There could only have been two possible outcomes when the arch-shockpundits of the Left and Right, Paul Krugman and Bill O’Reilly, met on Tim Russert’s CNBC show for a televised showdown. It was either going to be The Beatles, or Quentin Tarantino — “Paul is dead,” or “Kill Bill.”
I’m happy to report it was the former. Bill O’Reilly didn’t just win the debate. He cut out Paul Krugman’s heart and stomped on it. Welcome, Bill O’Reilly, to the Krugman Truth Squad. (You can read a full transcript of the show here.)
This marks the first time that anyone has really stood up to America’s most dangerous liberal pundit on television. And Krugman simply didn’t know how to handle it. At several points in the show Krugman was practically in shock, with hands visibly trembling.
O’Reilly was masterful. He didn’t for one moment grant Krugman the undeserved respect that everyone else grants him, thanks to the prestigious aura of his Princeton professorship and his New York Times column. And O’Reilly didn’t let Krugman get away with any of his usual stunts.
O’Reilly uncompromisingly held Krugman to account for some of the outrageous (and outrageously wrong) things Krugman’s written in his Times columns. In one case, when Krugman denied what O’Reilly accused him of having said, O’Reilly jabbed his index finger toward Krugman’s face and shouted, “Don’t call me a liar, pal. That’s what you do all the time, and I’m not going to sit here and take it.”
O’Reilly had reminded Krugman of his repeated predictions of economic catastrophe as the result of President Bush’s tax cuts — a catastrophe that, obviously, hasn’t materialized, and which Krugman now denies having predicted. Here’s part of the exchange:
O’Reilly: … Mr. Krugman was dead 100 percent wrong in his columns, uh, two years ago when he said the Bush tax cuts would lead to a deeper recession. You can read his book and see how wrong he was.
Krugman: Actually, you can read it. I never said that. I said it would lead to lousy job creation.
O’Reilly: Column after column after column. You made the point, in your book, okay, that these cuts, these tax cuts were going to be disastrous for the economy.
Krugman: Nope …
O’Reilly: They haven’t been.
Krugman: Uh, uh, I’m sorry. That’s a lie. Let me just say, that’s a lie.
O’Reilly: It’s not a lie.
Krugman: It’s a lie.
Krugman’s the liar, not O’Reilly. It’s just too bad O’Reilly didn’t have a quotation at hand to prove it. Among dozens of possible examples, Krugman wrote in his April 22, 2003, New York Times column that
Aside from their cruelty and their adverse effect on the quality of life, these cuts will be a major drag on the national economy. … it’s clear that the administration’s tax-cut obsession isn’t just busting the budget; it’s also indirectly destroying jobs by preventing any rational response to a weak economy.
O’Reilly followed up by cleverly asking Krugman — since Krugman was claiming not to have predicted a deeper recession after the tax cuts — whether he instead predicted the economic growth of the last year? Krugman was so flustered — no doubt knowing he was checkmated — that he stammered out this remarkable confession:
Compare me … compare me, uh, with anyone else, and I think you’ll see that my forecasting record is not great.
You can be sure we’ll be quoting that one again and again! On this one matter, we most heartily agree.
What was most impressive about O’Reilly’s performance in the debate is that he was genuinely not partisan. In fact, he often took positions that were conciliatory to Krugman with respect to heated partisan issues. As but one example among several, he offered freely that “the Iraq war was a big screw-up.” But over and over, he shamed Krugman by rubbing his face in the exaggerated and partisan way that he and others in the liberal press handle these issues.
Faced with an opponent who was on the one hand so conciliatory, and on the other hand so aggressive, Krugman could do little more than throw out feeble ripostes or roll over and change the subject. At one point O’Reilly faulted Krugman for appearing in public with the likes of Al Franken:
O’Reilly: The war on terror may not have been best served by the Iraq adventure. That’s a legitimate debate. What I object to is the lying charges, the slander and defamation that comes out of the Krugman wing — if you want to call it — of the social landscape. [Krugman shakes his head and smiles.] Don’t give me that! Who are you appearing with today, in your book signing? You’re appearing with Stewart Smalley [the Saturday Night Live role played by Franken], the biggest character assassinator in the country.
