Just the Facts, Ma’am

To understand some of what we have recently heard in the campaigns requires us to remember one of the most important days in American history, Oct. 17, 2005. On that date, Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness”—essentially, that if you believe what you’re saying, it must be true.

In the Shelley Berkley-Dean Heller Senate race, the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee has been running an ad attacking Berkley as the second coming of Nancy Pelosi. After all, both are Democratic women from Western states. The ad duly notes how often they vote together, which is fair enough. But the ad attacks Berkley for voting for Pelosi’s big “bank bailout” in 2008. That was the bailout for which George W. Bush’s secretary of the treasury, Hank Paulson, begged for Pelosi’s support. Both parties divided over the measure, although Heller, then a member of the House, opposed it. So, Berkley actually voted for something that Bush, the Republican president his party appears to have forgotten, supported.

Meanwhile, Heller appears in an ad talking about his bipartisanship. It’s a smart ad: as an assemblyman and Nevada’s secretary of state, he had a reputation as a moderately conservative Republican, and he certainly needs independent voters if he hopes to win. Interestingly, several of the newspaper headlines shown in the ad that trumpet his ability to play well with others appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal about a decade ago, when he was secretary of state and not voting on bank bailouts, stimulus packages, health care reform, or Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan. But you have to look really, really close to see the dates.

The most entertaining ad has been from Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, citing an example of a “nonpartisan” organization that evaluated his tax plan, such as it is, and found it to be just wonderful: the American Enterprise Institute. AEI calls itself “nonpartisan,” so it must be true. But even Wikipedia, where Sarah Palin supporters have been known to change history, calls it “an American conservative think tank.” Right Wing Watch calls it “one of the oldest and most influential of the pro-business right-wing think tanks.” And the evaluator for AEI served on Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, whose members were not generally appointed if they liked Paul Krugman. Do average voters know what this about AEI? Well, Romney hopes not.

The problem isn’t limited to politicians. For a while, Steve Wynn had been comparatively quiet about his opposition to Barack Obama’s re-election until a recent set of interviews. But he told Jon Ralston on Ralston Reports that he had planned to build another hotel on the Strip, on the property across from his where the Frontier was imploded and the Plaza Hotel was to have been built. When asked why he didn’t do it, Wynn said, “I’m afraid of the president. I have no idea what goofy idea, what crazy, anti-business program this administration will come up with.”

All well and good. But that begs a question: why, earlier this year, was Wynn working so hard with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to build a $1 billion resort/casino complex on land that Kraft owns in Foxboro, Mass.? They backed off their plans amid vocal opposition from important segments of the Foxboro community. Why would Wynn have been proposing this project during an Obama presidency? It couldn’t have been because Massachusetts business regulations are less onerous than Nevada’s—Massachusetts is one of the most liberal states in the nation, and therefore, by logic, the most pro-government. Its governor, Deval Patrick, is a close Obama friend and ally.

Sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re right or that we know what happened. Sometimes we refuse to remember what happened before. The problem must be that we can go on the Internet or watch cable news and read or see only what we want to believe. After all, as one critic said, “the mass is constantly exposed to suggestion. It reads not the news, but the news with an aura of suggestion about it, indicating the line of action to be taken. It hears reports, not objective as to what the facts are, but already stereotyped to a certain pattern of behavior.”

That critic, Walter Lippmann, wrote those words in a book called Public Opinion that was published in 1922. We haven’t changed much, have we?