THE POLITICS OF MORAL STAMPEDE: Thrilled to say that Sessions lied!


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:

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.”
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.

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."


  1. The only reason anyone cares about Sessions meeting with Russians is because of the possibility of collusion with the Russians in their interference in the presidential campaign.

    No one cares whether Pelosi met with Russians or McCaskill or Leahy because they are not suspected of colluding with Russians in any election process.

    No one would care whether Sessions met with Russians either if Trump had not called on the Russians to hack Hillary's email, if the Russians had not given hacked DNC and Podesta emails to Wikileaks, if money hadn't been transferred from Russian intermediaries to campaigns of Sanders, Stein and Trump to help them defeat Clinton, if Russia hadn't been suspected of tampering with vote counting, and if there were not a pattern of positive statements by Trump about Putin, Trump's strong effort to change the Republican platform with respect to Ukraine's resistance to Russia, and a report circulating that Trump was being given a quid pro quo in exchange for removing sanctions on Russia should he be elected. That is a lot of "smoke" to ignore and efforts are being made to investigate what all this means, including asking pointed questions of Trump's surrogates and cronies, such as Sessions.

    That's why people care whether Sessions lied about his contacts with Russians during the campaign and after the election. This isn't about some trivial game of gotcha in which our tribe tries to catch the other tribe in a lie and pretends it never lies itself. This is a very serious matter of whether our electoral process has been subverted by Trump and the Russians and whether Sessions is equipped to help determine that, or whether he is too unreliable to be trusted in that capacity.

    Somerby demeans us all with his suggestion that we are just playing tribal games. It is distressing that he considers this too unimportant to care about. Our government is facing a major crisis and this is not partisan bickering as usual.

    1. I agree. Bob seems to muddy the waters himself by bringing up what, by all indications, was just a formality meeting between Pelosi and Medvedev, and their respective entourages.
      The distinctions are obvious and pointed: (a) was Sessions meeting conducted in his capacity as a campaign surrogate? (b) was the meeting private? (c) were there notes kept on the meeting? (d) what was discussed.
      Pelosi was in a meeting where Kislyak was present. She did not have a meeting with Kislyak. If we demand contextual accuracy, let's make sure that we distinguish the above two scenarios.
      Sessions answer could have been more complete. Did he evade answering Franken's question fully on purpose or was he genuinely confused by it. I agree with Bob that it's not worthwhile to pursue this topic. It would be, however, very interesting to find out what was discussed.

  2. Somerby talks about the respect due the Lady of Carlisle but the point of the song is that after retrieving the glove, the brave man throws it in her face because setting such a task is an expression of vanity. She sets herself too high when "No man on earth could her betray." Somerby says he likes he for that but the song does not because it is about her getting her comeuppance. Women are meant to be conquered not make men dance (or brave the lions) for them. Somerby is being tone deaf about the message of this particular song.

    The debate about why she lay unconscious is silly. Women's corsets deprived them of ability to breathe, compressed their internal organs and often caused fainting and other physical problems making women seem frail and needing protection.

    1. Do you mean ALL women or SOME women? David wants to know.

      Some men are frail compared to other men and benefit from police protection in common situations where they find themselves alone with aggressive males and unarmed. Situations where aggressive men would be perfectly safe. You can't sexist this fact of life away.

      When men require other men to protect them, can they claim superiority as a gender, especially when those protectors are sometimes women (trained and equipped to help)? Life is so confusing these days, since men and women came out of the cave and became equally entitled to a concealed carry permit.

  3. Marcy Wheeler explains why the Sessions lie is important. Somerby understands it is important, but he nevertheless thinks liberals are pursuing this out of moral pique?

  4. It may be well that Rachel Maddow's ratings go though the roof as She, in her typically tiresome way, pursues the truth about Trump being in deep to Russian ghouls. Trouble for Bob is, the story shows every indication of being true.

  5. Someone's got it in for me
    They're planting stories in the press
    Whoever it is I wish they'd cut it out quick
    When they will I can only guess

    Now everything's a little upside down
    As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
    What's good is bad, what's bad is good
    You'll find out when you reach the top
    You're on the bottom

    1. Not to be elitist, but a poem should scan.

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