Opinion

Why Kevin McCarthy's 'gaffe' enraged reporters

John Boehner's heir apparent put his foot in his mouth — by telling the truth about the Benghazi hearings

In 1984, the writer and editor Michael Kinsley defined a "gaffe" as "not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth." Although there are many types of gaffes, this particular type has come to be known as a "Kinsley gaffe," and an essential element of it isn't just that the politician tells the truth, but that he acknowledges a truth everyone knows, but at least some people have been pretending is not in fact true.

Most of the time, we find this particular kind of lying somewhere between expected and excusable. It's just one more variant of "spin," putting things in a way that is most advantageous for your side. It's not lying about things that are strictly factual, like how much GDP grew last year or whether there's a person on a videotape saying about a fetus, "We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain," when there actually isn't any such thing (we'll get to that one in a bit). The Kinsley gaffe is more likely to be about things like motivations and states of mind.

So, for instance, when a candidate slogs his way through a state fair on an oppressively hot July afternoon, sweating through his shirt as he crams some deep-fried concoction down his gullet for the benefit of the cameras, and says again and again, "It is so great to be here!", we don't object to what we all know is false. If he actually told the truth, on the other hand — "If I have to do one more of these I'm going to lose my mind" — it would be news.

Let's take another example. When Republicans in the House established the Select Committee on Benghazi in 2014, despite the fact that multiple congressional committees had already examined the tragic events of September 11, 2012, and found no malfeasance or criminal wrongdoing on the part of any Obama administration officials, they said solemnly that there was nothing political about it. "This is all about getting to the truth," said John Boehner, with a straight face.

Every article about it quoted Democrats saying in response what everyone understood to be true: that of course it was political, and its real target was eventual presidential candidate and likely nominee Hillary Clinton. If the committee did its work, they might discover something scandalous about Clinton, and at the very least they could damage her candidacy by creating the impression that she was engulfed in some sort of "scandal," even if nobody ever figured out what the scandal might be.

And on Tuesday night in a classic Kinsley gaffe, a senior Republican finally admitted this truth. Kevin McCarthy, who will likely be the next speaker of the House, was on Sean Hannity's Fox News show suffering a barrage of criticism from the host over the fact that the Republican congressional leadership has not yet taken down Barack Obama, when he finally blurted out in his defense, "Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought."

There was not a single reporter in America who heard McCarthy's comments and said, "Wait a minute — the Benghazi committee is political? My god!" So why would McCarthy's remark get so much press attention when it's merely stating the obvious? The answer lies in reporters' frustration.

Nobody likes to be lied to, even if the lie is exactly what they expect, and even if the lie can be dismissed as mere spin. Politicians are constantly spinning to reporters, so in response, the reporters look for any opportunity to uncover, refute, or discredit those lies, whether they were trivial or momentous. That's one reason that so much political coverage is about strategy, coverage that essentially says, "This is what politicians are saying, but the more important truth can be found in their motives." It characterizes all politics as theater, a great big fiction meant to mislead and manipulate. By talking about politics that way, reporters not only assert their own agency but assure themselves and their audience that they haven't been taken in, that they're no suckers.

But every once in a while, a politician gets caught in a lie but refuses to act properly contrite. So it is with Carly Fiorina, who for the last couple of weeks has kept repeating falsehoods about what was on those Planned Parenthood "sting" videos, no matter how many times she gets corrected. Fiorina's calculation, which may well be accurate, is that it's working, so why stop? Her poll numbers are rising and anti-abortion Republicans are treating her like their new hero, so who cares what a bunch of fact-checkers say?

In the face of that, reporters are flummoxed. You can spin all you like, but when you get called on a factual matter, you're supposed to acknowledge that you've been caught, or at least try to spin the whole thing as unimportant. Fiorina is forging brazenly ahead, pretending that everyone else is wrong and she's right. So reporters end up just repeating again and again that she isn't telling the truth — as they should — but then defaulting to the strategic assessment, which inevitably is that this issue is working out great for her.

Fiorina is hardly the first person to realize that shamelessness can be a useful tool — Dick Cheney was particularly emphatic in refusing to accept what was plain to everyone — but it's a good reminder that the press has only so much power to keep lies from spreading. If they aren't offering sufficient punishment for lying — and if they pummel a politician when he does accidentally tell the truth — then there isn't all that much incentive for telling the truth.

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