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Tilting at Windmills

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June 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE POLITICAL PAST TENSE....In his column this week griping about blogger bile, Joe Klein lets us in on a trick of the trade. He's describing a blog post he wrote shortly after the vote on the war supplemental:

Congresswoman Jane Harman of California called as the debate was taking place. "Look, I would love to have cast a vote against Bush on this," she told me.

....And then Harman changed her position. After we spoke, she voted against the funding. The next day, I was blasted by a number of left-wing bloggers: Klein screwed up! I had quoted Harman in the past tense — common usage for politicians who know their words will appear after a vote takes place. That was sloppy and... suspicious! Proof that you just can't trust the mainstream media.

Huh. Is it true that politicians routinely speak in the past tense in situations like this? This makes sense (and I've done it myself) if you're taping a radio show that won't air for a while, which makes the time context unclear to the audience. But in news articles that's not really true. The time context is usually obvious.

Anyway, I've never heard this before, so it's an interesting tidbit to know. Do all politicians do this? For print and broadcast, or just print? Or what? Inquiring minds want to know.

Kevin Drum 12:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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You may recall the sportswriter/zillionaire author Mitch Albom got in hot water over this a year or two ago. He wrote about what a couple of people had done at a basketball game, based on what they said they planned to do, and then they never showed up. Oops. Apparently it is common -- and sloppy. What's wrong with "told me she planned to"?

Posted by: Ken D. on June 9, 2007 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

I've thought in this case, JokeLine is and was an ass...

Posted by: doug r on June 9, 2007 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

Here's a great recap of the whole little brouhaha

Posted by: Lee on June 9, 2007 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Bloggers and commenters are MOST uncivil to preening, pretentious putzes.

Posted by: luci on June 9, 2007 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for the link, Lee.

Posted by: Brojo on June 9, 2007 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Well, consider the implication: why would any politician even consider speaking in the past tense if they didn't conceive of their interlocutor as a stenographer, so faithful in his transcriptions that he would even preserve verb tenses?

Of course, what Klein is saying here is all BS. But it is telling that the only excuse he can come up with involves casting himself as a mindless court stenographer.

Posted by: lampwick on June 9, 2007 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, I write most of my comments before your posts, If I wrote them in the future tense everyone would be mightily confused.

Posted by: B on June 9, 2007 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

I use the past tense on Joke Line all the time - as in, Joe Klein was relevant once.

Posted by: Stranger on June 9, 2007 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

Joe Klein titles his report, "Beware the Bloggers' Bile." A more precise title would be "Beware the left wing Bloggers' Bile."

Some right wing bloggers are nasty too, but most of the bile comes from lefties. (Not Kevin Drum,

Posted by: ex-liberal on June 9, 2007 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

Having read the timeline link, I had changed my mind to believe JokeLine is STILL an ass.

Posted by: doug r on June 9, 2007 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

Sure they do... and cab drivers in exotic locales always speak in American idiom as they discuss globalization.

What these pundits are doing is writing down what they hear, and what they hear are the voices in their own heads. They block out the world. You have to when your worldview is contradicted by facts.

Posted by: QrazyQat on June 9, 2007 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

In your excerpt, at least, Klein doesn't say that Harman spoke in the past tense, only that he quoted her in the past tense. So did she speak that way, or did Klein take what she said and change it to past tense?

Posted by: Dave on June 9, 2007 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking of tenses: "I would love to have cast " is subjunctive past not simple past. So it is quite appropriate and not necessarily a lie. However, if you interpret it as subjunctive past, it is more likely to indicate that you expect to be in a state where you 'have not cast' rather than 'have cast'.

Posted by: Sam Jackson on June 9, 2007 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

mhr, you're just phoning it in now

Posted by: Disputo on June 9, 2007 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

It took Klein all this time to think up that excuse. If it were true, he would have said it when he first got caught.

Posted by: derek on June 9, 2007 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

the irony is that Joe's Harman vote mistake would likely not have been discovered so quickly had he not ALSO lied about how Democrats in general had voted on the bill. In the same post, Klein also claimed that "a majority of democrats not running for president" had supported the bill. That was flat out false...and its my guess that in looking up a link to prove it, someone stumbled upon Harman's "no" vote.

