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Books: Talkin' head

Books | Carville's attack on Clinton's critics could be a textbook on logical fallacies

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1998," Dec. 5, 1998

I will keep James Carville's new book attacking Ken Starr, And the Horse He Rode In On. I will keep it as a logic textbook. It contains nearly as many classic logical fallacies as it does home-spun homilies and a Southerner's obligatory references to his mother. Here's one, a fine argumentum ad hominem (dodging the issue by attacking people): "The President's attackers are a motley band, consisting primarily of perjuring partisan politicians, strumpets, hags, bitter old segregationists, hired guns for cigarette companies, felons, judges who trade favors for jobs, bitter, defeated, pathetic former political rivals, Hillary-hating misogynists, wacko billionaires, gay bashers, hate-radio hucksters, mother-subpoenaing prosecutors ..." (the quote goes on for another 44 words). Argumentum ad populem (confusing the issue by saying the majority has to be right): "Every citizen now knows that Whitewater was never anything more than the longest-running political dirty trick in American history, and that Ken Starr's continuing 'investigation' is just a partisan witch-hunt that goes far beyond the bounds of anything Congress ever had in mind when it created the independent counsel statute." (Whitewater brought down the administration of Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and resulted in Tucker's conviction on fraud charges). Here's a gorgeous example of "begging the question," or petitio principii: "Given the flimsy and unsubstantiated basis for the accusations, there is a complete lack of credible evidence to initiate an impeachment inquiry concerning the president." And Mr. Carville plunges splendidly into guiltless hypocrisy. Near the end of his short (170 small pages) book, he expresses dismay about Bill Bennett's book, The Death of Outrage, "in which he declares my attacks on Ken Starr are 'unprecedented ad hominem attacks against an officer of the court.' What the heck is this guy talking about? Has he lost his mind?" To further prove he's blameless of ad hominem attacks, Mr. Carville goes on to say that "Either out of naivete or stupidity, Mr. Bennett doesn't seem to realize that his philosophical ancestors-rabid right-wingers of the South-were nailing 'Impeach Earl Warren' signs all over Louisiana." And such is the bestselling treatise by America's most spiteful talking head. Looking closely, even, there's little in here that can be called a legitimate argument against Ken Starr's work. Two Carville sentences, however, might actually form a debatable position: "This private mistake does not amount to an impeachable action," he writes in Appendix F. "(And) 'high crimes and misdemeanors' had a fixed meaning to the framers of the Constitution-it meant wrongs committed against our system of government." This second statement is true; it is now up to the Judiciary Committee to debate whether the first statement is true, as well. Because in the current Clinton scandal debate, this isn't about Ken Starr. It's not about the $40 million spent, it's not about the dark connections to Richard Mellon Scaife, and it's not about whether Linda Tripp is detestable. It's about whether lying to a grand jury is a wrong committed against our system of government. The rest of Mr. Carville's book, it's safe to say, is merely a wrong committed against the reader.

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