"Can we ever have an honest debate?"


"Excuse me," the president said: In this morning's print editions, the New York Times published three letters about Thursday night's debate.

One writer makes an apt observation, then closes with a question:

To the Editor:

Your reporters’ characterization of the second presidential debate as “more restrained”  is at best damning by faint praise. The longer the debate went on, the more President Trump interrupted, went over his time limits and ignored the moderator’s pleas to move on.

Perhaps because I am a history teacher, I found myself astounded by the president’s angry lies. Could we someday have an honest exchange of views?

The letter writer is a professor emeritus at Williams. He started with an excellent point about Donald J. Trump's interruptions.

During Thursday night's debate, Trump interrupted Biden a great deal less than he did during his crazy performance at their first debate. That said, he constantly interrupted the moderator, Kristin Welker, as she tried to move the various discussions along.

"Excuse me," Trump said, again and again, as Welker tried to introduce a new topic or ask a new question about an existing topic. 

Again and again and again and again, the commander showed a commanding need to get the last word in. If you search this transcript-plus-videotape for the simple words, "Excuse me," you can review Welker's ongoing struggle to rein the commander in.

In our view, Welker never got control of that situation, though we'll guess that very few journalists would have been able to do so. Trump interrupted Biden much less, but he interrupted Welker all night long. 

We've seen few pundits mention this point, so we're glad the professor did.

Having made a strong observation, the professor then asked a question. He asked if we will ever be able to have "an honest exchange of views."

"Honesty" is hard to assess. We'd fault the professor for failing to grasp this basic fact.

That said, can we ever have a coherent discussion , one which isn't dominated by false or misleading statements? The answer is, we probably can't, as long as moderators try to work too many topics and questions in.

Other journalists have stood in line to praise Welker's performance. We felt she was largely overpowered by Trump's interruptions, as almost anyone else would have been, but also that she deferred to the commander's will to power in some of the questions she asked.

Yesterday, we noted the way she deferred to the commander's fatuous claim that he would respond to Obamacare's termination by instituting "much better health care." (On this occasion, he forgot to say "at a much lower price.")

A candidate couldn't possibly make an emptier statement—but as we noted, Welker simply let it go. Instead, she challenged Biden's actual health care proposals, working from a bit of right-wing agitprop.

In so doing, she rolled over and died in the face of Trump's utterly fatuous statement. Also, why in the world would a moderator respond to Trump's refusal to release his tax returns by asking a question like this?

WELKER: You just said you spoke to your accountant about potentially releasing your taxes. Did he tell you when you can release them? Do you have a deadline for when you're going to release them to the American people?

After all these years, why on earth, why in the world, would a journalist ask that question? Everyone on the face of the earth knew what Trump would say in response to that pointless question:

TRUMP (continuing directly): As soon as the auditors finish.  I get treated worse than the tea party got treated, because I have a lot of people in there—

WELKER: [Inaudible]

TRUMP: —deep down in the IRS, they treat me horribly. We made a deal, it was all settled until I decide to run for president. I get treated very badly by the IRS, very unfairly, but we had a deal all done. As soon as we're completed with the deal, I want to release it, but I have paid millions and millions of dollars and it's worse than paying. I paid in advance. It's called prepaying your taxes. I paid—

The nonsense about the tax returns went on and on from there, with Trump constantly struggling to get the last word in. That said, Welker, like everyone else on the planet, knew exactly what Trump would say in response to her T-ball question.

Trump has been saying since 2015 that he will release his tax returns as soon as his audit is done.  Meanwhile, we don't think we've ever seen a journalist ask him this, as Welker should have done:

"Mr. President, Vice President Biden just said that he has released 22 years of his tax returns. Why can't you release your tax returns from earlier years, even as you wait for your current audit to be done?"

Have you ever seen that question asked? We can't recall that we have.

The professor asks if we can ever have a real exchange of views. We'll make one final suggestion:

Plainly, the answer will be no, as long as moderatos insist on raising too many topics and asking too many different questions.

Presidential candidates will always tend to misstate and evade. This has become an apparent matter of pathology where Candidate Trump is involved.

