Here’s a fun question to ask about the Republicans who spent the weekend spreading lies that Barack Obama was going to spend Independence Day raising campaign cash in Paris: Are they dumb, or evil?
Me, I’m betting on both.
The case for “dumb” starts with Andrew McCarthy, a lawyer and writer for National Review magazine. On Saturday morning, he posted a one-sentence item to the magazine’s blog saying that President Obama would spend July 4th in France on a fund-raising trip.
That was flatly untrue: AP had already reported on Friday that the President would spend the holiday at the White House at a barbecue for military families. The real story sounds really patriotic; the false story sounds really unpatriotic. So of course, McCarthy believed the false story.
The story provoked a not-unexpected hysterical reaction on Twitter:
In fairness to McCarthy, it was easy to understand his confusion. His blog post linked to an ambiguously worded item at Breitbart.com that noted Obama’s campaign would be raising cash from American expatriates in France—”that may be the only place where Obama can still find cheering throngs.” It’s not difficult to see how that could be misread—others did so—but McCarthy had National Review’s megaphone to make his mistake more loudly.
So why do I think McCarthy was dumb to publish the blog post?
Because he was far too willing to assume the worst about President Obama. He didn’t stop and apply a political Occam’s razor to the situation: “There’s no president—not even this one—whose political instincts are so awful that he’d spend the country’s No. 1 holiday in France, grubbing for money.” You don’t have to be an Obama fan to realize the president isn’t that stupid.
If McCarthy had given the matter five seconds’ thought, he might’ve done a quick Google search to verify the Breitbart report. Instead, he published the falsehood.
And it spread quickly—so quickly, in fact, that GOP mastermind Karl Rove even posted the rumor to his own Twitter account, further amplifying the falsehood to his 353,000 followers, and provoking a wave of fresh outrage against the president.
OK. Mistakes happen. So why do I think Breitbart, McCarthy and Rove were all a bit evil?
Because they had a chance to correct the record—and as of Sunday night, some 36 hours later—hadn’t done so. They let the rumor fly and fester, choosing to let Republicans believe and spread untruths about the President. And that’s when the whole story shifted from being a mistake and became a lie.
Take McCarthy. On Saturday, I challenged him via Twitter: “So when are you going to correct your false post about Obama being in Paris July 4? That’s what post unambiguously says.”
McCarthy responded early Sunday: “When you get a sense of humor—not holding my breath.”
So it was a joke? That explanation doesn’t really hold up, given McCarthy’s perpetual stance of aggrievement—and it’s also unbelievable because thousands of people who read his work didn’t get the joke. They took McCarthy at his word, and acted accordingly. He didn’t bother to let them know it was just a joke.
Why didn’t Rove correct his tweet? We don’t know. Maybe he didn’t check his BlackBerry all weekend after posting the falsehood about the president. But that seems … unlikely.
And you can even argue that Breitbart.com, once it saw how its reporting was being misused—the author was aware of the controversy—could’ve attempted to correct the record. It didn’t.
The result? Expect to get a lot of crazy emails from your angry Tea Party uncle about how Obama is disrespecting his country by leaving the country on July 4th to go collect money from the surrender-monkeys. And expect that this particular lie about the president will persist all through campaign season.
Dumb or evil? Either way, it’s difficult to make the case that these Republicans care about the truth.