Sunday, April 24, 2011

Jon Kyl Will Never Learn, But We Should

Like most of his Senate colleagues (on both sides of the aisle, but especially on his), Jon Kyl is renowned for neither intellectual acuity nor fundamental honesty. He outdid himself recently, however, with his claim that abortions are “well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does.” It is a preposterous claim, even for someone as dim-witted and truth-impaired as Mr. Kyl, but it’s not really the fact that a GOP politician simply made stuff up that interests me: that’s a dog bites man story.

Besides, the left’s response hasn’t been exactly without its faults. PolitiFact, which has been hit-and-miss of late (their analysis of claims that the Ryan budget plan would eliminate Medicare was particularly inept) got this one right… well, almost. In giving Kyl only a “false” rating instead of the more severe and, in this case accurate, “Pants on Fire,” PolitiFact allowed Kyl’s acknowledgment that he’d been busted to soften the blow. (Here’s a good analysis of that part of the story by David Brauer.)

But while PolitiFact may have been a little easy on Kyl, their skepticism of assertions on the left that actually only 3% of what Planned Parenthood “does” is abortions was appropriate. They’re right in pointing out that the only numbers we have are in the form of self-reporting (not that cooking the books ever happens on our side), and that there’s a fundamental difference between “providing an abortion and, say, handing out a pack of condoms or conducting a blood test.” And, of course, the argument that Planned Parenthood uses no federal funds for abortion services is as dubious as similar claims from the US Chamber of Commerce that no foreign corporate money finds its way into campaign ads.

That said, the “contraception” category includes “reversible contraception, emergency contraception, vasectomies and tubal sterilizations.” This would seem to include a fair number of surgical procedures on the scale of an abortion, and, given the fact that there are 12 times as many of them (!) as there are abortions, Kyl’s fantasy number gets obliterated. In other words, if Planned Parenthood were dishonest enough to quadruple the actual number of such procedures and under-report the number of abortions it actually performs by a factor of 10, abortions would still make up far less than Kyl’s 90% figure, just among surgical procedures, not even counting the over 3 million cancer screens, pregnancy tests, etc., that really form the center of the organization’s mission.

So Kyl was either lying or hopelessly deluded. Given the source, it’s hard to tell which: he’s so adept at both. As noted above, a politician of any stripe who says something untrue, even absurdly untrue, isn’t really news. But in the finest tradition of incompetents everywhere, Kyl took things a step further. His minion told CNN that “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions in taxpayer dollars, does subsidize abortions.” Needless to say, this remarkably stupid comment garnered even more criticism than the Senator’s initial idiocy. After all, if Kyl had meant to say that, he presumably would have done so. Stephen Colbert, in particular, had a field day, not only launching his own parodic attack on air, but also engendering the Twitter tag NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement.

Kyl, of course, as cravenly pompous as he is dishonest, responded by claiming he “misspoke” and by throwing the staffer under the bus: “that was not me—that was my press person,” quoth the ethical paragon. Way to stay classy, Jon Boy. By the way, Senator, was your statement intended to be factual? Because if it was, you kind of missed the mark… like aiming for Phoenix and hitting Tierra del Fuego.

Of course, what’s interesting here is that the staffer’s comment was about the only thing anyone in that office has ever said that’s actually true. Senator Kyl’s statement was not intended to be factual. Jon Kyl has the intellectual rigor of a kumquat, but even he knew he wasn’t telling the truth. But—and I say this as a theatre professional trained in the art of the hypokrites—he absolutely intended to make us believe that he was telling the truth (a point made in passing by Colbert). This wasn’t garden variety political hyperbole, saying “millions” to mean “a lot.” It was, quite simply, a lie. And Jon Kyl was too stupid to know he’d get caught.

Needless to say, the press agent fell on his sword, having tried in vain to cover up his boss’s prevarication: “Senator Kyl misspoke when he incorrectly cited a statistic on the Senate floor last week regarding Planned Parenthood…. Rather than simply state that in response to a media inquiry, I responded that his comment was not intended to be a factual statement; a comment that, in retrospect, made no sense. Senator Kyl neither saw nor approved that response.” Best line of this round of the brouhaha goes to Alex Seitz-Wald of “So neither Kyl’s original statement nor his press aide’s refutation of it were intended to be factual statements.”

You, Gentle Reader, would think that even a dull knife like Jon Kyl would have figured out that the best thing to do next would be to shut up and let the storm blow over. In such a surmise, however, you would be seriously under-estimating the good Senator’s unparalleled capacity for shooting himself in the foot (should this ever become an Olympic event—it would certainly be more interesting than race-walking or rhythmic gymnastics—we’d be assured of a medalist). No, Mr. Kyl decided instead to do his best Wile E. Coyote impression, and… wait for it… have his inanity stricken from the Congressional Record.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when such a ploy would have made a certain amount of sense: not ethically, of course, but at least politically. But that was before C-Span, before YouTube, and before bloggers. I suspect that Charles Wagner’s comment on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page is accurate: “Congresscritters of both parties regularly expunge their gaffes from the Congressional Record. This is not new.” Certainly I’m not arguing otherwise. But it takes a remarkably tone-deaf politician not to know that someone is going to check the official record to see if it’s really an accurate transcript of what transpired on the Senate floor. Nor will anyone suddenly forget the existence of video recordings of the debate.

No, what Senator Kyl has done creates a three-fold calamity: 1). it reminds us all, once again, of the mendacious initial claim, and of the gargantuan quality of that lie, 2). it suggests rather clearly that Senator Kyl, at least, and probably a goodly number of his colleagues, have no idea what media are available to those of even modest technological savvy (why bother, if it’s not going to work?), and 3). most problematically, it calls into question the trust we place in the Congressional Record, making it clear that accuracy (truth, if you will) is always to be sacrificed to an individual Congressperson’s desire to avoid embarrassment.

Come to think of it, though, that last manifestation isn’t so bad: it increases an already rife cynicism, but such a stance would seem to be appropriate. Better to know that we’re being manipulated than to have it happening without our knowledge. So… uh… thanks for being an incompetent charlatan, Senator. We appreciate the lesson you’ve taught us.

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