Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Sandy Berger and the "Suspicious Timing" Argument
Or:
What If the Tables Were Turned?

You might suspect that I'd post an anti-Bush tirade now that I'm back. Nope. What's the use? I half-suspect that anyone who still supports Bush cannot be reasoned with, and it's bad for the liberal soul to sit around ranting about him. I've been disconnected from the internet for five weeks, but I don't need to read the blogs to know what people are saying. I'm sure that the right wing of the blogosphere has already tried and convicted Sandy Berger--and it's likely that the more leftward parts of the 'Sphere are reflexively defending him.

But the fact is, at this point we just don't know what happened. On the one hand, what we've been told doesn't sound good; on the other hand, I've accidentally walked out of libraries, meetings, and other people's offices with papers and books that don't belong to me, and it simply doesn't seem that unlikely to me that something similar happened to Berger. The few things we have been told are consistent with an honest mistake and also consistent with a seemingly serious crime. The only thing we can do at this point is suspend judgment and await more facts.

But that's not what I want to discuss here. I want to discuss the "suspicious timing" response to reports about the Berger incident, and such responses in general.

I must confess to having some sympathy with the suspicious timing argument in this case. The administration has been opposed to the 9/11 Commission from the beginning, and has been about as uncooperative with the commission as it could possibly be without paying a high political cost. And the ruthlessness of the current Republican leadership is manifest, hence you don't need me to remind you about it.

But one of the first rules of reasoning is to ask oneself what one would do if the tables were turned, and such reflections inevitably bring to mind the revelation of Bush's DUI record (and the Bush campaign's deception about that record) days before the presidential election of 2000. As soon as Bush's record was revealed, Republicans responded with a "suspicious timing" argument of their own. In that case, I was entirely unsympathetic to the argument. These differential reactions can obviously be explained by my extreme antipathy towards Bush (though my true loathing for him did not develop until after the actions of the Republicans during the Florida recount debacle). But nobody cares about my psychology. The interesting question here is: how should we think about suspicious timing arguments? It is unlikely that differential responses are warranted in the Bush and Berger cases.

In the case of Bush's DUI, the answer seems clear enough, and generalizable. Suspicious timing arguments are, rationally speaking, completely inefficacious: they do absolutely nothing to lessen the rational force of the charge they are deployed to deflect. If Bush was a drunk and a liar, then he remains a drunk and a liar even if the Democrats slyly elect to reveal his drunkeness and mendacity just before the election. If Smith is a crook and Jones makes this fact public at a time that is particularly hurtful to Smith, this in no way means that Smith is no longer a crook. It might mean that Jones is a bad person too, but that's a different matter. Smith and Jones might both be bad fellows. (Incidentally, I know of no good evidence that this is what the Democrats actually did. The suspicious timing charge is particularlly impotent in this case given that the information in question would have been more effective had it been revealed sooner.)

This all seems clear enough, and it is, I suppose, something that those of us who are more sympathetic with the Democrats than with the Republicans should keep in mind with regard to Berger's actions. The timing of the revelations does seem suspicious, but, then, Berger's actions seem suspicious. The current Republican leadership is ruthless, and there can be no doubt that they are fully capable of leaking such information to distract us from the report of the 9/11 Commission. But even if that's what they did, this would in no way affect the question of Berger's guilt or innocence. One consequence of this is that we must not make the mistake of engaging in knee-jerk defenses of Berger simply because we are repulsed by the possibility of yet another Republican dirty trick. We can't allow ourselves to fall into such a trap, lest we risk becoming what we are working to defeat.

I've got a little more to say about this, but I'm too tired and mad to write it now.

Jeez, is was good to be away from this stuff. My condolences to you who haven't had a break from it...

2 Comments:

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