SAN DIEGO, October 20, 2012 — Last Tuesday night, our presidential candidates were supposed to participate in a debate. The evening may have displayed a lot of theatrics, but the real debate began one minute after CNN’s chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley said good night. The discussion continues even now between bloggers, columnists, radio talk show hosts, and television news analysts. They are arguing over the definition of the word terror.
The question should be easy to settle. In fact, the argument might have been over by now had there also been an honest definition of another important word, moderator. The more interesting story began before Tuesday evening, when both presidential candidates made an attempt to moderate the moderator with a written agreement.
“The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the 2 minute response period” (Memorandum of understanding section 7, part (c), sub-part (iv).
An interview with Politico offered some rather obvious clues that Crowley was not taking the agreement very seriously. “I’m not a fly on the wall… I’m going to react organically to what’s happening”(Politico, 10-15-12).
Romney and Obama still showed up and must live with their decision. The fate is more palatable for Obama. Although the requested rules came from both candidates, our president is quite happy Crowley refused to comply. After hearing her “authenticate” his claim that he did initially call the Libyan attack of September 11th terror, Obama looked like a satisfied Jeopardy contestant listening to Alex Trebek declare, “That is correct.” Maybe Obama didn’t phrase his answer as a question, but plenty of questions were hatched as a result of Crowley’s interference.
Since Tuesday, more critical news has been uncovered. According to the Associated Press, “Within 24 hours of the deadly attack, the CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington that there were eyewitness reports that the attack was carried out by militants, officials … But for days, the Obama administration blamed it on an out-of-control demonstration over an American-made video ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad” (AP 10-19-12).
Even before this development, there were other crucial facts uncovered by a House investigation. During the debate, Romney, relying on already established news, said, “And there was no demonstration involved. It was a terrorist attack and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people. Whether there was some misleading, or instead whether we just didn’t know what happened, you have to ask yourself why didn’t we know five days later when the ambassador to the United Nations went on TV to say that this was a demonstration? How could we have not known?”
His words were rebuked by Obama. A sparring match followed, culminating in Candy Crowley’s now infamous verdict: “It — it — it — he did in fact, sir. So let me — let me call it an act of terror…”
Obama was so delighted, he asked her to repeat the statement. Many members of the audience shared his enthusiasm. They clapped. Clapping was also a violation of the rules. It didn’t matter. Since perception gets mistaken for reality, Obama was informally viewed by many as the winner.
The FBI Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).
That may be an official definition, but some people use the term far more generally. They view any act of violence or vandalism as terror. Such common, generic usage suggests that two people can use the same word and mean different things.
Romney was talking about a coordinated attack by an actual terrorist organization timed with the anniversary of the 9/11 2001 World Trade Center destruction.
Obama’s actual words at the Rose Garden speech seemed to use the word terror more loosely, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
Multiple definitions offer convenient cover when people are caught contradicting themselves. When first accused, President Bill Clinton insisted that he did not have sex with intern, Monica Lewinski, only to later discover that she had a stained dress as evidence. His subsequent pseudo confession strained the definition of sex. “While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information. Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong” (Televised speech, 8-17-98).
The key words here are “legally correct.” Evidently, oral sex was not supposed to pass as real honest-to-goodness sex.
And so, in Clintonian fashion, the true meaning of the word terror is also being parsed. Since Romney was talking about terror in the vain of Al Qaeda or similar groups, Obama is disingenuous to act as if his Rose Garden speech intended that same definition. If such was the case, why did his surrogates emphasize alleged spontaneous violence in response to an offensive video after the Rose Garden talk?
White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney said, “This is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive” (Press Conference, 9-14-12).
While visiting Fox New Sunday, on September 16, 2012, Ambassador Susan Rice, speaking on behalf of the State Department, was asked by Chris Wallace to comment on Carney’s remark.
WALLACE: You don’t really believe that?
RICE: Chris, absolutely I believe that. In fact, it is the case. We had the evolution of the Arab spring over the last many months. But what sparked the recent violence was the airing on the Internet of a very hateful very offensive video that has offended many people around the world.
Fox News Sunday was only one of five Sunday shows Susan Rice appeared on with the same interpretation of events.
But we don’t need to go that far back to settle this matter. Candy Crowley herself, appeared on a CNN panel the night of the debate and explained that Romney was “right” inasmuch as Obama and his spokespeople still insisted for weeks that the incident was about a video.
“Right after that I did turn around and say, but you’re totally correct that they spent two weeks telling us this was about a tape and that that there was this riot outside the Benghazi consulate which there wasn’t. He was right in the main, I just think he picked the wrong word… (CNN, October 16, 2012).
Unfortunately, most people will never see her post debate elaboration. Instead, they remember a feisty, confrontational moment where the moderator acted as a referee. Although Crowley also offered a qualifying statement during the critical debate moment, she said it incorrectly. With the CNN panel, Crowley was not actually repeating what she said. She repeated what she thought she said. The actual words were, “He — he did call it an act of terror. It did as well take — it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.”
It did not take two weeks for them to get out the idea about the riot being a result of a video.. They talked about the video immediately. It took two weeks for them to admit it was a planned terrorist attack. Crowley didn’t intentionally say the reverse of the truth. It was a slip of the tongue. Still, within less than a minute, her sizzling commentary on Libya was “Obama two , Romney zero.”
Since then, Crowley has explained her self even further. On October 17th she told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, “I wasn’t trying to get them to clap, I was trying to sort of - you know, bring some kind of clarity to the conversation.”
Thanks for the explanation, Candy, but the real problem was assuming the subject was yours to steer in the first place. You couldn’t have picked a finer moment to “move along.” Two candidates for president were relaying opposite information. One was lying. One was telling the truth. The audience had a right to see the conversation to fruition without you pulling the plug.
But Candy was certainly correct about one thing. She was not a fly on the wall after all. If only she had been, the audience might have seen a real debate with an objective moderator who is there to watch the time, keep the candidates from interrupting each other, and keep her opinions to herself. Instead, we witnessed a quiz show where President Obama won the grand prize and Mitt Romney was awarded some lovely parting gifts.
Bob Siegel is a weekend radio talk show host on KCBQ and columnist. Details of his show can be found at www.bobsiegel.net.
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