At any rate, it will never be easy to get clear even on such a major topic as the health care proposals of the two major candidates. It will be impossible to do so if a moderator has a hundred other questions he or she wants to move to—and Welker was plagued by Too Many Questions Disease in her work Thursday night.

Why hasn't Donald J. Trump ever offered a health care plan? Especially at the present time, could any question be more salient than that?

That said, with so many other questions to ask, Welker let his absurdly empty statement of intention slide. He said he'd produce "much better health care," and she chose to move on.

Why hasn't Donald J. Trump released his earlier tax return? Rather than ask this obvious question, Welker chose to play T-ball.

Why hasn't Trump produced a health care plan? Welker didn't ask.

Welker had a tough assignment Thursday night. In large, part, that was so because one candidate seems to be severely disordered, and the press corps has steadfastly refused to examine that obvious point.

Welker had a very tough assignment.  All in all, we didn't think she did especially well, in large part because she tried to ask too many different questions about too many topics and sub-topics. 

In the aftermath of the debate, Welker's colleagues stood in line to praise her brilliant performance. Under the power of Trump's attacks, that is now another way our floundering discourse works.

Purity of heart is to ask one thing: When Trump refused to answer her question, Savannah Guthrie just kept repeating her question. She asked it again and again.

Purity of heart is to ask one thing. We believe Abraham Lincoln said that.

Question asked, question unanswered!


Moderator moves on: Does information play any role in our national discourse? Consider a major non-exchange during last night's debate.

The question was posed to Donald J. Trump, and it was a very good question. It came at the start of Kristin Welker's third 15-minute segment: 

WELKER (10/22/20): Let’s move on to American families and the economy. One of the issues that’s most important to them is healthcare, as you both know. 

Today, there was a key vote on a new Supreme Court Justice, Amy Coney Barrett, and healthcare is at the center of her confirmation fight. 

Over 20 million Americans get their health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. It’s headed to the Supreme Court, and your administration, Mr. President, is advocating for the Court to overturn it. 

If the Supreme Court does overturn that law, there’s 20 million Americans could lose their health insurance almost overnight. So what would you do if those people have their health insurance taken away? You have two minutes uninterrupted.

That was a very good question. 

If the administration has its way, the Supreme Court will overturn the Affordable Care Act. The hearing will take place on November 10. 

If the Court overturns the ACA, twenty million people could lose their health insurance. What will Trump do if that occurs?

Welker had asked the commander in chief an extremely salient question. But in his two-minute response, the commander didn't answer the question. Instead, he offered this:

TRUMP (continuing directly): First of all, I’ve already done something that nobody thought was possible. Through the legislature, I terminated the individual mandate. That is the worst part of Obamacare, as we call it. The individual mandate, where you have to pay a fortune for the privilege of not having to pay for bad health insurance, I terminated. It’s gone. Now, it’s in court, because Obamacare is no good. 

But then I made a decision—run it as well as you can. To my people, great people, run it as well as you can. I could have gone the other route and made everybody very unhappy. They ran it. Premiums are down. Everything’s down. 

Here’s the problem. No matter how well you run it, it’s no good. What we’d like to do is terminate it. We have the individual mandate done. I don’t know that it’s going to work. If we don’t win, we will have to run it, and we’ll have Obamacare, but it’ll be better run. But it no longer is Obamacare, because without the individual mandate, it’s much different.

Pre-existing conditions will always stay. What I would like to do is a much better healthcare, much better. We’ll always protect people with pre-existing. So I’d like to terminate Obamacare, come up with a brand new, beautiful healthcare. The Democrats will do it, because there’ll be tremendous pressure on them. And we might even have the House by that time. And I think we’re going to win the House. You’ll see, but I think we’re going to win the House. 

But come up with a better healthcare, always protecting people with pre-existing conditions. And one thing, very important, we have 180 million people out there that have great private healthcare. Far more than we’re talking about with Obamacare. Joe Biden is going to terminate all of those policies. 

