Civil distortion

Eliding can be economical, but it can also be distortion. When it is, it’s wrong. Take this from the master of civility himself, George Will:

>Wednesday’s Post reported that at a White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, Webb “tried to avoid President Bush,” refusing to pass through the reception line or have his picture taken with the president. When Bush asked Webb, whose son is a Marine in Iraq, “How’s your boy?” Webb replied, “I’d like to get them [sic] out of Iraq.” When the president again asked “How’s your boy?” Webb replied, “That’s between me and my boy.”

He says this in order to demonstrate Webb’s incivility.

>Webb certainly has conveyed what he is: a boor. Never mind the patent disrespect for the presidency. Webb’s more gross offense was calculated rudeness toward another human being — one who, disregarding many hard things Webb had said about him during the campaign, asked a civil and caring question, as one parent to another.

But the incivility here is Will’s, since he distorts the Post article he refers to as evidence of Webb’s rudeness:

>At a recent White House reception for freshman members of Congress, Virginia’s newest senator tried to avoid President Bush. Democrat James Webb declined to stand in a presidential receiving line or to have his picture taken with the man he had often criticized on the stump this fall. But it wasn’t long before Bush found him.

>”How’s your boy?” Bush asked, referring to Webb’s son, a Marine serving in Iraq.

>”I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,” Webb responded, echoing a campaign theme.

>“That’s not what I asked you,” Bush said. “How’s your boy?”

>”That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President,” Webb said coldly, ending the conversation on the State Floor of the East Wing of the White House.

The emphasized portion is missing from Will’s account (even though his op-ed links to it). The boor, in this account, is Bush, not Webb. Webb’s response makes it obvious how his boy–and many other boys and girls–is doing: not very well, wanting to leave, wanting to come home.

A more tactful President could have said simply, “so do I.”

5 thoughts on “Civil distortion”

  1. Seems to me the only thing that is going on with this is some sort of semantic disagreement. Was Webb’s reply “rude?” Or was it “courageous?” (On the latter see Eleanor Clift in Time).

    Even including the additional phrase from the transcript doesn’t really change things that I can see.

  2. I think Peggy Noonan–of all people–put it best when she asked if one could imagine Lincoln responding this way to someone whose son was wearing the uniform. In any case, this doesn’t excuse Will’s altered reportage. If he wants to make a case for “calculated rudeness”, then he ought to make that case relying on strangely elided texts.

  3. Maybe I’m dense, but I can’t see the rudeness really anywhere. It was a failed communicative interaction. Bush asks a reasonable question, Webb tries to avoid answering it directly and changes the subject. One or both of them may have taken offense, but that’s their business. That there are about 50 editorials in the last few days treating this as a sign of anything is just baffling.

    An argument that someone was rude is always, I bet, going to be very weak, resting on emotional recognition of something offensive rather than on evidence and inference. lt presumably works by indicating the behavior and explaining why one finds it rude. It is more like Aristotle’s seeing the universal in the particulars. There is no general rule that defines what is rude and polite, only examples.

    Sure, Will could misrepresent the example, and that looks like a failure of argument. But I think that requires some strong reason to believe that the missing clause is a decisive piece of evidence in deciding whether this example accords with our intuitions of rudeness. I just don’t see what the clause takes away from his “argument.”

  4. You’re right about the difficulty of determining whether someone has been rude in any given situation (especially like this–reported second hand in a newspaper). For that reason, eliding the already elided and then claiming that the elided version is evidence of rudeness is even more suspect. So it’s probably best to avoid such claims out of general principle, especially when you’re going to cut and paste the evidence.

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