinan’s second point, whether Obama’s staff might be too awestruck to challenge him on errors, is certainly a good possibility as well, especially given their youth and the tendency of even senior aides and newspeople to feel the Obamalove.

(3) As for Cullinan’s third question, my feeling is that the correct answer is “yes.” Or, rather, the calculation is not that “all of us” are too dumb or awestruck to notice, but that enough of us are.

And perhaps they’re correct.

34 Responses to “Obama: where are the fact-checkers?”

  1. Christopher Says:

    Excellent answers, Neo. And I’d add my own hunch – it’s not only that just “enough of us” are too awestruck or dumb to know, but I’d also bet they’re gambling that those of us who DO know won’t be able to be heard above the ululations for the Black Narcissus from his disciples or his fellators in the media.

  2. vanderleun Says:

    FACTS? FACTS!!!? WE DON’ GOT TO CHECK YOU NO STEENKIN’ FACTS!

  3. vanderleun Says:

    And now… to toot my own horn…. here’s

    The Factchecking Facts @ AMERICAN DIGEST

  4. vanderleun Says:

    And finally, to paraphrase an old saw, “Ignorance of history is no excuse.”

  5. OldTexan Says:

    Yep, I read Obama’s Berlin speech and it was nothing but a zippity-do-dah mishmash of happy words. I also lived in Germany in the 60′s and the folks their had made JFK a minor saint with his picture on walls in various businesses. I was in Germany in 68 when RFK was killed and the country went into mourning.

    German’s are attracted of personalities in a manner that I find strange but it might have to do with a holdover feeling and appreciation of titles. I think Obama tapped into that need for people to desire a beautiful, stylish leader.

    I also do not think that there are too many mistakes made on the part of his handlers. You are right and they are betting on the appeal of his style and the lack of discernment in the voting public. After all, the election just has to have a simple majority of votes in enough states to carry over to the electoral college. They don’t need the all the votes of people who can pass a history test but they do need most of the votes of people who never bother to read a paper and get their news on the Comedy Channel.

  6. physicsguy Says:

    As his oldest speech writer is 30, I think this speaks volumes of the level of history education, and education in general in the U.S.

  7. Cappy Says:

    It’s better to look good than to feel good. And he looks mahvelous!

  8. ~Paules Says:

    Common to all megalomaniacs is a belief in their own infallibility: “It must be true because that is my belief.” The process is entirely internal because it’s ego-based. Objective reality doesn’t enter the equation. Thus do we get Obama’s continual rejection of the progress made during the surge. The truth proves Obama wrong, and that in his mind is an impossibility.

    I’m not a psychologist, but my 51 years on this planet have taught me something of human nature. Most of us grow in wisdom as a result of our failures. We are humbled. The healthy response is to admit failure and rethink our positions. The inability to admit failure is a form of arrested psychological development. In extreme cases it manifests as sociopathy. Being surrounded by sycophants only feeds the disease. Anyone who dares question is purged from the inner circle. The brakes on the bus have failed, but the passengers are too delirious to care.

    How do we explain the lemming behavior of the MSM toward Obama? Take people of ordinary ability and pay them 5 million bucks a year to read a teleprompter. Or take a someone who barely graduated high school and pay him 20 million for a performance on the silver screen. Or pay a jock a hundred million for chasing a ball. The ego rises and the introspective mind is suspended all together. The self becomes the center of all that is and tips the individual over a cliff.

    Plato understood. The final book of The Republic is a curious read. The dead from Troy are lining up in the afterworld for a chance to reincarnate. The wise among them are choosing insignificant roles for their next life. One even chooses to come back as a lowly sparrow.

    I think, maybe, I’m starting to understand. But I could be wrong. It would not be the first time. If I am wrong, I’ll just have to rethink it. Thinking about thinking . . . there’s a word for that: metacognition! At least here I’m in good company.

  9. Occam's Beard Says:

    If his oldest speechwriter is 30, he probably does think there are 57 states, that he might be President for 8-10 years, and that the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor to protest the breakup of the Beatles.

    The chances that anyone in Obama Oberkommando is aware that the Kennedy-Khruschev summit is generally considered now to have been a disaster that brought us to the brink of nuclear war. And Obama makes JFK look like an elder statesman.

    Good God.

  10. kcom Says:

    “especially given their youth and the tendency of even senior aides and newspeople to feel the Obamalove”

    I hope and pray that in the future the behavior of some of these newspeople is widely recognized for the embarrassment that it is. It’s truly appalling. Chris Matthews should be run out of town on a rail for the (totally unprofessional) way he’s been acting. Age, and with it, what should be wisdom is apparently no impediment to Obama fever virus. It’s very disturbing.

  11. harry McHitlerburtonstein the COnservative Extremist Says:

    The short answer is: So what? It sounds good.

    Go and ask anyone you see wearing the soviet style artwork- Obama T-shirt why they support him and more often than not you get the same substantially vacant generalities that are the standard for his campaign: “He promises hope”, “He makes me want to trust government again” He offers change” Ask for specifics, you get more generalities.