Posted by: p_lukasiak on June 9, 2007 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, Kevin, Klein wrote his blog post hours after the vote took place. He was just too lazy to check to see how Harmon voted, and assumed she'd voted for the supplemental. It's not that he was blindsided by Harmon's switch of position; he just didn't bother checking to see if the narrative he was pushing jibed with the facts.

Then he blamed bloggers for calling him out for his mistake.

(Why are we paying attention to this bozo? Oh, yeah, the "liberal" media employs him in a position of prestige. Excuse me while I go vomit.)

Posted by: jimBOB on June 9, 2007 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK
....but most of the bile comes from lefties...ex-lax at 1:42 PM
Please list the left-wing equlivants of Coulter, Savage, Malkin, Beck, Hannity, O'Reilly, Dobbs, Ingram, Elder, Giles, Graham, Hewitt, Limbaugh, Morgan, Moy, Parker, Prager, Reagan (Mike), Roberts, Rogers, Steyn, Fund, Kristol, Blankley, Buchanan, Red State, Powerline, LGF, O'Beirne, Lowry, Goldberg, Novak, Levin, Matalin, Reynolds, Dershowitz, Krauthammer, Cadell, Horowitz, Gingrich, Gibson, Cavuto, Cameron, Owen, Patton, Lileks.....drat, too many to list and I didn't even get to the comment threads on the popular rightist sites. Here's a article of right wing eliminationist rhetoric with plenty of links. Posted by: Mike on June 9, 2007 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

Please list the left-wing equlivants of ...

Michael Moore!

Posted by: Wingnut on June 9, 2007 at 3:56 PM | PERMALINK

Proof that you just can't trust the mainstream media.

Isn't it at least as much proof that you can't trust politicians? Or is that simply redundant?

Posted by: Shelby on June 9, 2007 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum has a nice piece on Joe Klein, "Political Past Tense":
.
I think that there is a little more here that Kevin Drum misses. Let's
roll back the tape to Joe Klein:

> I was
wrong, sadly, last week to say that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama
would vote for the Iraq supplemental bill. They voted against....
Voting against it means you're in favor of a precipitous departure
from Iraq.... It's difficult... to have much respect for Clinton and
Obama, who... are opposed to an immediate withdrawal, but voted for a
measure which, if passed, would force one.... Yesterday I spoke with
Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Ca.) just back from Iraq, who voted for
the bill--as did a majority of Democrats who are not running for
President. "Look, I would love to have cast a vote against Bush on
this. We need a new strategy and I hope we can force one in
September," she told me. "But I flew into Baghdad on a troop transport
with 150 kids, heading into the field. To vote against this bill was
to vote against giving them the equipment, the armor they need. I
couldn't do that"...

Now skip over Klein's claim that failure to pass *this* version of the
supplemental *now* "would force" "a precipitous departure from Iraq."
I want to talk about the the authorial viewpoint Klein adopts. The
viewpoint he adopts is the viewpoint of someone writing and reporting
about the supplemental vote after it takes place. After the roll call
vote, he looks and sees which prominent Democrats he respects voted
for the supplemental, and finds that Jane Harman voted against it. He
talks to Jane Harman on a person-to-person level. She discusses her
inmost thoughts with him. He is a Washington insider, with special
sekrit access to the thoughts and ideas of powerful decisionmakers.

Suppose that a basement-dwelling bathrobe-clad weblogger had written
Klein's passage. It would have read somewhat differently. Perhaps
like:

>I thought that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would vote for the
Iraq supplemental bill. But the clowns voted against it! By voting
against it they voted for an immediate, cowardly withdrawal from Iraq,
sacrificing the lives of thousands of our dedicated Iraqi allies! You
can't respect them.

>But there are Democrats you can respect. I have here a statement
Democratic representative Jane Harman's office issued yesterday,
before the vote, explaining that she planned to vote against it:

>>I would like to have been able to cast a vote against the
administration on this. We need a new strategy. I hope we can force
one in September. But we have to think of the troops first. I flew
into Baghdad on a troop transport with 150 kids, heading into the
field. To vote against this bill was to vote against giving them the
equipment, the armor they need. I could not do that.

>**UPDATE:** Ooops! Jane Harman voted against the supplemental on
this. I guess she found that she could vote against the troops and
against giving them the equipment they need after all.

