Monday, December 29, 2008



Cromwell: 'I beseech you . . . think it possible you may be mistaken'

“I BESEECH YOU, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” So wrote Oliver Cromwell in 1650, and the world would be a better place if Cromwell's words were prominently posted over the desk of everyone who works in the pundit racket -- those who get paid to tell the world what they think, but too infrequently pause to consider, let alone confess, that they might not always know what they're talking about.

Like weather forecasters and economists, those of us in the commentariat get paid even when we're wrong. If we didn't -- well, just think of the political sages who would have been pounding the pavement after asserting confidently that Mitt Romney was sitting pretty in Iowa and New Hampshire, or that Barack Obama had no chance of defeating the Clinton machine. Fortunately, error -- even egregious error -- isn't usually a hanging offense in this business. Just ask Dick Morris, the Fox News/New York Post commentator, who wrote a book in 2005 called Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race. Or Shelby Steele, the Hoover Institution scholar and frequent op-ed essayist whose latest book, on the Obama phenomenon, was titled A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win.

BusinessWeek was chortling recently over a list of what it labeled “truly spectacular” wrong calls about 2008, such as President Bush's soothing analysis of the economy last March (“The market is in the process of correcting itself”) and Jim Cramer's response on CNBC's “Mad Money” to a viewer who was thinking of dumping his Bear Stearns stock (“No! No! No! Bear Stearns is fine! Do not take your money out . . . Bear Stearns is not in trouble!”).

But not every howler made the BusinessWeek list. For example, it didn't include this elaborate forecast, which proved to be mistaken in every detail:

“New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will enter the presidential race in February, after it becomes clear which nominees will get the nod from the major parties. His multiple billions and organization will impress voters -- and stun rivals. He'll look like the most viable third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt. But Bloomberg will come up short, as he comes in for withering attacks from both Democrats and Republicans. He and Clinton will split more than 50 percent of the votes, but Arizona's maverick senator, John McCain, will end up the country's next President.”

That impressive string of blunders was one of “Ten Likely Events in 2008” foretold by -- yes -- BusinessWeek back on Jan. 2. Anyone can make a bad call, of course, but it generally takes a professional -- a paid journalist or expert analyst -- to be wrong about something so comprehensively (and publicly).

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, nicely illustrates the point in the November issue of Commentary magazine. He rounds up the reaction of much of the punditocracy to the 2007 change of strategy in Iraq -- the “surge” that led to such remarkable progress in the war. As Wehner shows, one commentator after another expressed not just doubt about the surge, but utter contempt for it.

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post assured readers that the surge “could only make sense in some parallel universe where pigs fly and fish commute on bicycles.” Time's Joe Klein derided it as “Bush’s futile pipe dream.” Former ambassador Peter Galbraith explained in the New York Review of Books that the surge “has no chance of actually working.” And Jonathan Chait announced in the Los Angeles Times that there was “something genuinely bizarre” about anyone who would support the new strategy. “It is not just that they are wrong -- being wrong happens to all of us from time to time. It's that they are completely detached from reality.”

Do tell.

(I was wrong, too. A month before Bush announced the surge, I wrote that his sagging approval ratings would surely revive if only he would “make it clear that he is serious about victory” in Iraq and “will do whatever it takes to achieve it.” Two years later, Iraq is in vastly better shape, but Bush's approval numbers are even worse.)

“Think it possible you may be mistaken.” My resolution for 2009 is to keep Cromwell's reproach in mind with every column I write. I'm not planning to get anything wrong, but it's been known to happen. Caveat lector.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)

Don't believe everything you read

by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
December 28, 2008

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