These are people that love their healthcare. People that have been successful, middle-income people, been successful. They have 180 million plans, 180 million people, families. Under what he wants to do, which will basically be socialized medicine, he won’t even have a choice, they want to terminate 180 million plans. We have done an incredible job at healthcare, and we’re going to do even better. Just you watch.

Trump said he got rid of the individual mandate. He said Obamacare stinks. 

But what would he do if the law is struck down? As always, he said he'd like to come up with a better health care plan—and, as always, he gave no idea how such a plan would work.

As always, Trump's answer was pure tapioca. As always, the moderator sat there and took it.

She didn't ask him how this "much better" plan would work. She didn't ask him how he'd be able to afford the guarantee that people with preconditions would be covered.

Most significantly, in subsequent questioning, she didn't ask him this:

"Mr. President, you've been making this pledge for five years now. Why haven't you, or any other Republican, ever proposed such a plan?"

Just a guess:

Last night, most viewers had never heard that the president has never proposed a specific plan. They've never heard the comical rundown of all the times he has pledged that his proposal was just weeks away.

Also, most viewers have never heard that there's a major problem with being able to finance the guarantee the preconditions would be covered. Most people haven't heard discussions of topics like that.

Obamacare found a way to finance the coverage of preconditions. Why hasn't Trump ever said how he would accomplish this difficult task? Last night, once again, he simply wasn't asked.

After Biden gave his two-minute statement, Welker chose to challenge his health care proposal on the basis of a highly partisan Republican talking point. The emptiness of Trump's statement  went unremarked.

Does information play any role in our national discourse? Welker asked Trump what he would do if Obamacare is overturned.

When he gave her the silliest possible answer, she simply agreed to move on.

Also this: Here's another follow-up question the president wasn't asked:

"Mr. President, you said that Vice President Biden wants to terminate the insurance of 180 million people. Since he hasn't made any such proposal, on what basis are you making a statement like that?"

Biden raised this objection on his own. As is common on such occasions, the moderator let Trump's statement go.

Meanwhile, where the Sam Hill is Trump's proposal? The moderator didn't ask.

THE 1619 CONNECTION: We'd describe this as embarrassing work!


Babes in arms enter the schools: As with the show the kids put on in the Mickey-and-Judy film, Babes in Arms, the New York Times' 1619 Project came together amazingly fast.

The speed is especially striking given the sweep of the project. Somehow, a bunch of journalists got it into their heads that this ambition made sense:

The 1619 Project 

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

Finally! Finally, someone was going to tell our [nation's] story truthfully!

No one  had ever done it before. It would now be done by these kids!

When the truthful story emerged, their work was perhaps underwhelming. There was little new about the story, which had been told many times before.

Everyone already knew the story. Needless to say, though, the kids went on to win a Pulitzer prize.

The New York Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones is a good, decent person. In the project's introductory essay, she told the story of her father, and of her father's mother.

Her father's mother came from what was truly our "greatest generation." By the time this generation had completed its endless sacrifices, a new generation had emerged which was perhaps just a bit hubristic.

In fairness, we humans are all inclined to be that way as soon as we get the chance.

A few years before, Hannah-Jones' long report for ProPublica was full of information about Tuscaloosa's public schools. That wealth of information had been the fruit of deep reporting. 

Now, she described a familiar (brutal) history, giving it a bit of a "TV miniseries" feel. Especially given the importance of its subject matter, the project had come together amazingly fast—and, according to Bret Stephens' recent account, it even included this:

STEPHENS (10/11/20): About a month before the project’s publication, [editor Jake] Silverstein reached out to the Pulitzer Center to propose a 1619 curriculum for schools. Soon thereafter, the project was being introduced into classrooms across the country.

We can't vouch for the perfect accuracy of that chronology. At the same time, we know of no reason to doubt it.

That chronology comes from a recent column in which Stephens made some sensible points about the 1619 Project, while also wandering afield at times. For one thing, Stephens engaged in a pointless dispute about when the nation's "true" founding occurred. 

