Page: Fact-challenged campaign drama
‘Facts are stubborn things,” goes an old saying that President Ronald Reagan liked to quote. Unfortunately, so are cherished myths.
Remember how during his 2008 presidential bid Sen. John McCain courageously corrected a woman at a town hall meeting who said that then-candidate Barack Obama was “an Arab”?
Anyone who might have hoped for a similar display of good character from Donald Trump, the Grand Old Party’s current frontrunner for Reagan’s old job, would be sorely disappointed.
The opportunity opened up as Trump took questions during a rally in New Hampshire on the evening after the second Republican presidential debate.
“We have a problem in this country,” growled the man whom Trump called on first. “It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know, he’s not even an American. Birth certificate, man.”
“Right,” Trump said. He then added with a skeptical what-the-hey shake of his head: “We need this question? This first question?”
“But anyway,” the man said. “We have training camps … where they want to kill us.”
“Uh-huh,” Trump said.
“That’s my question,” the man said. “When can we get rid of them?”
If ever there was an opportunity for Trump to give something more than his usual fuzzy promises about what a Trump presidency might look like, this was it.
Instead he gave another fuzzy answer. “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things,” he said. “You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to look at that and plenty of other things.”
I’m sure Trump was trying to placate the guy and move on, in much the way he responds when asked about the “things you wouldn’t believe,” which he claims his investigators turned up in 2011 about Obama’s birth certificate. Whether we would believe it or not, we have yet to see any of it.
Even after the White House produced the president’s long-form birth certificate, as requested by Trump and other skeptics, he continued to be skeptical. “I don’t know,” he said to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in July. “I really don’t know.”
Or, as he faces the Iowa caucuses, he doesn’t want to know. A recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll found that 59 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers believed Obama was not born in the United States, or weren’t sure. Among Trump-supporting Republicans, the number of skeptics jumped to 71 percent.
Trump may disdain “total political correctness,” as he labels what the rest of us would call being a jerk, but those percentages are big enough to demand even his respect.
In that sense, Trump is not that different from some of his fellow candidates when it comes to a loose relationship with facts.
Former corporate CEO Carly Fiorina, for example, had a terrific night, often stealing the spotlight from Trump, who seemed to run out of steam, along with new ideas and original insults, by the third hour of the exhaustively long debate.
Yet, she, too, went farther than facts would support when she attacked Planned Parenthood, based on a secretly taped video. “I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes,” she said angrily. “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”
Her statement was impressive but less than true. As various fact-checkers pointed out, no video had surfaced showing such a scene inside a Planned Parenthood facility.
Images of a fetus are intercut with the narrative in the third episode of videos taped secretly by the Center for Medical Progress, but there is little evidence that the fetus is about to be harvested. According to the Washington Post, at least one image in the video turned out to be of a stillborn birth, not an abortion.
Every new political season offers ample opportunities for fact checkers. Media and candidates’ opponents have plenty of work to do. But so do the voters. New media offer us a flood of information 24/7, but it is up to us news consumers to trust more than just the news that sounds good. Facts still matter, I hope.
Clarence Pages writes for the Chicago Tribune.