Ed Driscoll

Tales Of The Tape

Andrew Malcolm of the L.A. Times writes that he’s just witnessed “Obama’s Sniper Tale“:

Is this another Bosnian sniper incident, where a Democratic candidate for president describes a scene involving some personal courage, but later videotape shows that maybe perhaps it wasn’t really quite all like that exactly?

Sen. Barack Obama, the leading Democratic candidate for his party’s nomination, is very fond of telling receptive audiences the story about how last May he walked right into the automotive lion’s den of Detroit and told those industrialists they were going to have to shape up, change the way they do things and start making more fuel-efficient vehicles to protect our environment.

“And I have to say,” the straight-talking Obama tells his chuckling followers, “that when I delivered that speech, the room got really quiet. [Laughter] Nobody clapped.”

Well, in honor of Obama’s return campaign visit back to Michigan this week, someone — perhaps Republicans, perhaps someone closer to home politically — assembled videotape of Obama’s oft-told tale and spliced it side by side with videotape of that actual Detroit speech.

You’ll never guess what. The room wasn’t quiet at all. Obama, in fact, got a loud round of applause. And at the end of his address the camera’s view of him at the podium is partially blocked because the audience of local businesspeople and automotive executives was rising to give him a standing ovation.

There were no departure ceremonies after the speech because of sniper reports. Far too dangerous for that. It was all he could do then to duck his head and just run for the vehicles. See for yourself below.

While the comparison to Hillary’s Tuzla dash into fantasy is one way to look at this, given the setting, it reminds me of the imagined fables of another figure associated with the Clintons: Robert Reich, and a story that Jonah Goldberg tells in Liberal Fascism, based on a Slate article from 1997.

In “Robert Reich, Quote Doctor“, Jonathan Rauch reviewed Reich’s memoirs of his Clinton years, called Locked in the Cabinet:

Locked in the Cabinet, Robert Reich’s new memoir of his years as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, is an engaging policy memoir: insightful, often witty and, what’s most unusual for wonk kiss and tells, easy to read, partly because it’s told in long stretches of well-written dialogue that add up to scores of novelistic scenes of Washington at work. The book reads like good fiction. Unfortunately, some of it is.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always believed that there is something special about quotation marks. Whatever is between them, in nonfiction, is supposed to reflect accurately words that some real person actually said. Now, “accurately” leaves room for quibbling, and a memoir will be understood by most readers to be offered on an “as remembered” basis. Reich says, in his prefatory note, that he jotted notes to himself, “usually late at night,” and then consolidated them to make the book. People know that Reich is not a reporter, and will adjust their expectations accordingly. Fair enough. Maybe he has a good memory.

So, much like Obama’s speech above, Rauch went to the tape to compare what Reich describes with what actually happened, and noticed a slight descrepancy between, as Jonah would describe it, the “Thomas Nast cartoon world” where Reich “is in constant battle with greedy fat cats, Social Darwinists, and Mr. Monopoly”, a world that Obama seems to live in as well based on his above reminiscences, versus that shared consensual hunch we call reality…as documented on videotape:

Or, perhaps most striking of all, consider a set piece in which Reich speaks to the National Association of Manufacturers. He describes himself as being ambushed by cigar-chomping capitalists who hiss at him so loudly that he has to yell to be heard. “They plan to carve me up into small pieces,” he writes. “There isn’t a lady in the room. All men, in dark suits. They’ve finished lunch. Some are smoking cigars. Others are quietly smirking, ready for the kill.” His speech over, Reich is lambasted by a “John,” and Reich’s answer elicits an eruption of “Wrong!” “Bullshit!” and “Go back to Harvard!” As Reich speaks, the audience hisses so loudly “that I’m not sure anyone can hear me.” The cigar smoke, he says, “is making my eyes water. I feel dizzy.” He says, “We’re in a boxing arena, John’s the champ, and the crowd is loving every minute.” Finally, the meeting over, he races “out the back exit before they can pummel me.”

As it happens, the meeting was a breakfast, not a lunch. The NAM says the attendance list shows that a third or more of the people present were women (including the NAM representative with whom I spoke). If anyone actually was inclined to light up a cigar after breakfast, he would have been breaking the NAM’s no-smoking rule, according to an association representative (who, like another witness I talked to, saw no cigars). Most important, a transcript of the meeting shows a respectful Q and A session, in which none of the comments attributed to “John”–nor any like them–were actually made.

One would hardly expect a roomful of corporate reps to hiss, boo, and shout “bullshit” at a sitting U.S. labor secretary. Sure enough, the transcript shows nothing nastier than sprinkled applause and laughter. I asked Richard Boyd, the professional court reporter who transcribed the session, whether his transcript might have omitted hisses, boos, and imprecations. “I never witnessed anything like that with Robert Reich or anybody else at a NAM meeting,” he said. “I’m absolutely certain I would remember it.” Reich portrays himself as the little guy standing up to a roomful of abusive capitalists–pure Hollywood. Again, don’t take my word for it; click here.

I asked Reich what was going on in each of these cases. In reply, he pointed to his Note to the Reader: “I claim no higher truth than my own perceptions. This is how I lived it.” He said that his notes accurately reflected how he felt and what he perceived. In the three cases cited above, he felt varying degrees of hostility. “I am not representing the book to be anything other than it is, which is my account of my experiences, my perceptions, what I saw and heard around me,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

In effect, Reich is saying that he’s not writing journalism or history. He’s writing … well, what? He elides the very distinction between history and myth, memoir and novel, reality and perception. The problem is that those are real people he misquotes, real history he rewrites.

Steve Wasserman, a former Random House editor who now edits the Los Angeles Times Book Review, points out an irony: Books are often viewed as better sources for history than newspapers, but newspapers, which are generally much more careful than the average publishing house about such niceties as checking quotes, are often the more reliable source. Reich’s memoir, if that’s the proper word for it, is now ensconced between hard covers and will be read for years to come as part of the historical record. That is a shame. Quote me.

That’s one benefit of the Internet age: while an experience can be seared–seared!–into our brains, more and more, it’s also being uploaded to YouTube, allowing us to verify, before trusting.