If our nation had public logicians, they would have rushed to tell us that semantic disputes of this type serve no useful purpose—that there are many important dates in this nation's variegated history, and that 1619 and 1776 are two such important dates.

Our nation's culture and essence arise from various points of departure. Aside from satisfying the age-old desire for war, there's nothing to gain from arguing about when the "true" or "real" foundational moment occurred.

In our view, Stephens made that timeless mistake, but he also made some perfectly decent points about the project. Along the way, he produced that chronology, describing the astonishing speed with which this underwhelming project had been introduced into the nation's schools.

According to Stephens, the Times reached out to the Pulitzer Center in July 2019. "Soon thereafter," a curriculum was being introduced into classrooms. Not long after that, the Pulitzer board gave the Times its latest prize.

At Education Week, a young journalist named Madeline Will reported on this part of the  project. 

Will was five years out of college; in 2014, she'd graduated from UNC with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science. In familiar fashion, Education Week was describing her as an (unspecified) "expert."  So too with everyone else on its staff.

What was this young reporter an expert in? Education Week didn't say. But after a somewhat jumbled start to her report, Will described a thoroughly sensible point of concern:

WILL (8/19/19): To bring this groundbreaking project into the classroom, the Pulitzer Center created a curriculum for teachers of all grade levels. The curriculum asks students to examine the history and the legacy of slavery in the United States, as well as our national memory. 

A report last year from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights and advocacy organization, found there's no systematic approach to teaching slavery in schools—and lessons often miss crucial components to understanding this fundamental American topic. It's taught as a Southern phenomenon, rather than something originally sanctioned in the Constitution, and the voices and experiences of enslaved people are generally left out. And just over half of the teachers surveyed said they spoke about the continued legacy of slavery.

Many teachers surveyed said they were concerned about terrifying black children or making white children feel guilty. (There are also teachers who do slavery simulations, like a mock slave auction or a game about the Underground Railroad, to try to convey the brutality—but experts and educators say that these simulations can minimize horrific events and cause emotional trauma to black students.)

Did a lot of teachers voice such concerns?  If so, we'd have to say that their concerns were valid.

Our nation's brutal racial history takes us deep into the ugly realm of "the world the slaveholders made." We enter very delicate territory when we "teach" children about such topics. This is especially true when we're working with the youngest children in the earliest grades.

Long ago and far away, we talked about "race" with the good, decent kids in our fifth grade classes. We discussed the life of Frederick Douglass, our fellow Baltimorean. (Also, our fellow American and our fellow person.)

One year, we discussed the nightly airings of a new miniseries—Roots.

In 1851, Douglass published the first of his several autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. In the book's opening chapters, Douglass described his early years on Maryland's "Eastern Shore."

In those first few chapters, Douglass describes behaviors of astounding cruelty—behaviors he was forced to observe as a child.  These behaviors occurred not long ago, right here in this very state.

Because those kids were in fifth grade, the books they read about Frederick Douglass didn't go into such vicious detail. Still, those children were puzzled by an obvious question. They wanted to know, and they asked:

      How could people ever have treated other people that way?

We told them we'd tell them what we thought, but that it was just our own opinion. We told them that they would decide what they thought about all such questions as they grew up. 

We told them they should always talk to their parents or their guardians about such matters first. We told them that we would tell them what we thought, but that we were just their teacher, while their parents and guardians were the people who, for them, came first.

Teachers who voiced those concerns to Madeline Will may have known whereof they spoke. Our racial history is astonishingly brutal and ugly. 

Meanwhile, the conceptual frameworks the slaveholders made stay with us to this day. This includes the conceptual framework according to which everyone has a "race."

Public schools should be very careful in the ways they approach such matters. They're dealing with the most painful topics we have, and with children's tender minds. 

Public schools should be careful. But straight ahead rushed the Pulitzer Center, before giving the Times its top prize.

Question: How much does the Pulitzer Center know about public school education? It wouldn't be easy for anyone to create curriculum in such a difficult area, but why should the Pulitzer Center be the agency rushing ahead on this project?

In our view, the (extremely limited) curriculum developed by the Pulitzer Center is a sad, familiar embarrassment. 

