Part 1—With the other three, not so much: Did Jeff Sessions lie to a group of exalted senators during his confirmation hearing last month?
Last Friday, in a thundering column, Paul Krugman said he did. The night before, at Vanity Fair, T. A. Frank said, "Not so fast."
Frank's analysis resembled the one we offered the next day. In our view, Frank overstated the case in Sessions' favor—if you're inclined to care about this shiny object at all.
Did Sessions lie during the hearing? We post Frank's nugget passage below. After posting the text of the rambling question Sessions was asked (by Al Franken), Frank offered his basic assessment:
FRANK (3/2/17): [I]f you care about this, then let’s back up and see the exchange in context:For our money, Frank overstates the case for Sessions. He makes it sound like it's obvious what Sessions had in mind when he gave that answer to Franken—the answer which has launched a thousand thunderous ships.
FRANKEN: CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that, quote, “Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say, quote, “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”
Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious, and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.
FRANK: Now, unless you’ve gone into full “time for some game theory” mode, you would be hard-pressed to miss that that “communications with the Russians” is shorthand for “communications of the sort that CNN is alleging,” not “any sort of communication with any Russian official ever.”
He makes it sound like it's obvious that Sessions had an "innocent" intent. We don't think it's obvious one way or the other. Nor so we hugely care.
We don't think Sessions' intentions were obvious in this brief exchange. We don't know if Frank has captured the essence of what Sessions meant in his "shorthand" reply.
We do think something else is obvious. Obvious, and much more interesting, and a whole lot more important.
Did Sessions lie to that Senate committee? Did he at least intend to mislead his colleagues, morally great as they so plainly are?
We don't know, and we don't hugely care. We do care about the politics of the moral stampede—the unfortunate politics with which we all increasingly live, the politics which has come to life, once again, in the thunder surrounding Sessions.
Did Senator Sessions, or someone else, collude with Russians interference in last year's election? That would be an enormous matter. We hope there will be a full investigation of the Russkies' conduct.
(On yesterday's Meet the Press, Obama's Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said no evidence of collusion on anyone's part had surfaced as of January 20, Obama's last day in office.)
We hope there will be a full probe of the Russkie misconduct. What we don't need is the latest moral stampede, in which we pretend to be deeply concerned about people failing to "tell the whole truth"—as long as the troubling people in question belong to the other tribe.
Did Sessions "tell the whole truth" to that exalted committee? In our view, he may have deliberately chosen to do somewhat less in response to Franken's rambling question, although we can't say that we're sure.
It may be that Senator Sessions dissembled! But before you join the Lady of Carlisle in "lying speechless on the ground," consider these additional, wonderfully comical facts:
On March 1, it was revealed that Sessions had met with the Russian ambassador last September. The very next day, Senator Patrick Leahy went on CNN to thunder about Sessions' conduct.
Uh-oh! Leahy flatly misrepresented what he asked Sessions in a written follow-up question after last month's Senate hearing. For details, see this award-winning post.
That very same day, Senator Claire McCaskill tweeted (with thunder) about the fact that she had never met with the Russian ambassador. The relevance of that claim was unclear—and it was instantly shown that her statement had been inaccurate, as with Leahy before her.
After that, it was Nancy Pelosi's turn! On March 3, Pelosi told Politico that she had never met the Russian ambassador. But oops! Her thundering statement was inaccurate too, producing this later Politico headline:
"Photo contradicts Pelosi's statement about not meeting Kislyak."
We liberals! We thundered, roared, expounded and writhed about the way Sessions failed to provide "the whole truth" in his extemporaneous statement to Franken. We were so upset by his imperfection that three of our leading lights quickly issued misstatements of their own!
We then got busy making excuses for the misstatements made by our team. Among our tribe's excuses was this:
But they weren't speaking under oath! Senator Sessions was!
We're so old that we can remember a lot of this pitiful bullshit. We can remember when pitiful bullroar of this very type was directed at both Clintons and at Candidate Gore.
This led to several major disasters, including one last fall.
In our view, the politics of the moral stampede is bad for the head and the heart. In our view, it's very bad for the soul.
It tends to keep us from getting the information we need. In the moral sphere, it drags us all down toward perdition, into a moral hole.
All this week, we'll examine the culture of the moral stampede. Sadly, it seems to be the only way we know how to do politics at this time.
Our view? This latest stampede shows how soft our moral standards actually are. It also shows our pitiful lack of basic intellectual skill.
Toward: "Against interpretation," Susan Sontag said
Speechless on the ground: In this recently-posted YouTube clip, the late Mike Seeger tells an audience that The Lady of Carlisle was his favorite ballad. When we heard this recorded version by Seeger in 1964, it pretty much became ours.
In many ways, the lady of Carlisle is an admirable, mysterious character from the British/American song book. In Seeger's version of the song, her story begins like this:
Down in Carlisle there lived a lady,
Being most beautiful and gay.
She was determined to live a lady,
No man on earth could her betray.
"No man on earth could her betray!" We always liked her for that.
That said, the song proceeds to portray an extremely old-fashioned courtship ritual, or at least so it might seem. We modern liberals are constantly losing votes through our excited public reaction to such topics, important though they may be.
Question: Why did this "fair young lady" "lie speechless on the ground?" You can see the question debated at this site.
(An interesting factual claim appears. "There were lions kept at the Tower of London until 1834," one participant says.)
Regarding Mike Seeger's performance from that early New Lost City Ramblers album:
In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan says he decided to start writing his own songs because he felt he would never be able to sing these old songs as well as Mike Seeger could.
"He was too good," Dylan wrote, in an astonishing tribute to a fellow performer (page 69). "In order to be as good as that, you'd just about have to be him."
Upon his arrival in New York City, Dylan had seen Seeger singing at private house parties. "The thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn't know."
So Dylan remarkably said. He was thinking of Seeger's performance of songs like The Lady of Carlisle.
One last thing we always admired about Seeger as a performer: he never sang the voices of women, like that of this "fair young lady," in falsetto or anything like it. He always respected the voices of the women whose ancient stories he told.
For a more modern mysterious woman from the American songbook, we strongly endorse the unnamed heroine of The Ranger's Command.
She too is described in the song as "a fair maiden." But when the cowboys wanted to run, "she rose with a gun in each hand."