Politics & Policy

The Media Cries Huckabee!

If meaning can be so easily misinterpreted, how far must we go to avoid controversy?

Herewith, for your delectation and vexation, I present the seditious sentences that have caused our most recent national hullabaloo:

[The Republican Party] stands for the recognition of the equality of women and the capacity of women. That’s not a war on them, it’s a war for them. And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control, because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government, then so be it. Let’s take that discussion all across America, because women are far more than Democrats have made them to be. And women across America have to stand up and say, ‘Enough of that nonsense.’”

These words were spoken by none other than Mike Huckabee — a former governor of Arkansas, an ordained Christian minister, and, worst of all, a Republican — and, since they were first leaked out onto the Internet yesterday afternoon, they have provoked the ever-open-minded and impartial truth-seekers of the Washington press corps into a veritable paroxysm. No sooner had the word “libido” left Huckabee’s lips than all context, judgment, and verisimilitude were hastily defenestrated; Huckabee, who has not held public office since 2007, had been turned into the de facto spokesman for the entire Republican party; and the word had gone out across the Kingdom that there was a new monster at the gates.

“At RNC meeting @MikeHuckabee just said fed govt shouldn’t help w who can’t control their libido w birth control,” CNN’s Dana Bash wrote breathlessly on Twitter, inspiring a predictable pile-on. A few minutes later, NBC’s Kasie Hunt added her own, explosive, account of things: “Huckabee: Women ‘helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them . . . birth control because they cannot control their libido.’” And that, as usual, was that. The pair’s hasty corrections counted for little. The pitchforks and the paraffin were already out.

Trouble is, Huckabee actually said nothing of the sort. In fact, he said quite the opposite — the purpose of his speech being to call out rather than to add to the ridiculous rhetoric that the contemptible engineers of the “War on Women” have added to our increasingly fatuous political canon. Indeed, so completely and utterly different are what Huckabee said and what Bash and Hunt reported that it is hard for even the most generous of observers to grasp how they reached their peculiar characterizations in the first instance. Were they trying to mislead?

This much is obvious: The difference between what Huckabee said and what Huckabee was accused of saying is the difference between the press’s reporting that Joe Biden had told a group of African Americans that the Republican party wanted to “put you all back in chains” and the press’s reporting “Biden to African Americans: I’m going to put you all back in chains.” It is the difference between the media’s recording that Nancy Pelosi said that members of the Tea Party “want to shut down the government” and its reporting “Nancy Pelosi: ‘Shut down the government.’” It is the difference between reporting that MSNBC’s Joy Reid believes Republicans are “resentful” of “post-1964 America” and accusing her of resenting the changes herself.

Those who are still riffing off of Huckabee’s speech are not offering an original opinion, a different interpretation, or a unique analysis of what he said, but are indulging deliberate, willful, unadulterated mendacities, the propagation of which is intended to feed the agenda of one of the country’s political parties and to do nothing more. One feels the same sympathy for Huckabee as one does for the title character in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Refuting the crowd’s devoutly held belief that he is the Messiah, Brian is met with a pause, and then the parry that “only the true Messiah denies His divinity.” “What?” Brian asks in exasperation. “Well, what sort of chance does that give me?”

What chance, indeed. Huckabee explicitly contended that “women I know are smart, educated, intelligent, capable of doing anything anyone else can do.” He said that his “party stands for the recognition of the equality of women and the capacity of women.” He argued that “women are far more than Democrats have made them to be.” He reasoned that “women across America have to stand up and say, ‘Enough of that nonsense.’” What sort of chance does it give our politics if a speech in which a man says “I believe the opposite of this” can be so easily turned into “I believe this”?

The consensus seems to be that public figures of Huckabee’s experience should know better. As a matter of practical politics, I can’t disagree. For better or for worse, we live now in the world of UpWorthy and Twitter — in a culture of soundbites and of instant communication. Our political life keeps pace with the lightning. Since the days of the first newspapers, headlines have been screamed in 36-point font and corrections whispered in diminutive and unsaluted fashion. But in the age of short attention spans and instantly replicated misinformation, this has become all the more important, rendering truer than ever the old maxim that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on” and meaning that, in 2014, context and argument are not as important as avoiding certain words. Day in, day out, teams of busybodies occupy themselves by scanning each and every sentence for verboten and controversial terms and then, smugly, they pounce: “Can you believe what that guy just said?!”

So, I’ll say it, as I am expected to do. Yes, it was unwise for Huckabee to have used the words he did. Yes, given that they’ll inevitably be twisted, it’s foolish for politicians to talk about certain topics at all. Yes, if one wishes to “win the news cycle,” one shouldn’t use words that crackle with potential charge. Still, one has to ask whether the fact that words will be twisted in any way excuses that twisting. One rarely hears added to the observation that politicians should be careful an explanation of why they need to be careful — which, in this case at least, is because their opponents are happy to lie shamelessly about them in the pursuit of a narrative that has been manufactured from whole cloth.

I wonder, at what point should we say “bugger it all” and elect to stand athwart anyhow? If, in the name of short-term advance, we accept always that this is the way it is, are we not tacitly endorsing an extralegal form of prior restraint and, in consequence, the destruction of conversation about anything controversial, polemical, or harsh?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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