We Now Know

Posted: April 29, 2007 in News and politics


Yesterday morning I read a Factcheck.org article about the Democratic Candidates for President debate. In it, Factcheck.org’s staff made a carefully studied contrast between what the candidates said in the debate and what was reported by other various news agencies. I find this an incredibly fastidious parsing of every utterance on that crowded stage. It brought an incident to mind that happened to me many years ago.

I was on the sound-powered phones during a drill on a Navy ship; and manning the U.L.C.E.R. equipment. Part of my duties was to monitor sea valve positions: open or shut. On the line was the captain who asked me the status of one of the sea valves. I responded with, “The valve indicates shut” in my very correct vernacular. Some time later my chief said the captain was taken aback by my phraseology; and that I should just say, “The valve is shut” rather than “The valve indicates shut”. I guess my careful distinction between indicates and is unnerved the captain. He apparently didn’t want to hear that there was a possible disconnect between the valves actual position and the indication that I was looking at.

So it is when we get too picky about people’s memory of what was said and contrasting reports of what was said. Now, if I were of a critical political persuasion I would render the distinctions made by Factcheck.org important and disregard the possibility that the candidate might not have perfect recall; or, more importantly, perfect grasp of the facts. It makes the increasingly lengthy period of time between candidates declaring their candidacy and the election an equally challenging drudgery: full of opportunities to slip up. As much as I like to pay attention to politics in general, what are the chances of remembering these very slightly significant apparent gaffs?

In previous election cycles I would give apparent gaffs way too much importance and let it influence my thinking to the point that I made very silly decisions on whom I voted for. An example of that was Al Gore’s announcing that he "invented the internet". I thought, anyone who is suffering from that kind of disillusionment probably shouldn’t be president. Little did I know that he didn’t mean that boast literally. He was only a major facilitator for the development of the internet. He authored the bill that provided funding for developing the internet. Of course that distinction was left out of news accounts.

It is only by keeping an open mind that we can make truly informed decisions. So, as much as I have already formed an opinion about who is the best candidate, I have to be careful that I don’t give too much weight to specific utterances to the point that they cloud my memory; and more importantly repeating factoids that have little credibility.

The proclamation by Hillary Clinton that “We now know that the background check system didn’t work, because certainly this shooter, as he’s called, had been involuntarily committed as a threat to himself and others. And, yet, he could walk in and buy a gun.” was deemed incorrect because her statement was “only half true. It’s correct that Seung-hui Cho had a court-documented history of mental illness that under federal law should have precluded his purchase of a firearm. And he was indeed found to present `an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness’ in a ruling dated December 14, 2005, issued by a special justice of the Montgomery County, Virginia, General District Court. But Judge Paul Barnett did not check a box that would have declared Cho `an imminent danger to others.’ Moreover, the judge declined to involuntarily commit Cho and sent him to outpatient counseling.” I have to laud Factcheck.org for being complete in its research because it goes on to include the caveat that “Clinton’s confusion on this might stem from bad reporting by some news outlets that said Cho was found to be a danger to himself and others.” At this point I have to smile and recall President Reagan saying, “I only know what I read in the papers.” Certainly Hillary’s staff needs to be careful to bounce individual news accounts against others for accuracy. It’s a practice I only follow sporadically. I tend to trust single sources that I… well, trust. I have developed a sense of what seems real versus what demands verification. My saying “It’s a sin to be cynical; but skepticism is a virtue” keeps popping up.

What’s great about reading these articles by Factcheck.org is it does tend to make one more careful about believing what is said by anyone who is pulling factoids out of their memories, especially in the glare of public debates. As a matter of fact I understand that in the academic exercise called debate, what you say doesn’t even have to be true, only believable, to make points. So, we probably shouldn’t demand absolute accuracy in a debate setting.

Prepared statements are another matter, however. We should demand absolute accuracy from candidates when they give speeches. They should never deliver off-the-cuff remarks. Every statement should be carefully weighed and prepared by a staff that really knows how to do research. All the caveats should be included in every statement. So, instead of we now know, a candidate should say according to news sources. Only then can we believe the candidates’ caution in believing what they know.

I am not so cynical to believe that we don’t really know anything. I think we have to trust our memory, if we practice memory enhancement; as well as news sources as long as the news sources are truly independent and don’t rely on each other for truth and accuracy.

The last statement in my message from Factcheck.org is “It’s going to be a long, long campaign.” It followed the declaration that they “need to research further” the subject of (nearly) universal health coverage for Americans.


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