Interlude—Once again, how not to quote: George Will really doesn’t care for Barack Obama.
Needless to say, that’s his right. But good grief! To demonstrate his disdain for Obama, Will extends in a long-drawn-out quotation of a different candidate in this morning’s column.
The candidate in question is Franklin D. Roosevelt. And holy bow-tie, Batman!
Will quotes FDR from 1920, when he ran for vice president:
WILL (8/12/12): Aug. 18, 1920, the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, campaigning in Butte, Mont., said that it would be fine for the United States to join the League of Nations because our nation would have multiple votes. He assured listeners that “the votes of Cuba, Haiti, San Domingo, Panama, Nicaragua and of the other Central American states” would not be cast “differently from the vote of the United States,” which is “the big brother of these little republics.”How does this relate to Obama? To grasp the depth of Will’s obsession, you’ll have to read his whole column.
Then, referring to his days as assistant secretary of the Navy, the vice presidential candidate said: “You know I have had something to do with running a couple of little republics. The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s constitution myself and, if I do say so, I think it a pretty good constitution.” He added: “Why, I have been running Haiti or San Domingo for the past seven years.”
As David Pietrusza writes in “1920: The Year of Six Presidents,” Haiti and the Dominican Republic had been U.S. protectorates since July 1915 and May 1916, respectively, but the boastful candidate had not written any constitution. Nevertheless, he repeated his indelicate claim—U.S. Marines had recently been involved in some Haitian bloodshed—at three more Montana stops and then in San Francisco.
When, inevitably, the candidate’s words caused consternation here and there, he insisted he never said them, adding magnanimously, “I feel certain that the misquotation was entirely unintentional.” But the controversy continued, so on Sept. 2, in Maine, he added: “I should think that it would be obvious that one who has been so largely in touch with foreign relations through the Navy Department during the last seven years could not have made a deliberate false statement of this kind.”
Idaho’s Republican Sen. William Borah dryly said: “I am willing to admit that he didn’t say it, though I was there and heard him say it at the time.” Thirty-one witnesses of the Butte speech signed an affidavit attesting that the candidate had said what he was reported to have said, but public attention had wandered and the issue faded.
That said, Will is mocking Obama for having said he was quoted out of context when he said, “You didn’t build that.”
Obama was quoted out of context in that instance, of course. Maureen Dowd repeats the offense this very day, in the New York Times.
That said, is it possible that Roosevelt was quoted out of context back in 1920? Is it possible that he’s being quoted out of context by Will this very day? Right there in the Washington Post?
For ourselves, we have no idea what actually happened in that ancient circumstance. Nor will we try to find out! Only a nut would devote half a column to this 92-year-old statement, as Will does today.
But just to stretch your understanding of the world’s possibilities, ask yourself this:
Was Roosevelt quoted “out of context” if he made those ancient remarks as a joke? If the audience was laughing at his remarks in a way which suggested they knew he was joking?
Again, we have no idea what happened in 1920. But yes, that is another way candidates get quoted “out of context.” If a candidate makes a joking remark—and a journalist quotes him as if he was serious—the journalist is misleading his readers.
In such an instance, the candidate is being quoted out of context, even if the journalist has recorded his actual words exactly as they were said.
This sort of bogus “quotation” has been somewhat routine in recent decades. In at least one instance, a candidate’s joke, reported straight, played a crucial role in a crucial White House campaign.
There are many ways to take a candidate’s words out of context. George Will is truly crazy today.
Tomorrow, Rachel's quotes.