"This may shock you," runs the headline on Jill Abramson's debut Guardian piece this week, but: "Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest." No, it's not an April Fool's Day joke.
Op-ed writers often don't write or even approve their own headlines, so I skimmed downward, looking for confirmation that this was just clickbait atop a more nuanced take. After all, Jill Abramson used to be the executive editor of The New York Times. Serious newspaper journalists aren't supposed to be eager to issue any politician—let alone someone who so blatantly lied (including after being mocked by eyewitnesses) about coming "under sniper fire" in Bosnia—a certificate of fundamental honesty
Sure enough, Abramson, oh wait a minute MY GOD SHE ACTUALLY WROTE THESE WORDS:
I would be "dead rich", to adapt an infamous Clinton phrase, if I could bill for all the hours I've spent covering just about every "scandal" that has enveloped the Clintons. As an editor I've launched investigations into her business dealings, her fundraising, her foundation and her marriage. As a reporter my stories stretch back to Whitewater. I'm not a favorite in Hillaryland. That makes what I want to say next surprising.
Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.
Bolding mine, because I still can't believe it.
Remember, Abramson is asserting a positive here, not disproving a negative. She needs to affirmatively support the counterintuitive claim that a person who for more than three decades has been involved in high-profile politics—a professional field that, like used-car sales or crisis communications, has a long, incentive-fueled tradition of omitting truth and discoloring facts—is not just some one-eyed queen in the land of the blind, but intrinsically trustworthy compared to you and me. So the evidence better be heavy, right?
Um, well, here is the entirety of Abramson's positive case:
1) "There are no instances I know of where Clinton was doing the bidding of a donor or benefactor."
2) "As for her statements on issues, Politifact, a Pulitzer prize-winning fact-checking organization, gives Clinton the best truth-telling record of any of the 2016 presidential candidates."
3) "Still, Clinton has mainly been constant on issues[,] and changing positions over time is not dishonest."
The defense rests!
Let's focus on #2, since it at least links to something, and also because #LOLscience.
Politifact is a news organization that chooses which political statements it finds worthy of fact-checking, and then assigns a score: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. The website's verifiers do not judge each candidate across the same set of questions, they do not check each factual assertion made in (say) a debate and then assign an overall score, they do not have some kind of automatic and transparent triggering criteria by which they decide whether a candidate statement is worthy of assessing. No, they simply react to and conduct research on comments they find of interest, for their own reasons. Which is totally fine!
It's just that, given the way the material is derived, the compiled "record" of these fact-checks proves close to nothing about the comparative trustworthiness of the various presidential candidates. (Who, again, work in a field well known for dishonesty.) Imagine judging a baseball player's season not on what he did across 600 at bats, but on the 177 times (the number of Hillary Clinton claims Politifact has assessed) that he did something flashy enough to attract the attention of evaluators. Those evaluators, no matter how fair-minded in their own heads, will bring their own individual and institutional biases and mores.
So even using this statistically meaningless metric, does Clinton really have "the best truth-telling record of any of the 2016 presidential candidates"? Among current major-party candidates, yes, although Bernie Sanders is not far behind. If you assign a simple value formula of 3/2/1/-1/-2/-3 to the six Politifact categories, here's what you get from Politifact's percentages for Clinton, Sanders, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump:
HC: 24/28/20/14/12/01 107
BS: 15/36/19/15/14/00 93
JK: 25/26/16/15/13/05 62
TC: 06/16/13/29/29/07 -45
DT: 03/06/14/17/42/19 -123
Hillary Clinton being 15 percent more truthful than Bernie Sanders, even if true, does not a fundamentally honest person make. Also, she scores as less honest via this junk stat than departed 2016 presidential candidates Jim Webb and Bobby Jindal (whose sample sizes were just 10 each):
JW: 30/50/10/10/00/00 190
BJ: 10/40/40/00/10/00 130
HC: 24/28/20/14/12/01 107
What about third parties? Green Party perennial Jill Stein is not yet rated, and Libertarian Gary Johnson's eight evaluated claims score out at 75 (00/38/38/13/13/00). In sum, relying on Politifact to prove who has the "best truth-telling record of any of the 2016 presidential candidates" is like outsourcing a DNA test to a sketch artist. There are more rigorous methods.
