Saturday, January 24, 2004

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Clark on the Bush AWOL Question and Michael Moore

From Orcinus I steal a transcript of the exchange between Wesley Clark and Peter Jennings during the New Hampshire debate:

Transcript begins: [numbers in brackets inserted by me]

[1] PJ: General Clark, a lot of people say they don't know you well, so this is really a simple question about knowing a man by his friends. The other day you had a rally here and one of the men who stood up to endorse you was the controversial filmmaker Michael Moore. You said you were delighted with him. At one point Mr. Moore, said in front of you that President Bush, he was saying he'd like to see a debate between you the General and President Bush who he called a deserter. Now that's a reckless charge not supported by the facts so I was curious to know why you didn't contradict him and whether or not you think it would have been a better example of ethical behavior to have done so.

[2] WC: Well I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this. I don't know whether this is supported by the facts or not. I've never looked at it. I've seen this charge bandied about a lot but to me it wasn't material, this election is going to be about the future, Peter, and what we have to do is pull this country together, and I'm delighted to have the support of a man like Michael Moore, of a great American leader like Senator George McGovern, and of people from Texas like Charlie Stenholm and Former Secretary of the Navy, John Dalton. We've got support from across the breadth of the Democratic Party, because I believe this party is united in wanting to change the leadership in Washington. We're going to run an election campaign that's about the future. We're going to hold the president accountable for what he did in office and failed to do, and we're going to compare who's got the best vision for America.

[3] PJ: Let me ask you something you mentioned then because since this question and answer in which you and Mr. Moore was involved, you've had a chance to look at the facts. Do you still feel comfortable with the fact that someone should be standing up in your president, in your presence and calling the president of the United States a deserter?

[4] WC: To be honest with you, I did not look at the facts Peter. That's Michael Moore's opinion; he's entitled to say that, I've seen, he's not the only person who's said that. I've not followed up on those facts, and frankly it's not relevant to me and why I'm in this campaign.
Transcript ends


[a] Jennings's claim that the charge is not supported by the facts deserves some attention, as it isn't clearly true. It would seem casuistical to point out that SOME of the facts support the charge, when the issue is obviously whether the preponderance of facts give sufficient support to the charge.

[b] Perhaps Jennings is thinking that it is clear that Bush is not a deserter as opposed to there a term for someone who went AWOL? Anyway, one of those guys. I have seen it alleged that the burden of proof associated with desertion is very high. Roughly: only really egregoius [er, that would be egregious...] cases of not being where you are supposed to be count as desertion. Apparently, perhaps among other things, you have to have an intention to never come back. But this whole issue should be avoided anyway, since:

[c] The AWOL charge is the more important charge. Why? Well, first, all participants to the debate should be able to agree with the following principle, and should do so right up front, before looking too far into the details of the case:

Anyone who intentionally went AWOL for any significant lenth of time is unfit to be President.

Since a significant AWOL incident would make Bush unworthy of the office, and since it takes less to go AWOL than to desert we shouldn't worry about the desertion charge. If the conditions for going AWOL will be met before the conditions for deserting will be met, and gong AWOL makes you unfit for office, we should worry about whether the lower standard was met rather than the higher one.

[d] However, we could make Jennings's question into a good question by leaving out his controversial claim that the charges are not supported by the facts. Here's a rehabilitated version of Jennings's question:

General Clark: When Moore stood up at your event and in your presence and called President Bush a deserter, you didn't contradict him, and later you said that you were 'delighted' with him. But desertion is a serious charge, and leveling it against the President is a very serious thing to do. Consequently, you should either produce significant proof of that charge or distance yourself from it (by, for example, denying it). Don't you think? (O.k., that wasn't really a question, but you get the idea.)

I think that this question SHOULD be asked of Clark.

[2], [4]

[a] Clark's response is lame and irresponsible. Failing to contradict Moore indicates at least a tacit endorsement of the charge, IMHO. (Note: this could be really, really wrong. 'Tacit endorsement' is obviously going to be a slippery concept.)

[No No No...this isn't clear...see below...somehow I forgot to change the above before posting--WS]

Clark's BSing about the "great American leader"s who support him is a textbook instance of the Red Herring fallacy. An entirely irrelevant point, probably deployed with the intention of deflecting attention from the real issue.

[That part is right, though.]

[b] Clark: "To be honest with you, I did not look at the facts Peter." Well, you damn well should, General, if you are going to tacitly endorse them.

[c] "That's Michael Moore's opinion; he's entitled to say that,..."
Note: this is an incredibly common kind of response under such conditions, and it is just jaw-droppingly lame. We need a name for this fallacy. Nobody disputes the claim that Moore is entitled to his opinion; what is in dispute is the stuff above. What is in dispute, that is, is the truth of the charges, and whether, given their seriousness, Clark should be (here it comes again...) tacitly endorsing them. If someone had stood up and said "You know, I hate women, Jews, and Blacks, and one of the things I like most about General Clark is watching him show up Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley-Braun, and Joe Lieberman in the debates. White power!" Could Clark have gotten away with saying "well, you know, a lot of people believe that, and he's entitled to his opinion." A false charge of desertion isn't that bad, but it may not be far off... But the point here isn't about the seriousness of the charge--I just use an extreme example to make the principle clear--it isn't a relevant response in a case like this to note that "everyone is entitled to his opinion."

[d] Clark: "...I've seen, he's not the only person who's said that. I've not followed up on those facts, and frankly it's not relevant to me and why I'm in this campaign." Mmmm... pretty lame, but maybe we can rehabilitate Clark's response like so:

Well, Peter, I haven't personally investigated the charges, but lots of smart and well-informed people have, and many of them have concluded that there's enough evidence to make the claim plausible. I can' t agree with Moore's claim since I'm unfamiliar with all the facts, but I needn't disagree either, since he's not saying something obviously false or unsupported by evidence. He may be wrong, but what he said is, epistemically speaking, in play.

Mmmm.... I'm not very happy about that response, but I don't think it's obviously unreasonable, especially when you aren't given enough time to really think it through.

Conclusion about [2[d]]: I don't know.

[e] Clark: "We're going to run an election campaign that's about the future. We're going to hold the president accountable for what he did in office and failed to do, and we're going to compare who's got the best vision for America."

Mmmm....maybe. It's perfectly legitimate to limit the scope of the discussion to what Bush did in office. In fact, it's noble of Clark...if, that is, he's doing it out of principle and not just saying it to dodge the question.

(Anyway, I really started writing this because I was mad about [2[c]].)


Jennings's question was a good one, except for the preposterous suggestion that the AWOL issue has already been settled. Clark's response is sub-optimal, but it's in the ballpark. Except for the bit in [2[c]], which is sophistry.


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