    Obama knows his audience. He has an army of willing “journalists” as a free outlet of campaign “information”. They arent going to check the facts, why should anyone connected to a campaign targeting people who arent interested in facts anyway?

  12. Vince P Says:

    I saw a video on YouTube that had Obama’s audio book for Dreams from my Father

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lI77cU3jsFs

    In the book, Obama gives details of the speech that we all saw on TV and know as the “God Damn America” speech.

    At 8min 42sec into the video, they show Obama reading

    “Wright spoke of Sharpsville and Hiroshima, the callousness of policy makers in the WHite House and the State House…”

    Obama is reading these words… then they go to the clip of Wright just before he gets ready to say “God Damn America” and he mentions Sharpsville and Hiroshima.

    Obama was there!

  13. Occam's Beard Says:

    “He makes me want to trust government again”

    The funny part is that people who babble such nonsense will, on the next breath, disparage corporations, apparently not realizing that the government is the biggest corporation in existence (i.e., a legal fiction that treats an organization like an individual).

  14. harry McHitlerburtonstein the COnservative Extremist Says:

    Could there be a break in the weather?

    End of the Affair
    Barack Obama and the press break up.

    http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=6e9f4a42-9540-4d99-aba2-25adc276c25d

    “”They’re an arrogant operation. Young and arrogant,” one reporter covering the campaign says. “They don’t believe in transparency with their own campaign,” another says.

    “”They’re terrified of people poking around Obama’s life,” one reporter says. “The whole Obama narrative is built around this narrative that Obama and David Axelrod built, and, like all stories, it’s not entirely true. “

  15. FredHjr Says:

    I read the Cullinan article over at National Review also, neo. Perhaps there is a culture of “sling the bull” inside the Obama camp? The emphasis is on sounding slick, rather than being solid. I have always preferred that statesmen and politicians write their own speeches, so that you know their minds and HOW they think and reason.

    How did we get to this point?

    Obama studied “International Relations” at Columbia University (Communist U. in New York) and I doubt that he was deeply grounded in history. If he purposefully gravitated towards Marxist professors at Occidental College and at Columbia, the results are pretty predictable. For those people the facts of history are not as important as the overarching narrative themes. You make the facts, whether real or made-up, fit the narrative.

    Obama, I think, fits the pattern throughout our culture now: style over substance.

  16. kungfu Says:

    Reminds me of a story early in Bush’s administration when he had gotten some fact about Sweden wrong, having confused it with Switzerland. He apparently was adamant about his own “fact” for quite some time until someone quietly showed him the proof of his error.

    Are we in for another eight years of amateur president?

  17. FredHjr Says:

    Nice tit-for-tat, kungfu. That’s the quick way to score in a debate. However, what I’ve observed and others have also observed is a pattern of sloppy preparation exhibited by Obama’s speechwriters and policy advisers.

  18. Thomass Says:

    It is an unpopular thing to do… a generalization… but progressives do not respect knowledge of history. They want to imagine that if they imagine it away, they can create something new / break out if it….

  19. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Only one bomb fell on Pearl Harbor. And Ben Affleck was in it.

    In the area of history, Obama can get away with this stuff. The kids under, say, forty are the most historically ignorant bunch imaginable. And, proud of it.

    I suspect that evolution, for hard purposes, built into humans the capacity to critically evaluate their surroundings. What happened?

  20. Perfected democrat Says:

    ~Paules Says:

    July 25th, 2008 at 5:07 pm
    “Common to all megalomaniacs is a belief in their own infallibility…”

    Excellent commentary!

  21. strcpy Says:

    “Or are staff too awed by the One to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear? Or do they all think the rest of us are too dumb or awestruck to notice?”

    I’m in for option three – that Obama has them fact checked, seen they are wrong, and pre-supposes he is correct anyway. I can’t see the staff too awed to say “you are wrong” (many of them have worked for bigger fish) and they should be experienced enough to know we aren’t *that* stupid, yet it happens.

    I truly think this one starts and stops with Obama and his staff is mostly trying to work around him. There are certainly some that have drunk the kool-aid but most are mostly trying to run damage control as far as I can see.

  22. John Spragge Says:

    It amuses me that you see a metaphoric stretch and miss the lesson shoved right under your noses. Let me add a disclaimer: I don’t think this says anything about conservatives (or neo-conservatives) as a group. I suspect many conservatives read John F. Cullinan’s comment, checked out the facts, considered the lessons, and got the cold pricklies.

    First the metaphoric stretch: walls (of violence and the accompanying hate) really have come down in Belfast. The physical walls that have gone up (or stayed up) in Belfast matter less than the walls created by bombings, shootings, funerals, and the accompanying rage and oaths of vengeance. Also, the process that brings the walls down takes place in the country, as some (not all) of the towns and villages around Belfast develop a culture of tolerance. But if you speek only of physical barriers, you can say “gotcha” to Senator Obama; in trying to describe in a few sentences the Northern Ireland peace process, a process full of hope and promise, but also complexity, difficulty and pain, he simplified an expression that allowed the literal minded among his opponents to claim he made a mistake.

