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Veering from the truth? It works

Times Staff Writer

For weeks, John McCain and his campaign have made claims contradicted by reality: Barack Obama favors sex education for kindergartners and insulted Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; Palin sold her state plane on EBay and turned down federal money for the “bridge to nowhere.”

Obama has argued that McCain doesn’t understand voter concern about the foundering economy and -- attention, Michigan voters -- has refused to support loan guarantees for the auto industry.

If any of those statements rings true, then a campaign adage has proved itself again: Repeat something often enough, and it becomes real, even when it isn’t.

Political innocents may wonder why a candidate like McCain, whose campaign is premised on what he calls “straight talk” -- and to a lesser extent Obama -- have veered from the flat truth.

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The answer is simple: because it works.

Both major party candidates for president vowed to run a different kind of campaign, implicitly promising a break from the spin-fests that past contests had become. But the close race and the tumultuous media environment in which McCain and Obama now find themselves appear to have crushed those notions.

“When you are seeking people’s approval, you tend to tell them what you think they want to hear,” said Brooks Jackson, a former Associated Press and CNN reporter who runs the online truth-squad effort Fact Check.org.

Analysts who have studied campaign rhetoric point out that rhetorical excess is hardly new. Plato railed against it 2,400 years ago. But even he might have been taken aback this year, particularly by the GOP ticket’s recent comments and advertisements.

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On Saturday, the McCain team was on the defensive after the Boston Globe reported that Palin’s 2007 trip to Iraq, which the campaign had forwarded as evidence of foreign policy experience, was actually a trip to a Kuwait-Iraq border crossing. The campaign earlier had said the trip -- her only one outside North America -- included a visit to Ireland, but later acknowledged that was a refueling stop.

On Friday, McCain himself added to the list of untruths. He said on ABC’s “The View” that his running mate would help him put a stop to congressional pork projects known as “earmarks,” which are put into appropriations bills without the normal review procedures.

When co-host Barbara Walters noted that Palin herself has requested earmarks, McCain inaccurately responded, “No, not as governor she didn’t.”

In fact, she requested $198 million in earmarks this year as governor, atop millions more when she was mayor of the small town of Wasilla.

McCain also brushed back criticism of two misleading ads released by his campaign this week, one that attacked Obama on sex education and another that said he equated her with a pig. Both ads have been debunked by independent analysts. FactCheck called the sex education ad “simply false” and said along with others that Obama was talking about McCain’s government reform strategy, not Palin, when he said the campaign was putting “lipstick on a pig.”

On “The View,” co-host Joy Behar asked McCain about the ads, calling them “lies.”

“Actually they are not lies,” McCain replied.

McCain and his campaign have insisted that all of their complaints about Obama are grounded in fact, as Obama has when confronted with errors in his criticisms of McCain.

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In this presidential campaign, as in others before it, words can be shaded in a variety of ways -- direct falsehoods, technically accurate but misleading statements, incendiary suggestions or cherry-picked information lacking necessary context.

Careful attention to the wording is key.

McCain and Palin have emphasized her reformist credentials by saying she put the Alaska state plane for sale on EBay; McCain went so far as to say she sold it for a profit. Actually, the plane did not find a buyer on EBay and was later sold for a loss by a broker.

Obama claims in a Michigan ad, according to FactCheck, that McCain “refused to support loan guarantees for the auto industry. Now he’s just paying lip service, not talking straight.” Translation: McCain now supports loan guarantees, a fact not included in the ad.

On some level, truth or fiction has come to be almost beside the point, since the claims all take root.

Republican political analyst Dan Schnur noted that the current media environment allows misstatements from both sides to skitter through the Internet and onto ideologically based cable and radio shows.

When campaign coverage was the purview of mainstream political reporters, Schnur said, “it was less likely that a statement that wouldn’t pass the smell test of the traditional news media could still be heard by the voters.”

Now, he said, “there’s plenty of talk shows and sites to deliver the message when the mainstream media chooses not to.”

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Sites such as FactCheck, a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, also seek to clarify public comments by candidates, to growing response from voters. Jackson, the project’s director, said well over a million people visited the site last week.

His organization, nonpartisan and nonprofit, seeks to smother heated campaign rhetoric with the cool weight of logic. No use of the word “lie,” for example, since intent is hard to divine; rather, something erroneous is judged “less than honest.”

“I can’t be sure if they are being cynically manipulative or being bamboozled by their own rhetoric,” he said.

The intent of a factually challenged argument could be anything from trying to force an opponent to respond in anger -- thus alienating voters -- to just planting a seed to flourish in voters’ minds. As Jackson said, the McCain campaign has barraged voters with the notion that Obama would raise their taxes. Even though Obama has pledged not to raise taxes on all but the wealthiest Americans, polls show voters now believe McCain’s claims.

Stanley Renshon, a psychoanalyst and City University of New York political science professor, said voters use all manner of information, wrong or not, to construct their own portrait of a candidate. “People take bits and pieces and put them together in what is the most obvious and not exactly the most correct way,” he said.

Take the sex education ad. McCain’s ad ominously contends that Obama’s single accomplishment in education was “legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergartners.” In fact, the measure would have allowed teachers, with parental approval, to inform young children about the dangers of inappropriate touching by adults.

Obama was not the measure’s author, and the bill ultimately failed, meaning that it was not an accomplishment for anyone.

“People will have doubts about sex education for kindergartners,” said Renshon, referring to the McCain campaign’s choice of words. “What McCain is doing is he’s planting a doubt.”

Martin Medhurst, distinguished professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University, said that in one way the candidates are merely giving voters what they want.

Consider the “bridge to nowhere.”

On the stump, Palin claims that she told Congress “thanks, but no thanks” and that, if Alaska wanted the bridge, Alaska would build it itself. The line became one of the most popular in her early campaign appearances.

Actually, Palin backed federal financing for the bridge when running for governor in 2006. Once in office, she pulled the plug after the proposed bridge proved such an embarrassment that Congress scrapped the earmark. While the “no thanks” implied that she turned back the money, it was actually spent on other Alaska projects.

Explaining that she changed her tune because political circumstances had changed “would be the truth, but you can’t say that,” Medhurst said. “We want simple narratives. We don’t want complexity.”

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com


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