Krugman: The guy you compared to Goebbels?
O’Reilly: You are in with the most vile form of defamation in this country. You are pandering to it. And I resent it, sir.
Krugman: We resent you, too.
O’Reilly: Yeah, I know you do. And you know what you’ll do about the resentment? You’ll lie about me and attack me personally. That’s what you’ll do.
Krugman: Let’s watch that, okay?
When O’Reilly blasted Krugman for the New York Times’s excessive and repetitious coverage of the horrors of Abu Ghraib — and the absence of stories on the United Nations oil-for-food scandal — Krugman couldn’t even manage to mouth his usual brown-nosing platitudes about how bend-over-backwards even-handed the Times is:
I think if you look, well … I’m, I’m not gonna, you know … I’m not here to, to defend the New York Times, which has nothing to do with what I write in the column. Alright? So I don’t want to get into this one.
Starting the last segment of the show, Krugman tried to take the offensive what was clearly a prepared “gotcha,” relying on written notes he’d held in front of him during the whole program. Having discussed Michael Moore and his film, Fahrenheit 9-11, in the previous segment, Krugman looked furtively at Russert like a little boy about to play a nasty prank, and said,
Actually I just want to say a word about Fahrenheit 9-11, uh, just to talk a little bit about Bill O’Reilly’s credibility on this. Uh, uh, Bill has said on-air that, uh, Michael Moore believes we are an evil country, and if you saw the film you know that’s not true. And, uh, actually, he denied in the same program that you said what you just said, but anyways … I just think that’s a little something to look at in terms of the credibility.
If the sheer feebleness and inarticulateness of that attack leaves you wondering what Krugman was trying to accomplish, let me explain. As hard as it is to believe, apparently Krugman’s admiration for Moore and his film is so deep that, in his mind, O’Reilly’s saying Moore called America “evil” is enough to impugn O’Reilly’s credibility. Krugman says, “I think there were a lot of things in that film that showed that this is a guy who really does love his country. And he loves the working people of America.”
Whatever you may think of the film, all O’Reilly had done on his radio show was accurately quote Moore speaking of “this country of mine, which is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe.” That statement was first reported in a fawningly pro-Moore article in The New Yorker last February, and was repeated two days before O’Reilly’s show by conservative New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks.
Not exactly Watergate, is it? But it was the best the flustered Krugman could do, though it ended up leading him into an O’Reilly trap. The trap revealed what I consider to be Krugman’s worst vice — the way he recycles propaganda and rumors from leftist gossip sites, giving them the imprimatur of the New York Times. In this case, it was Media Matters, the website run by confessed liar David Brock (and backed by millionaire George Soros).
O’Reilly: And where did you get that little “evil” quote, by the way. You don’t listen to The Radio Factor [O’Reilly’s radio show.]
Krugman: No, but they have video clips. They have, they have the clips.
O’Reilly: Well who gave it to you?
Krugman: Yeah, it was Media Matters.
O’Reilly: [Booming] Media Matters! Oh, I see! A real objective website.
Krugman: Hey, wait a second, sir …
O’Reilly: Hey, Mr. Propaganda, you ought to take and do your own research, pal, and stop taking that left-wing garbage, throwing it out there for the folks.
Krugman: What have I said that was false?
O’Reilly: Do your own research!
Krugman: It helps me …
Looks to me like America’s most dangerous liberal pundit learned a couple valuable lessons this past Saturday. For one thing, he learned that it’s a lot easier to call people liars, lie about your own past statements, and spread partisan innuendo from the secure redoubt of the op-ed page of the New York Times, where the only feedback you get is the hand-picked atta-boys published on the Times’s letters page. Maybe he learned that you can’t get away with that stuff when there’s a living, breathing opponent across the table from you — someone like Bill O’Reilly, who’s not afraid to fight back.
And could it be, just possibly, that Krugman has finally learned a little something about humility?