    But it amazes me that anyone can look at the history Cullinan brings up without drawing the larger lessons. With apologies to those who have grasped any of the lessons the example of Belfast has to offer, I provide a detailed expression below.

    If anyone thinks they can remake a divided society with shock, awe, and some troops, let them go to Belfast. If anyone thinks that the wounds of the past heal quickly, let them go to Belfast. If anyone thinks that a society in which one in fifty people have died violently does not nurse a deep and terrible grief and rage, let them go to Belfast. If anyone thinks that quiet in the streets translates to political reconciliation, let them go to Belfast. If anyone needs a lesson in the harsh truth that you cannot remake a society by violence except at an unimaginable cost, let them go to Belfast. If anyone thinks that having reduced the bombings in Baghdad to an acceptable level means you have all but achieved a working democracy in raq, look at the history of the conflict in Ireland and think again.

  23. Vince P Says:

    The more that is revealed about this danger the more incredulious I get.

    Who does this guy think he is to run for President in MY country? My country is the opposite of every detestable thing he stands for.

  24. Truth Says:

    I saw a video on YouTube

    There are movies produced looks very childish and funny some time wondering how on earth these move makers, actors do these rubbish?

    But looks there are some so childish and fool take them abroad here. So no wonder then those moves produced then and after spooling some fools.

  25. Truth Says:

    “Eventually, we will all hate Obama too”

    Often those who express their tiresome anti-Americanism will suggest, as do some of the more disingenuous anti-Zionists with regard to anti-Semitism – that they, of course, are not anti-American, and that no one really is. But, coming as I do from an Anti-American tradition that wasn’t afraid to proclaim itself, I think I know where the corpses are interred. For example, the current production of Bernstein’s Candide at the English National Opera is a classic of elite anti-Americanism, in which we are invited to laugh at the philistine invocation of “Democracy, the American Way and McDonald’s”. The laughter that accompanied this feeble satire showed our proper understanding that we, the audience, had a proper concept of democracy, and would never soil ourselves with an Egg McMuffin

  26. SteveH Says:

    To a modern liberal, all historical hindsight does is self evidently reveal humanity to be 180 degrees out of phase with what COULD HAVE produced utopia on Earth.

    So the percieved alternative to the reality of 4,000 soldiers dying, is never 40,000 soldiers dying. Only that the utopian number of zero was at our fingertips if humanity would just listen.

  27. harry McHitlerburtonstein the COnservative Extremist Says:

    John Spragge: Is Belfast better off today than it was, say, 20 years ago? Think that just happened by itself?

    Is not the condition now in Iraq better than uncontrolled ethnic and sectarian violence?

    We do grasp that people harbor animosities against each other. What you need to grasp is that the cycle isnt going to end on its own without one side murdering off the other (and then maybe only after centuries of random violence). Since you do not put forth a viable alternative to what we’re doing, Im not seeing what lesson it is you presume to lecture us about.

  28. Fresh Bilge » Summer of What? Says:

    [...] change relinquishes to change more fundamental.” What the hell is that supposed to mean? Have Obama’s callow speechwriters have boon moonlighting as green shills for corporate America? Why do people who seek to [...]

  29. John Spragge Says:

    A huge number of developments played a role in the development of peace in Northern Ireland, from the liberalization in the Irish Republic, to the clampdown on IRA fund raising in the United States. The generation of British soldiers who endured the burden of keeping some kind of limits on communal strife deserve their share of the credit.

    It seems unlikely that the American Army will get the opportunity to carry out the same role in Iraq over the same time period; the Iraqi government seems quite unwilling to accept a status of forces agreement which would permit a permanent occupation force. The Iraqi Prime Minister has called for a sixteen month timetable for withdrawing, and endorsed Senator Obama’s position pretty explicitly. I do not think you have any alternative but to hope the Iraqis make a go of it.

  30. amr Says:

    I was wondering how any candidate could make written speeches with so many errors. One can see his problem with history by his off-the-cuff statements; but in a speech? Having 3 writers 30 or under speaks volumes ABOUT HIM for the reasons you put forth. Before I retires, as a manager I surrounded myself with people who were more knowledgeable than me in many areas and told them and my construction craft to challenge me. Yes, I told them, I had to make the final decisions, but if I was sand bagged, it was not just me that suffered.

  31. I R A Darth Aggie Says:

    The Iraqi Prime Minister has called for a sixteen month timetable for withdrawing, and endorsed Senator Obama’s position pretty explicitly.

    No, no, he hasn’t. Maliki, unlike Obama, is a consumate politician. And he understands that should his regime fall, his likely “retirement” will not be to Najaf, writting “elder statesmen” books. So the US will have a presence in-country for a lot more than 16 months.

  32. Augean Stables » Barack Obama, the John Lennon Candidate Says:

    [...] Belfast walls have come down? Neocon has more to say on the Belfast issue. South Africa is a model of success? (And let’s not forget what the end [...]

  33. John Spragge Says:

    Wrong, Darth, Prime Minister Maliki has indeed endorsed the pull-out of American combat troops, and backed it up by refusing to negotiate a long term status of forces agreement.

  34. Baklava Says:

    oooh look ! John was wrong. :)

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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