We're especially struck by the foolish way the Center says that some of its materials are suitable for "All Grades." On a much smaller scale, we're struck by the way the Center seems to have had a young person who was one year out of college authoring this part of its curriculum.

The kids had decided to put on a show; they'd rushed ahead with their staging. They dragged the Pulitzer Center in. Later, they won its top prize.

Way back when, Maureen Dowd also won a Pulitzer prize. She won the prize in April 2000. Seven months later, on the Sunday before our presidential election, she started her column like this, headline included:

DOWD (11/6/00): I Feel Pretty

I feel stunning
And entrancing,
Feel like running and dancing for joy . . .

O.K., enough gloating. Behave, Albert. Just look in the mirror now and put on your serious I only-care-about-the-issues face.

If I rub in a tad more of this mahogany-colored industrial mousse, the Spot will disappear under my Reagan pompadour...

If memory serves, this was the seventh column in which Dowd featured Candidate Gore speaking to his bald spot.  In this column, he was singing about how pretty he felt. 

This extended a mainstream press corps theme in which Candidate Gore had been cast as "today's man-woman" (Chris Matthews). Our liberal elites sat and stared as their award-winning colleagues played these pitiful, braindead games over the course of two years.

Twenty years later, the New York Times won another Pulitzer. We think its rushed, D-minus curriculum helps drive home a pair of  points we've persistently made:

No one cares about black kids. Also, our self-branded modern elites just aren't super-sharp.

THE 1619 CONNECTION: What if we were to tell you...


...that the Times played the same old games?: In print editions, The 1619 Project made its debut on Sunday, August 18, 2019.

The project debuted in a special edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The materials had appeared online four days before.

According to the leading authority on the project, that special edition of the magazine contained ten essays, a photo essay, and a collection of poems and fiction by an additional 16 writers.

An introductory essay was written by Jake Silverstein, the magazine's editor. What if we were to tell you that the essay started like this?

SILVERSTEIN (8/18/19): 1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?

So began the attempt, by a bunch of upper-end journalists, "to tell our [nation's] story truthfully,” apparently for the first time. No one else had done that!

So began Silverstein's essay. We'd have to say it was already time to call in the logicians.

In that passage, Silverstein seems to make an ardent claim. He seems to say that a very familiar assertion—the claim that "1776 is the year of our nation’s birth"—can now be seen to be "wrong."

He seems to say that the nation's "true birth date" was actually August 1619! He seems to make that ardent claim, but a careful reader might say that he actually doesn't.

Subscribers, let's be fair! Silverstein doesn't exactly say that the familiar old fact is wrong. He merely asks a question:

What would happen, or what we would think, if he were to tell us it's wrong?

In this pointlessly roundabout way, Silverstein started to set the historical record straight. We think of the way Judy and Mickey and the rest of the kids decided to put on a show in the silly old Judy-and-Mickey movie, Babes in Arms.

The kids at the New York Times had decided to put on a show. But where would the logicians come in? The logicians would come in here:

Silverstein never exactly said such a thing—but to many, he may have seemed to say that 1776  isn't the nation's "true birth date." 

Logicians might have warned us rubes to beware of such words as "real" and "true." 

Silverstein's ardent language has created many pointless debates about when the nation's true founding really occurred. Logicians might have stated the obvious:

There's more than one way to imagine or discuss a nation's history. It's silly to get into pointless disputes about when the "real" birth occurred.

Silverstein was ardent that day, though in a fuzzy manner. He hadn't said that 1619 was the true birth date. He'd merely given that impression.

If Mickey and Judy were staging a show, they were off to a fuzzy start. And how odd! If you read Silverstein's introductory essay today, this is the way it now starts:

SILVERSTEIN (12/20/19): 1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?

Today, Silverstein imagines himself telling us something much more limited. 

Today, he imagines himself telling us that "the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619." He no longer imagines himself telling us that a certain extremely familiar factual claim is "wrong."

Today, Silverstein almost seems to be saying that 1776 actually is "the year of our nation’s birth!" Of course, because he's retained his highly ornate "what if we were to tell you" construction, he doesn't actually say that either!

