Just wanted to make sure you didn’t miss the note of appreciation I received from the governor’s office for my Sunday column. It ran as a letter to the editor today:
Warthen column damages credibility
When the facts aren’t on some people’s side, they try and change them to help win an argument. Unfortunately, that’s a model growing in popularity among this paper’s editorial writers.
I’m writing of Brad Warthen’s latest Sunday rant, in which he lashes out at the governor over a recent column he penned for The Wall Street Journal.
Congress is contemplating spending another $150 billion to $300 billion to “bail out” states. Every penny of that money will have to be borrowed, from places such as Social Security, or our grandkids, or such nations as China (to whom we already owe $500 billion). The governor is arguing that enough is enough, and that we have to quit piling on debt, no matter how well-intentioned the spending may be.
You’d know all of this for yourself had Mr. Warthen possessed the courage to print Gov. Sanford’s column alongside his, and let you judge both pieces for yourself. Not doing so is the latest example of a growing lack of credibility on Mr. Warthen’s part, from endorsing one senator despite noting his history of flouting the law, to, on his blog, likening a school choice supporter to bin Laden.
This editorial page was once respected as a voice for good government. Now, thanks to Brad’s childish screeds, fewer and fewer people are reading.
Office of the Governor
Editor’s note: The State published the governor’s column on the Web. To read it and Mr. Warthen’s column again, go to thestate.com/bradsblog/.
This letter put me in an awkward spot. It was sent to Cindi, but she’s out this week, so when he got her autoreply to that effect, Joel sent the letter to me. And the problem was that the letter needed editing, and it’s hard to work with the writer of a critical letter when you are the subject of the criticism. As editor, there were a couple of things I needed to accomplish:
- I needed to make sure it was factually correct, so that when he criticized me or the paper for doing XYZ, XYZ was actually what we did. As you can tell from our letters on any given day, we thrive on being criticized. But I draw the line at taking criticism for something we did not DO, because that would give the readers an incorrect impression of what we went to all the trouble of putting into the paper to start with. For instance, when a writer says, "You were wrong to claim that Sen. Hiram Blowhard is a horse thief," but we didn’t say Sen. Blowhard is a horse thief, I’m not running it. If I DID run it, readers would naturally assume, "Well, they wouldn’t have run the letter criticizing them for calling him that if they hadn’t called him that." Unfortunately, the thing that Joel was misrepresenting about us was fuzzier than that. He was trying to make readers think that we had somehow done the governor wrong by not running his column in the dead-tree version of the paper. He was saying this despite the fact that he knows our standard is NOT to use that precious space for guest columns that have run elsewhere (every piece we run like that is another piece that was offered exclusively to us that we CAN’T run). The average Joe on the street could have made the mistake of saying what he said in the letter; he knew better. He also knew that we went to the trouble to publish the governor’s piece online (you’ll recall that in the past I’ve made the point here that our online version is the perfect place for columns by gummint officials — who send us a lot of submissions — that don’t meet our standards for the paper), promoting it from the newspaper on the day it ran, and providing a link to it in the footer of my column about it (why? because I wanted people to go back and read it). But Joel insisted upon accusing us of wrongdoing on this point, so I eventually shrugged and let it go — and resolved to state the fact of the matter in a neutrally-worded editor’s note (knowing, of course, that lots of readers will think publishing on the Web is inadequate; but at least this way they had the facts before them). There were other factual points that were easier to resolve — such as his originally having claimed that we acknowledged Jake Knotts was "a criminal" in endorsing him; I persuaded him to change that wording. But the business of how we had handled the governor’s piece was too central to his point.
- Then there was the "courage" thing. I never could persuade him that some other word would make more sense to the reader — "courtesy" would have worked; even "decency" would have worked. I mean, what is the reader supposed to think I was afraid of? I wrote a whole column about the governor’s column, told you how to go read the governor’s column, provided links to it, but I was afraid of it? But I guess he thought I was just trying to censor his criticism of me rather than helping it be a more logical letter. So I let that go, too.
Anyway, we spent so many e-mails going back and forth on those points that I never even got around to such minor things as: When you say "the facts aren’t on some people’s side, they try and change them to help win an argument," and you suggest I did that, what do you have in mind? Name one fact I cited that was wrong. But it wasn’t worth it.
"Courage" is a word that is often misapplied to what I do. Truth be told, there are people who read a column such as the one Joel was criticizing and praise me for having the "courage" to write it — but that is utterly ridiculous. "Courage" doesn’t come into it, either way. I mean, what do I have to fear besides dealing with hassles such as that above? But I’ve heard that about columns I’ve written about governors going all the way back to Carroll Campbell. People seem to think I’m tempting the gods or something criticizing these guys. I don’t know.
What I DO know is that if you want to see courage, read Dr. Ray Greenberg’s piece on Sunday. Finally, we have the heads of major agencies having the guts to speak out about how we’ve hocked our future by failing to invest in the critical infrastructure of our society. State agency heads just don’t write columns like that, but he did.
And of course, the governor came down on him over it. Oh, he did it politely. His response (which Joel sent me in the same e-mail with his letter, and which I ran the same day as his letter, which makes his complaint about our not running the governor’s last column seem even more off-point — but I digress) was of course more polite than Joel’s. It’s too important to the governor to be seen as above the fray to write anything like what Joel did. At the same time, a public university president who dares to write anything like that motivated the governor to take him down a notch personally. Other uppity agency heads will take note. (The governor can’t do anything to Dr. Greenberg or to most agency heads, but that’s not the point — most of them don’t want to get into a spitting match with the gov; better to lay low.)
A couple of quick points about the gov’s piece about Dr. Greenberg (aside from the fact that his overall point was to defend the bankrupt notion of arbitrary spending caps):
- His utterly laughable attempt to be condescending to the MUSC president: "I certainly don’t begrudge him that view. Like any agency head, his
role is solely to look out for his corner of state government and the
tax dollars that are coming his way. On the other hand, we in the
governor’s office have a very different role in looking after the
entire state." Go back and read the piece by Dr. Greenberg, who runs an institution of higher learning that employs 11,000. Look at the concerns that the doctor expresses, and compare them to the narrow ideological points espoused by the governor, and judge which of them you believe is really thinking about the good of "the entire state."
- Second, the governor cites his favorite misleading statistic. The original text of his piece said, "Government in South Carolina costs about 140 percent of the national average, largely due to an unaccountable and inefficient structure." That is not true. I was able to make it technically (although still very misleadingly) true by the insertion of a single word: "State government in South Carolina costs about 140 percent of the national average, largely due to an unaccountable and inefficient structure." What’s the diff? State government in SC costs more per capita than state government in other states because of our almost unique system of the state performing lots of functions that local governments perform in other states — such as road maintenance, and owning and operating school buses. If you look at government overall, adding in our pathetically anemic local governments, we actually spend less than other states do on state and local government — or at worst, around the average (there are different ways to calculate it; some ways we’re right at the average, some ways we’re well below). A very important distinction, but don’t expect to hear this governor acknowledging it; the fiction that we — the state that won’t maintain its roads or guard its prisons or support its colleges nearly as adequately as other states do — spend too much on government is what he’s all about. Anyway, keep these two facts in mind, as Cindi explained in a recent column: We pay less per capita in state and local taxes than most of the country, and we pay less as a percentage of our income than most of the country.
One last note, and this is one I DO deserve to be kicked for. The governor misspelled Dr. Ray’s name throughout his piece, and I’m just noticing it. Yes, it was the governor’s mistake, but I’m the one who had it last, so it’s my fault for not catching it.