Just Dumb Enough

Dan Rather has to be the gift that keeps on giving. His lawsuit against CBS is giving everyone a chance to relive the heady days of Rathergate, and letting some of us recall with pride some of our finest achievements.

Others, though, are taking the opportunity to remind everyone of just how stupid they can choose to be.

One of those people is Sidney Blumenthal, who is absolutely convinced that the whole thing was a master plot by Karl Rove.

The crux of Blumenthal’s notion (I can’t quite call it a “theory”) seems to be this: Rove engineered the fake documents, then arranged for them to be funneled to Dan Rather, who would make the most of them on the air. Then, Rove’s specially-prepared legions of minions would then expose the documents as flaws, making Rather look like a dupe and taking the whole “Bush was AWOL from the National Guard” question off the table.

On the surface, it’s a tempting theory. Rove has a reputation as a master strategist, and the plot is positively Machiavellian. But it just doesn’t pass the smell test. It violates one of the basic tenets of any plan: its success is dependent on factors totally out of the planner’s control.

In order for this plot to succeed, it requires that the faked documents be good enough to pass CBS’ scrutiny, yet have enough flaws that the “exposers” can plausibly put up an immediate refutation of them.

In other words, it was entirely hinged on Dan Rather’s stupidity and gullibility. Had a single CBS staffer seen the flaws that “Rove’s minions” latched on to so quickly, the entire story would have been spiked — or, worse, backfired, as CBS would then turn its Eye on finding out who was trying to set it up.

It’s a very, very poor plan that is based entirely on the ineptness of the target. In fact, “plan” is too strong a term — “fantasy” is a better description.

The flaws in the Rathergate documents are many: incorrect phrasing and terminology, virtually-impossible typographic elements (the superscripts, proportional spacing), and the lack of a single person willing to say “yeah, I wrote that/typed that/received that/saw that” are just a few. The fact that it perfectly matches the “look” of Microsoft Word’s default settings in spacing, line breaks, and type size pretty much put the final nail in Gunga Dan’s coffin.

In order for Mr. Blumenthal’s theory to fly, Karl Rove would have had to know ahead of time that Dan Rather and Mary Mapes would latch on to the fake memos and be so obsessed with them, so eager to sink Bush’s re-election, that they would bypass CBS’ normal standards and screenings, ignore the warnings of experts, and build an entire story on them. Further, that they would be so blindly arrogant that they would post digital versions of the documents to the public, where the Rove-prepared debunkers could immediately access them and “expose” the flaws.

Noted crank H. L. Mencken once noted that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” and we see examples of that every day — especially on television. But that’s a general rule, and you can’t extrapolate that on to a specific individual — especially someone like Dan Rather, who had decades of experience and the resources of an entire network news division at his disposal. To expect — in fact, to rely completely on — his ditching all that and running with the story anyway is beyond arrogance and folly, it is suicidal.

And that is precisely the snake oil Mr. Blumenthal is trying to sell us.

No thanks, Sidney.

Kevin adds: Annoying superscripting removed…

Jay adds:: Whining commenced… I LIKED those.

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