At any rate, the song-and-dance about the  "true birth date" is mercifully no longer present. Silverstein has simplified his original opening statement.

After the 1619 project appeared, Silverstein's apparent opening claim—the apparent claim that 1776 isn't the nation's "true birth date"—stirred up a lot of opposition. 

As of today, that apparent claim is gone. As to when and why that passage was dropped, we have no idea. 

That said, the original passage seemed to make a very large, rather ardent claim, and it stirred a large fuss. The new passage is vastly harder to argue with.

Almost everyone would agree—the presence of slavery formed one part of a massive "contradiction" which dogged our nation's history.  It isn't hard to agree with that claim. The claim is almost blindingly obvious.

Of course, since very few people would disagree with that claim, it's hard to see how The Project is "finally telling our story truthfully," the grandiose claim the Times seemed to be making when this hodgepodge emerged. So it goes when the kids get excited and decide to put on a big show.

Silverstein has amended the first paragraph of his original work. As a general matter, there's nothing wrong with doing something like that.

In this case, the change to the original text has slid by without an appended statement of correction or clarification. But so it has gone as Silverstein and Nikole Hannah-Jones have corrected and "clarified" their original ardent work in fuzzy, fudged and disingenuous ways, often insisting that they've done no such thing. 

Consider Hannah-Jones, the founder of the project and the author of its introductory essay. In her original text, she ardently claimed this:

HANNAH-JONES (8/18/19): Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery...

The colonists  decided to declare independence because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery! That "fact" had been  "conveniently left out of our founding mythology," the ardent founder of the project declared.

But is that an actual fact? Did the colonists declare independence to protect the institution of slavery? Was that "one of the primary reasons" for their decision?

Major historians disputed the claim. In the end, Hannah-Jones and The Project decided to relent, or at least to give that appearance. 

Hannah-Jones inserted a tiny "correction" into her text, while leaving a much longer set of disputed background claims intact. Silverstein authored a slippery "Editor's Note" which vastly downplayed the nature of the issue and the size of the correction.

In this way, the journalists motored ahead. "Finally," someone was "telling our story truthfully!"

More absurd was Hannah-Jones' recent decision to eliminate a whole set of tweets in which she'd repeatedly said that 1619 represented the "true founding" of the nation. 

The decision to delete these tweets followed more recent claims by Hannah-Jones, in which she insisted that no one had ever said such a thing. 

When Judy and Mickey would put on a show, the show would always go well. In this case, the gang at the Times moved with remarkable speed to put a vast project into effect, saying, with substantial ardor, that "it is finally time to tell our [nation's] story truthfully."

Mommy and Daddy had been lying about our story! As they've done so many times about so many other issues, the boys and girls at the New York Times decided to tell us the truth.

No one had tried to do it before. While they were at it, they even decided to create a school curriculum, a matter we'll turn to tomorrow.

The hubris lying behind this project is wide and deep and vast. The children decided to tell us the truth; No one had done it before!

Once they started telling the truth, they seemed to make a lot of mistakes. As usual, they've played a set of slippery games in coming to terms with that fact.

Our nation's brutal racial history lies at the heart of our national story. There's nothing new about that statement. Everyone knows that fact.

That said, a bunch of enormously "privileged" babes in arms decided to give the nation a show. We aren't big fans of their work. More on that tomorrow.

Tomorrow: Recalling Frederick Douglass, on the eastern shore

To read more about this dreck: The history of the project's bungling  takes us down a series of long, winding roads. So too with its slippery, disingenuous reactions to criticism.

If you want to read more about this meshugas,  we'll recommend that you click the links at Bret Stephens' recent column. You might also review Sarah Ellison's report in the Washington Post about the project's controversies.

We'll especially recommend this detailed thread by The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, one of the nation's most careful journalists. One problem—he repeatedly links to Hannah-Jones' tweets, and those tweets have now been disappeared.

As always, a basic point prevails:

Creating confusion is amazingly easy. Critiquing confusion is hard.