One of the simple rules I was raised with is the principle that if you’re going to step up to correct someone in public, you’d better be right.
CNN anchor Candy Crowley broke that rule in Tuesday night’s presidential debate and inflicted yet more damage to the credibility of the press, a critical organ of our body politic.
Addressing a question on the subject of the recent attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, including veteran U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Obama gave an account of the actions he took in the wake of the violence.
“The day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the America people and the world that we were going to find out what happened, that this was an act of terror,” Obama said during Tuesday’s debate.
Romney pounced, waiting patiently for Obama’s time to elapse before stepping forward to deliver his own recollection of what Obama said in a briefing to the press given in the White House Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack.
“I think it’s interesting that the President just said something which is that on the day after the attack he went in the Rose Garden and said that this was an ‘act of terror’,” Romney said, pausing then turning to face the President.
“You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an ‘act of terror’?” Romney’s gaze fell ominously on Obama, his body language politely and aggressively demanding an answer to the question. He did not get one.
“Please proceed, Governor,” Obama said.
“All right,” Romney said, somewhat befuddled. “I just want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the President 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
“Get the transcript,” Obama said.
We did get the transcript, and we’ll get to that after the remaining (and perhaps more disturbing) portion of the fiery exchange on Benghazi.
Crowley then interjects, not to metaphorically ring the bell to have both candidates go back into their corners, but to contradict Romney’s version of events and side with the President.
“He did in fact, sir … call it an act of terror,” Crowley said to Romney.
Obama, approved of the referee’s call in his favor. “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?”
One would expect Pres. Obama to step in to interrupt and claim that Romney was lying about his words. Obama’s failure to correctly label the murderous attack in Benghazi, Libya is at the heart of the most current foreign policy scandal to hit his White House.
Crowley’s original sin was to conflate her role as a moderator in the debate with the idea that she should also be an arbiter. Her second and third transgressions were to conduct her fact-checking on the fly and issue a decision that was dubious, and to not restrain a reflex to protect the President from a damaging charge.
[A complete transcript follows this post.]
Obama’s use of the phrase “acts of terror” follows a passage reminding us of American losses on 9/11/2001, and in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nowhere in his nearly 7-minute speech does he draw a clear line to say that Benghazi was an act of terror, a fact that was at the heart of Romney’s claim in the debate.
Certainly, Obama can cling to a technicality, having spoken the words “acts of terror” and “Benghazi” in the same speech. Romney’s point, though, was about context—the question of whether the President was communicating directly that the specific attack that killed Ambassador Stevens was viewed by the U.S. government as an act of terror. Therein is the gray area for pundit and fact-checkers to hash over—not Crowley who was supposed to be impartial—and it’s not a just picayunish debate for those who enjoy parsing words. The ability to communicate clearly is an essential quality in a political leader, even more important when their words affect diplomacy and foreign affairs.
Romney was right to cross-examine the President on his lack of clarity, a mumbled message to the world about our resolve to protect Americans everywhere in the world. Crowley was wrong to come to the aid of the President in a debate she was moderating.
The next and final debate October 22 will focus entirely on foreign policy and will be moderated by CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer.
Watch the full video of Tuesday’s debate here.
Read the full transcript of Pres. Obama’s September 12, 2012 briefing in the White House Rose Garden:
Good Morning. Everyday all across the world, American diplomats and civilians work tirelessly to advance the interest and values of our nation.
Often, they are away from their families, sometimes in great, great danger.
Yesterday, four of these extraordinary Americans were killed in an attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi. Among those killed was our Ambassador Chris Stevens, as well as his Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith.
We are still notifying the families of the others who were killed and today the American people stand united in holding the families of the four Americans in our thoughts and in our prayers.
The United States condemns, in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack. We’re working with the government of Libya to secure our diplomats. I’ve also directed my administration to increase our security at diplomatic posts around the world.
And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people. Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths.
We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None.
The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts. Already, many Libyans have joined us in doing so,
and this attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya.
Libyan security personnel fought back against the attackers alongside Americans. Libyans helped some of our diplomats find safety, and they carried Ambassador Stevens’ body to the hospital, where we tragically learned that he had died.
It’s especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save. At the height of the Libyan revolution Chris led our diplomatic post in Benghazi.
With characteristic skill, courage and resolve he built partnerships with Libyan revolutionaries and helped them as they planned to build a new Libya.
When the Gadhafi regime came to an end Chris was there to serve as our ambassador to the new Libya, and he worked tirelessly to support this young democracy. And I think both Secretary Clinton and I have relied deeply on his knowledge of the situation on the ground there.
He was a role model to all who worked with him and to the young diplomats who aspire to walk in his footsteps.
Along with his colleagues, Chris died in a country that is still striving to emerge from the recent experience of war. And today the loss of these four Americans is fresh, but ourmemories of them linger on.
I have no doubt that their legacy will live on through the work that they did far from our shores and in the hearts of those who loved them back home.
Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks. We mourn with the families who were lost on that day. I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. And then last night we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi.
As Americans let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those, both civilian and military, who represent us around the globe.
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.
Today we mourn for more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.
But we also know that the lives these Americans led stand in stark contrast to those of their attackers. These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity. They should give every American great pride in the country that they served, and the hope that our flag represents to people around the globe who also yearn to live in freedom and with dignity.
We grieve with their families, but let us carry on their memory and let us continue their work in seeking a stronger America and a better world for all of our children. Thank you. May God bless the memory of those we lost, and may God bless the United States of America.”