This second version makes no pretenses at being a Washington insider
with special knowledge and insight into the hearts and thoughts of
powerful decisionmakers. It makes no pretense at being able to get
Jane Harman on the phone in the immediate aftermath of an important
vote. It makes no pretense that one's interactions with Harman are
one-on-one person-to-person talks that reveal inner thoughts rather
than guarded and scripted interactions that are part of a superb
politician's presentation of her public image.

One of the important things going on here is that Klein's error let
slip the secret that the insider status which is supposed to create
the knowledge that _Time_ pays Joe Klein to convey to the readers is
worth much, much less than Klein (and _Time_) with it were. After all,
Harman didn't tell Klein what she was thinking, did she? She didn't
say "I'm under enormous pressure here, with powerful political and
policy arguments cutting both ways," did she?

--
Yours,


Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on June 9, 2007 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

mhr, go make your own fuckin' money and stop griping about rich lefties. You seem to think that instantly validates all your childish arguments. And while you snicker, thousands die. Ha!

Posted by: Kenji on June 9, 2007 at 4:40 PM | PERMALINK

George W Bush is embarassing us abroad:

From the president's press conference this morning in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Prodi:

Question: And the deadline for the Kosovo independence --

BUSH: What? Say that again?

Question: Deadline for the Kosovo independence?

BUSH: A decline?

Question: Deadline, deadline.

BUSH: Deadline. Beg your pardon. My English isn't very good.

Posted by: consider wisely always on June 9, 2007 at 7:00 PM | PERMALINK

For NEXT time Klein tries to tell anyone that Broder is NO armchair pundit.

Broder today:

Despite the absence of any underlying crime, Fitzgerald filed charges against Libby for denying to the FBI and the grand jury that he had discussed the Wilson case with reporters. Libby was convicted on the testimony of reporters from NBC, the New York Times and Time magazine -- a further provocation to conservatives.

I think they have a point. This whole controversy is a sideshow -- engineered partly by the publicity-seeking former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife and heightened by the hunger in parts of Washington to "get" Rove for something or other.

Like other special prosecutors before him, Fitzgerald got caught up in the excitement of the case and pursued Libby relentlessly, well beyond the time that was reasonable.

BUT now that at least Kevin knows that Valerie Plame was indeed covert, it's obvious that Fitzgerald didn't prosecute anyone for the underlying crime NOT BECAUSE there was an absence of a crime committed - simply not enough evidence to successfully prosecute the crime committed.

And really "a publicity-seeking former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife".

There can be no doubt that Broder is an armchair pundit - he makes completely unfounded accusations without the slightest substantiation of anything expect his pure partisan tainted bullshit.

This is why the Republican Party is a minorty party these days - Broder and all loyal Bushie cult following and Rush limbaugh wanna-bes want everyone to believe lying, at least from the Republican Party, is no big deal, and mostly the fault of activist judges or overzealous attorneys, and cult WOULD NOT dare dream of crying "foul" about the drumed intelligence of this war.

After all Republicans have a right lie and cry like Klein did about extremist, but really, the only extremist now a days are armchair pundits like Klein, Broder and what's left of the every ugly Republican Party.

Keep it up Broder, the Dem Party needs more members.

Posted by: Me_again on June 9, 2007 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

Sam Jackson: I would love to have cast " is subjunctive past not simple past."

It's a conditional present and past perfect. According to linguists at alt.usage.english, English has no subjunctive, only something that is formed the same and fulfills the same purpose. Really, that's what they say.


And it clearly means "I now wish I had cast..." rather than "I wished at the time I had cast...".

Posted by: anandine on June 9, 2007 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks Mr. DeLong, for trip down memory lane.

More about how Klien tried to position this Harman thing as a "centrist" idea in denial of 72% of Americans wanting out of Iraq.

Anyone who says Broder's no armchair pundit doesn't doesn't know what a partisan hack is - so I recommend that Klien just look in the mirror sometime.

Poor Klien better watch out for those foul mouth lefty bloggers cause they are taking over the planet buddy.

BTW who decided that Klien should represent the his own version of so-called liberalism in the mag? Was it a bunch of Republican board members at TIME magazine or does he get outside pay to trash liberals?

