Glenn Kessler, who writes the Fact Checker column for The Washington Post has issued a challenge to Messrs Romney and Obama:
Give at least one campaign speech, on a substantive policy issue, lasting at least 15 minutes, that does not contain a single factual error or misstatement. That means no sugar-coating of your record, no exaggerated claims about your opponent’s record, and no assertions that are technically true but lack crucial context. If you do, not only would you win the ultimate Geppetto Checkmark — which I award on those rare occasions of complete accuracy — but you would earn the gratitude of the American people, who are eager for hard truths.
Leave alone for a moment the highly dubious statement that the American people "are eager for hard truths." That, with a little bit of "crucial context," might itself qualify for a couple of "Pinocchios" — which are the twee little icons of the wooden boy whose nose grew when he lied that Mr Kessler uses to indicate what he sees as untruths or exaggerations in the candidates’ utterances. Winningly, he assures both men that they have the two lowest "Pinocchio" ratings of all this year’s presidential candidates. Rated on numerous speeches and even more numerous factual claims, from zero (the "Gepetto Checkmark" mentioned above) to four Pinocchios, the President’s average comes top at 1.91, while Mr Romney’s is a close second at 1.97.
But then Mr Kessler starts scolding. For instance, he leads off what he calls "the easy stuff" by taking Governor Romney to task in the second person for the charge that the President went on an "apology tour":
I’ve looked at all of the speeches the president gave abroad, and there’s nothing close to an apology there. Maybe one could argue that he had an apologetic tone, but even that is stretching it. This claim is worth four Pinocchios, and it’s really hurting your average.
Now here are a few of the things that Mr Kessler looked at without seeing anything close to an apology. In Berlin, where Senator Obama claimed to be "a citizen of the world" before he was elected in July of 2008, he also said this:
I know my country has not perfected itself. At times, we've struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We’ve made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions.
Wonder what he could be referring to there? The word "apology" doesn’t appear, of course, but apology is certainly implied, and by more than the "tone." In Cairo in June of 2009 he said that "any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail" and that "America is not and never will be at war with Islam" — as if anyone had ever said that it wouldn’t, or that it was. The suggestion is that this supposed war on Islam was the impression created by the Bush administration’s actions, which then led on to this:
Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. Indeed, we can recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: "I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be."
The apology there is even more clearly implied by his willingness to hint strongly at his predecessor’s supposed misdeeds to an audience more than willing to believe in them. In Oslo in December of 2009, in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize he said:
The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks, and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan, because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense. Likewise, the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait — a consensus that sent a clear message to all about the cost of aggression. Furthermore, America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention — no matter how justified. This becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor.
The mention of Kuwait and the pointed omission of the second Gulf War under the second President Bush repeats the Democratic campaign theme of the good war and the bad war, which certainly implies an apology for the latter. A few days later in Copenhagen at the UN Climate Conference, he said:
Now, as the world’s largest economy and as the world's second largest emitter, America bears our responsibility to address climate change, and we intend to meet that responsibility. That’s why we’ve renewed our leadership within international climate change negotiations.
Once again, the clear implication of a renewal of leadership is that that leadership had lapsed under you-know-who, not to mention the shame of America’s being "the world’s second largest emitter" — as if also being the world’s largest producer by far were an irrelevant consideration.
These are just a few of the things the President has said on foreign soil. If we include, for example, his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September of 2009, we could add this:
I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others. And this has fed an almost reflexive anti- Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction . . . For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months. On my first day in office, I prohibited — without exception or equivocation — the use of torture by the United States of America. (Applause.) I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law. Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we will lead by example.
It is simply not possible to hear those words without also hearing the bill of indictment of the anti-war left against President George W. Bush. Mr Obama’s very carefulness in skirting around any mention of apology while alluding to the actions of the Bush era in such negative terms calls such attention to itself as to make the obviousness of his maneuverings itself an apology. At the UN he went on to say, "We’ve also re-engaged the United Nations" and, regarding climate change, "the days when America dragged its feet on this issue are over." A confession of guilt implies an apology. So, too, when he said: "And I admit that America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy."
To me, the innuendo in all these examples is perfectly clear and factual. In every case, by stressing the change in American behavior he was proposing to the world, the President could not but have been repudiating his country’s actions in the recent past, and, therefore, apologizing for them. If Mr Kessler cannot find any apology there, I can only say there are none so blind as those who will not see. But for him then to stigmatize Mr Romney, or anyone else who does see this apology as, in sober fact, an apology, and who then criticizes the President for it as guilty of lying — for, like Mr Obama’s apologies, those cutesy little Pinocchios mean to say it without saying it — is itself a falsehood. As usual, the media are least to be trusted when they set themselves up, as Mr Kessler does, as an arbiter of truth.