Extreme reaction to comments Vice President Dick Cheney made about the importance of the Nov. 2 election is a textbook example of manufactured outrage, perhaps mixed with a little media bias and seasoned with a dash of hysteria.
What Cheney actually said to a Des Moines, Iowa, audience a few days ago - and what he is charged with saying - are two very different things. As is increasingly the case these days, credit for first noting the Cheney-media reality gap goes to the blogosphere, where Reason magazine's Julian Sanchez has tracked coverage of the Cheney speech in question.
Context, as usual, is everything, and context is missing from much of what has been reported. To read some headlines, editorials and news stories, one would have to believe that Cheney said the United States would suffer another terrorist attack if Democrats win in November.
A UPI story linked by Sanchez, for example, begins: "Republican U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney warns of a terror attack on the United States if the Democrats win November's election."
The BBC account went like this: "Dick Cheney has said a vote for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry could make a terror attack on the U.S. more likely."
On Thursday, an editorial in The New York Times condemned Cheney's speech as "disgraceful," and read in part:
If John Kerry was elected president, Mr. Cheney warned the crowd, 'the danger is that we'll get hit again.' In a long, rather rambling statement, he said the United States might then fall back into a 'pre-9/11 mind-set' that 'these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts.'
In the same issue of The Times, columnist Maureen Dowd likened the Cheney speech to "that fairy tale where vipers and toads jump out of the mouth of the accursed mean little girl when she tries to speak. Every time Mr. Cheney opens his mouth, vermin leap out."
If Cheney had made such a dire, ipso-facto prediction, then the Times editorial writer might have been justified in chastising the vice president on grounds of violating rules of political protocol, if there be such a thing. He might even argue that the vice president is a fool given that terrorists may strike anytime no matter who is in office.
Under certain conditions probably involving sleep deprivation, one might even imagine toads and vermin leaping from Cheney's mean little-girl lips.
On the other hand, whether the risk of terrorist attack increases depending on who is commander in chief seems a reasonable question about which the incumbent vice president might have a strong opinion.
Voters left to their own instincts doubtless can figure out whether they'll be safer with Kerry or President George W. Bush - a recent poll shows Bush favored two-to-one on this issue - but getting their information straight from the horse's mouth might be more helpful to that process than relying on some news sources.
Herewith, spin- and vermin-free, is what Cheney said in the context of other critical wartime decisions throughout U.S. history:
". Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind-set, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts, and that we're not really at war. I think that would be a terrible mistake for us."
We might agree that Cheney's comment is breathtakingly Byzantine, but his meaning seems clear: If we get hit again (during a Kerry presidency), the danger is we'll treat such an attack as a criminal act rather than as an act of war, which in Cheney's view would be a mistake.
Yet many accounts ended Cheney's comment with a period after "we'll get hit again," implying a cause-and-effect that doesn't hold up in the context of the rest of the sentence.
No one knows how a President Kerry might react to a terrorist attack, but we do know that Kerry and Bush differ philosophically in their approaches to the war on terror. We also can surmise that Cheney believes anything other than a war attitude before, during and after any terrorist attack is a mistake that endangers national security.
Why his plainly saying so is controversial is curious when, really, nothing else matters as much as which candidate most likely will prevent future terrorist assaults.
In cutting through all the verbiage, it may be helpful to consider on the three-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that there have been no new terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since Bush declared war on terror. Whether this is a function of luck or improved dot-connecting, we may never know, but what ain't broke is often best left unfixed.