Posted by: Me_againg on June 9, 2007 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, please. You're talking about Joe "Primary Colors by Anonymous" Klein.

Far better that you instead spend your valuable time determining the chemical nutrient composition of bat guano deposits on the floors of abandoned buildings and remote caves, rather than analyze anything written by a man who's proven himself time and again to be the consummate Beltway-centric sycophant and opportunist.

While we're indeed talking about shit in both cases, at least the former holds some potential value for mankind.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on June 9, 2007 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

People often speak in the past tense once they have made a decision, rather than only after they have taken the action decided upon.

Suppose I'm considering a vacation to either Hawaii or Florida. Once I make up my mind, I might say to my friends -- even before going on the vacation itself -- "I would have loved to go to Florida this year, but ..." There is nothing unnatural or unusual about this formulation.

This is just how people speak. There's nothing unusual about Harman's usage.

Posted by: -asx- on June 9, 2007 at 11:05 PM | PERMALINK

luci wrote "Bloggers and commenters are MOST uncivil to preening, pretentious putzes."

luci, please be aware that that word is an Yiddish extreme obscenity for penis, is never used in polite society, and is never applied to women, regardless of your opinion of Rep. Jane Harman.

Posted by: Joel Rubinstein on June 10, 2007 at 12:09 AM | PERMALINK

Hi Political Animals, I'm working on a pretty cool project and I know you commenters would be great at it. We all bitch about the media and the pundits from time to time. Well, here’s an invitation for you to sound off on an issue for a national audience -- and one person who does will be chosen to host a “Henry Rollins Show” marathon on IFC (Independent Film Channel).

Rollins (former lead of Black Flag and The Rollins Band) is inviting you to tape a short video “rant” and the person who does the one he chooses will be flown to L.A., meet Henry and host the upcoming “Rollins Show” Marathon on IFC.

Just go to ziddio.com/myrollinsrant and record and upload a 30-second video “rant” on one of the 11 hot topics Henry has selected (including abortion rights, has the Iraq war made us safer? Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, is America a dumb country? global warming, etc.)

All entries will be watched by, and the winner chosen solely by, Henry. He encourages anyone to enter, no matter their political persuasion - his only requirement: have “passion and attitude!”

Not a bad opportunity. And a chance to sound off on some of the issues we all care about.

Henry explains it all - and upload your “rant” - at ziddio.com/myrollinsrant

Posted by: jbk on June 10, 2007 at 1:40 AM | PERMALINK

This comment was on the Swampland site, and it summarized the Klein error/Harmon statement quite well:

"As readers here know, I would have voted for the bill."

A readers here know now, this was written before the vote, not after.

"Voting against it means you're in favor of a precipitous departure from Iraq..."

"Yesterday I spoke with Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Ca.) just back from Iraq, who voted for the bill--"

This. Is still a lie.

And so is this:

"Voting against it means you're in favor of a precipitous departure from Iraq..."

from "Culture of Truth"


Also, it was cool seeing a comment on Political Animal from Brad DeLong from Berkeley Dept. of Economics and chair of the Political Economy Major

Posted by: consider wisely always on June 10, 2007 at 8:13 AM | PERMALINK

Sam Jackson: I would love to have cast " is subjunctive past not simple past."

anandine: According to linguists at alt.usage.english...

Sam is correct here. Anandine, you should read a book on grammar, not some usenet list. English does indeed have a subjunctive case that to most Americans is indistinguishable from the past tense.

Posted by: Peter on June 10, 2007 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK
Speaking of tenses: "I would love to have cast " is subjunctive past not simple past.

It is a present counterfactual conditional; the main verb is "love", not "will"; the condition is expressed by negation in the following sentence; it uses the form "I would have X; but I experienced Y," instead of the textbook "If had not experienced Y, I would have X." The sense and construction, though, of the "I would have..." part is the same in either construction, though in the form Harmon used the condition is expressed in simple past after the counterfactual conditional, and in the other the condition would have been expressed in the subjunctive before the counterfactual conditional.

IT is true that constructions with "would have" are, increasingly, used where the sense is subjunctive (though this is not generally considered "proper"), but the sense here is clearly conditional, not subjunctive.

Posted by: cmdicely on June 11, 2007 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK
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