Pundits, spinners, hacks - and logic

The great challenge for the aspiring pundit is to discover something that can be said after the debate that could not have been said before it. Usually—almost invariably—one is reduced to stylistic comments: so—and—so looked tired; the other guy's hair, like that of Warren Zevon's werewolf, was perfect. The task is to convey a sense that these People Magazine observations are in any way significant, or really need to be made at all. Still, some people—their tribe is constantly increasing—— earn extremely comfortable incomes, and even attain a minor degree of celebrity, from making such observations.

A few taxonomic distinctions emerged in the aftermath of last night's vice—presidential debate: pundits are not spinners, who are themselves more than hacks. On Fox News Channel, Susan Estrich, a straddler of the line between pundit and spinner (with occasional stumbles into hack territory) accused William Kristol, pundit, of dishonesty for asserting that Edwards failed to defend John Kerry from Cheney's charges of inconsistency. Estrich cited a few lines from the transcript showing that Edwards had indeed made supportive noises regarding his running mate. Kristol acted genuinely offended, insisted that Edwards did not attempt a serious rebuttal, and complained that he did not appear on opinion shows to have his honesty questioned.

The subtext here is interesting: Bill Kristol edits The Weekly Standard, a journal of opinion—conservative opinion. He has, in other words, a horse in the presidential race. Susan Estrich managed Michael Dukakis's campaign in 1988 and remains a Democratic Party insider. What Kristol seems to be suggesting is that his willingness to make allowance for his own ideological slant in attempting objective analysis is not an ideal shared by Estrich. He is capable, he would argue, of acknowledging a poor performance by his candidate, doing so with a candor that she simply lacks.

Tentatively, a pundit may be defined as someone who is astute, fair—minded, and thoughtful at least 75% of the time, and gives out partisan boilerplate no more than 25%. For the spinner, those percentages are reversed. The pure hack, as exemplified by the buffoonish Terry McAuliffe, is all twaddle, all the time: if his man urinated on the stage, it would still be a great night for the Democratic Party. Pundits, then, are worth listening to; spinners can be highly entertaining and occasionally say something of importance; hacks need to justify their existence.

So, who won the debate? According to the pundits, Dick Cheney effectively exposed the internal contradictions of John Kerry's positions (note the plural) on the War on Terror and John Edwards could not offer a defense. The spinners and hacks could have been replaced by barking dogs with no loss to the viewer, but let us focus on this seemingly straightforward, yet curious standard of victory.

If you are required to uphold the proposition that a thing can simultaneously be A and not—A, you will not succeed in doing so: ineluctable logic will defeat your best effort. It has been suggested, unkindly but truthfully, that George Bush last week made 2+2=4 look shaky. But, after the smoke has cleared and the voices have died down, 2+2 remains 4. Republicans can take comfort from the knowledge that Bush has merely to display competence in basic arithmetic. Kerry needs to perform astonishing feats of logical legerdemain. Democrats are comforted by their keen perception of the electorate's disdain for logic.

Robert Benchley, the funniest of America's great humorists, wrote an essay describing one of his favorite recreations—imagining himself a witness in a trial. He'd give snappy answers to insipid questions, burning up the attorneys, winning the love and admiration of the jury, and sometimes receiving an appreciative wink from the judge. Those snappy answers, he confessed, hadn't occurred to him by the deadline for the article. Try debating John Kerry, in daydream fashion, and see if you don't get a feel for the problem.

Suppose you begin by asking him about his endlessly invoked experience in Vietnam. He learned a lesson about an immoral war: he will use that lesson to fight a smarter war against the terrorists. Now, if the lesson was not that we should acknowledge a bad war as a mistake and end it immediately, what was it? That is what he talked about when he burst upon the national scene in 1971, which is why we have him to contend with in 2004. It's the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time—therefore, we should get out. Right? A letter written to the New York Post expressed relief that Kerry had finally revealed himself as an advocate of withdrawal from Iraq and now anti—war activists could support him with clear consciences.

Not so fast! He is not in favor of withdrawing from Iraq. In fact, Bush failed to use enough troops to do the job properly, even though the job shouldn't have been done in the first place. The world is better for the removal of Saddam Hussein, but he wouldn't have removed him, and Bush made a serious miscalculation.

Our current allies are dupes, knaves, and fools...and we need more of them. Even though the French and Germans have stated flatly that they will not help us under any circumstances, Bush is to be condemned for driving them away. That countries engaging in illegal transactions with Saddam, in violation of U.N. sanctions, should be viewed as adversaries, rather than allies, is a notion not worth discussing.

You think you have him: Senator Kerry, your running mate said that you would go where the terrorists are, hunt them down, and destroy them. What if the place you propose going to doesn't want us to come? What if the idea fails the global test, i.e., Jacques Chirac disapproves? If you don't go, you really are the weak leader your opponents claim you are. If you go anyway, what have you been criticizing George Bush for?

He isn't cornered at all. He dismisses you with a wave and intones that he has taken a single consistent position throughout the campaign. Careful, you can blow the debate instantly by sputtering. Yes, he has alternated between diametrically opposed positions, but he has settled on an approach: He will embrace mutually exclusive positions and maintain that the thing is at once A and not—A.

Here you experience an epiphany: Kerry's affront to reason hurts him only with people who are affronted. For those discriminating voters who recognize fallacies, Kerry and Edwards must lose every debate. For those voters who simply can't comprehend what all the fuss is about, a candidate can promise to fight tougher and smarter in a war he doesn't actually intend to fight and look mighty appealing.

Yes, Cheney won. For many of us, the result was in before the debate. That was true last week; it will be true Friday night and next Wednesday. Will it matter?