Are Kerryisms dishonest?

The senator's caveats and curlicues.
June 22 2004 5:57 PM

Are Kerryisms Dishonest?

What Kerryisms are and aren't.

One problem with the Internet is that myths spread fast. Over the past week, three blogs, citing each other as authorities, have accused Slate of misrepresenting John Kerry's quotes in our "Kerryisms" department. The charges have infected readers, who have e-mailed them to Slate and posted them in our Fray. It's time to clear the air.

The first charge is that Kerryisms delete parts of Kerry's quotes. Spinsanity, Slate's chief accuser, juxtaposes complete quotes from Kerry with shortened versions of those quotes, which Spinsanity attributes to Slate. But the shortened versions never appeared in Slate as they appear in Spinsanity. Slate analyzes each quote. We highlight Kerry's caveats and embellishments by flagging them with footnotes and giving each of them its own line below the quote. The footnotes show you exactly where Kerry placed each caveat. Nothing is deleted. Spinsanity then reprints the quotes on its site, deletes the caveats(leaving only the footnote markers), and accuses Slate of removing the caveats.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The critics' second charge is that if you delete Kerry's caveats his quotes appear less complex. Well, yes. That's the point of caveats: to add complexity. Sometimes Kerry complicates his answers to do justice to a complex world. Sometimes he complicates his answers to cover his posterior. You have to decide which is which. In either case, the main point of Kerryisms is to highlight his caveats. His embellishments are secondary. That's why we don't delete the caveats. It would defeat the whole purpose.

Spinsanity chooses the following example. Kerry said:

I am the only United States Senator who has been elected four times, currently serving in the Senate, who has voluntarily refused to ever take, in any of my races for the Senate, one dime of political action committee special interest money. The only checks I took were from individual Americans. Now did some individual lobbyists contribute? The answer is, yes, they did.

Slate flags all the caveats Kerry inserted in this statement to qualify himself, and only himself, for this distinction: that he's been "elected four times," that he's "currently serving," and that the only disqualifying special interest money is PAC money. Spinsanity protests that without these caveats, Kerry's statement would be false. Of course it would. That's why he inserted the caveats. And that's why Slate flagged them.

The third charge leveled by Spinsanity is that Kerryisms "take quotes so far out of contextas to essentially engage in outright dishonesty." Spinsanity says Slate fails to provide "links to let readers check the context of the quotes." Actually, we print the whole quote, untouched, right below the analyzed version. Spinsanity doesn't tell you that. We also put a regular link, directly above each Kerryism, to the following instructions: "In a Kerryism, the senator's caveats and embellishments appear as footnotes. By clicking any footnote marker (number) in the text, you can see the caveat or embellishment Kerry inserted there. To see the whole quote as Kerry delivered it, scroll down." Spinsanity doesn't tell you that, either.

In sum, Spinsanity removes all the crucial information within, above, and below each quote in Slate—then accuses Slate of taking the quotes out of context.

I don't think Spinsanity is dishonest. I think they just didn't get the joke. It's like they ordered steak at a restaurant, and the waiter carved the meat off the bone, and they looked at the bone and accused the waiter of removing the meat. I'm the waiter, so I bear some blame. Originally, I described the skeleton of each Kerry quote—the part that remains if you ignore his caveats and embellishments—as "plain English." A month ago, I realized that this description was confusing, so I replaced it with the instructions above. For some reason, the bloggers don't tell their readers about the new instructions. They go back and dredge up the "plain English" line, reintroducing the confusion I was trying to get rid of.

Another blogger, Eugene Volokh, gets the jokeand doesn't like it. "Another possibility is that 'Kerryisms' has evolved into an attempt to show simply that Kerry uses a lot of qualifiers, instead of giving very simple answers," Volokh writes. "But often, as in this case, the right answer isn't simple. It's actually not terribly complex, but it's not one-word simple. Is it really good to fault a politician for refusing to oversimplify?"

That's a good and fair question. I prefer to let each reader decide for herself, case by case. I should have explained the general idea more clearly. Now I have. The rest of the judgments are up to you.

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