Particularly given Hillary Clinton's rich, documented record of dishonesty. Here's a quick rundown by Peter Suderman earlier this week of some of her dissembling and outright lies just about her private email system as secretary of state. The bold is the bullshit, the underline is the refutation:
When news about her email first broke, Clinton insisted that there was no classified material at all on her private server. But there's no question at this point that an awful lot of classified material passed through her system. More than 2,000 of the emails she eventually handed over to the State Department had some classified information, and 22 of the emails were deemed so sensitive that they weren't released at all, even in redacted form. These were not some run of the mill, low-level classifications.
Later, a spokesperson for her campaign defended her by saying "she was at worst a passive recipient of unwitting information that subsequently became deemed as classified." But according to a Post analysis, more than 100 of the classified emails on the server were written by Clinton herself. She's hardly a "passive" and "unwitting" recipient.
Nor were the emails marked classified after the fact. After a State Department inspector general report found several classified emails in a small sample, the IG reported that "these emails were not retroactively classified by the State Department."
Clinton eventually released about half the emails on her server (the rest, she says, were personal in nature) to the State Department, and she has patted herself on the back for eventually handing over the emails, declaring that she went "above and beyond" and "had no obligation" to turn over her communications. That is not true. As a federal employee, she was supposed to have turned over all her emails before leaving office. She at one point claimed on CNN that she'd never received a subpoena related to the emails. That's also not true. There's a copy of the subpoena online for all to see.
There is nothing "fundamentally honest and trustworthy" about this behavior. How does Abramson egage it? By calling "the idea of her being indicted or going to prison" as "nonsensical," and saying "I can see why so many voters believe Clinton is hiding something because her instinct is to withhold." But it's not just the withholding of information, it's the lying about it, that should matter most in an assessment of a politician's veracity.
Is it fundamentally honest and trustworthy to characterize the 2011 intervention into Libya "smart power at its best"? Because that's what Hillary Clinton continues to do five years later, after the resulting chaos in Libya has contributed greatly to broader sectarian war and the rise of the Islamic State. Jacob Sullum a month ago aptly assessed the import of this particular lie: "In short, Clinton, who did not publicly regret her vote for the Iraq war until 2014, will not admit that intervening in Libya was a mistake, making it impossible for her to learn from it."
Clinton, who has locked up support from all major teachers unions, is fond of making garbage claims like this about a sector whose inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending is up around threefold since 1970: "A lot of what has happened—and honestly it really pains me—a lot of people have [been] blaming and scapegoating teachers because they don't want to put the money into the school system that deserve the support that comes from the government doing its job." There is something "fundamental" here, but it isn't honesty.
For a quarter century, Hillary Clinton has been leading a speech-restricting crusade against entertainments and communications aimed at and used by minors, on the theory that children "take those messages to heart like…little VCRs, and they play back what they have learned." Along the way she has asserted as scientific fact scores of times sentiments such as, "Whether, and under what circumstances, the violence people see on television and at the movies actually incites violent acts is a question researchers have debated for years. As with smoking and lung cancer, however, we know that there is a connection." We actually "know" no such thing.
This is a small sampling from a large pile of available evidence, which Abramson waves off with passages like these:
For decades she's been portrayed as a Lady Macbeth involved in nefarious plots, branded as "a congenital liar" and accused of covering up her husband's misconduct, from Arkansas to Monica Lewinsky. Some of this is sexist caricature. […]
It's fair to expect more transparency. But it's a double standard to insist on her purity.
In other words, the "vast right-wing conspiracy"–a term, let's remember, that Hillary introduced into the political lexicon in the service of denying accusations against her husband that turned out to be perfectly true–has thrown up so many overheated and probably sexist charges that we don't even need to assess them. Since the most hysterical of the Republican accusations aren't true, the rest are silly. "Working the refs" is more than just a right-wing way to influence the media, turns out.
So does that mean Hillary Clinton is the most dishonest major-party presidential candidate still in the 2016 race? I seriously doubt it; Donald Trump seems to have created brand new categories of WFT fabulism and chatbot-style misdirection. But I wouldn't pretend to disguise my gut observation as anything approaching science, and God knows I wouldn't declare any politician to be anything more than comparatively honest for their tawdry profession. By eagerly issuing honesty badges to Democratic politicians with known records of lying, journalists with pretenses to fairness are demonstrating everything but.