In her speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), a onetime presidential candidate, said this:
A new book is out talking about the perks and the excess of the $1.4-billion-a-year presidency that we’re paying for. And this is a lifestyle that is one of excess. Now we find out that there are five chefs on Air Force One. There are two projectionists who operate the White House movie theater. They regularly sleep at the White House in order to be readily available in case the first family wants a really, really late show. And I don’t mean to be petty here, but can’t they just push the play button? We are also the ones who are paying for someone to walk the president’s dog, paying for someone to walk the president’s dog? Now, why are we doing that when we can’t even get a disabled veteran into the White House for a White House tour? That isn’t caring!
The book she apparently referenced is called Presidential Perks Gone Royal, by Robert Keith Gray. In the account of Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, the book is not very well-sourced, and some of the claims Bachmann related do not hold up… but some of them do, which makes his four-Pinocchio “complete nonsense” rating worthy of a few Pinocchios itself.
For example, the $1.4 billion annual figure for the cost of the White House is never actually debunked, and might even have been low, although it must be noted that a great deal of this cost applies to security, rather than luxury items. Somehow, the more solidly verified account that the Bush White House cost $1.6 billion to run is supposed to disprove the contention that Obama’s costs at least $1.4 billion. If both of those numbers hold up, it would mean the Obama White House cost less, but that doesn’t invalidate the criticism that both of them cost too much. It’s not as if Bush has a reputation as a tightwad when it comes to handling taxpayer money. And can anyone think of a reason why the Bush White House might have had abnormally high security costs from 2002 onward?
Kessler quibbles with the “five chefs for Air Force One” point mainly by wondering if it might be more reasonable to call them “cooks.” The White House really does have those movie-theater projectionists. The most obviously Pinocchio-ish factoid deployed by Rep. Bachmann is the bit about paying for someone to walk the President’s dog, because that duty is handled by the White House groundskeeper on a volunteer basis.
The secondary matter of dispute is the implication that all of this is somehow unique to Barack Obama, when in truth most of these perks and expenses long predate his arrival in the White House. Bachmann never actually says that, at least not in the passage cited above. The author of the book she cited, by Kessler’s own admission, explicitly says the opposite: “He claims that the book is not intended as an attack on President Obama, but only on the imperial trappings of the presidency.” The subtitle of the book disingenuously declares that “Your taxes are being used for Obama’s re-election,” but the author may or may not have chosen that subtitle, and in any event we find ourselves veering very far afield from the question of Michele Bachmann’s accuracy, since she didn’t even identify the book. The Washington Post fact-check spends considerably more time picking apart Gray’s book than what Michele Bachmann said.
The full video of Bachmann’s CPAC speech appears below. Here’s the part right before the language Kessler quoted, which begins about 11 minutes into the video: “Now, we all believe that the President and the First Family, with all seriousness, do deserve the best security and the very best protection that we can get them. They deserve to live in the White House. They deserve to fly in a private plane. But there’s a problem. There is a problem.” Hmmm. Interesting that the Washington Post’s “fact checker” decided not to quote that part, isn’t it?
So we’ve got a four-Pinocchio rating for a passage from a speech in which only one sentence is clearly untrue – the American taxpayer is not “paying for someone to walk the president’s dog” – and because the fact-checker dislikes an insinuation Bachmann does not actually make, which is that these luxuries are unique to President Obama.
“Perhaps Bachmann would be on more solid ground if she had framed her concern about presidential perks in a less partisan manner — or if a Republican were president,” sniffs Kessler. Well, she didn’t frame her concerns in a partisan manner, at least not in the passage Kessler is fact-checking. Everything she said, aside from the one thing she (and the book that informed her) got completely wrong, stands equally well if you assume she’s complaining about the long-standing luxuries of the imperial presidency, not Barack Obama personally.
And the latter part of Kessler’s judgment makes no sense at all. He’d take back a couple of Pinocchios if she said the exact same thing in 2017 under, say, President Marco Rubio? Barack Obama is the current President, and while he didn’t institute these presidential luxuries, he certainly does have the power to terminate them. He complains incessantly about the agonies of tiny spending cuts, insisting that Americans must make do with less, while refusing to compromise on the lavish trappings of office. How about some cost-cutting leadership by example?
For her part, Bachmann has not handled the response to her CPAC speech well. Confronted about the “lifestyle of excess” part of her speech by Dana Bash of CNN, she insisted that her point was to criticize Obama over Benghazi, and refused to directly address the question Bash asked. This gave Anderson Cooper the room he needed for a long-winded ten-minute assault on Bachmann’s credibility, hammering her for “racing away” from her interviewer, above a graphic that confusingly declared “Michelle Bachmann Goes Rogue.” (What does “going rogue” have to do with refusing to answer a question?) You can watch the video and judge for yourself, but it looks to me like Bachmann was in a genuine hurry to get somewhere, and didn’t use the moment she took to speak with Bash wisely. “Don’t ask me about X, I really want to talk about Y” is not a very satisfying response, although Michele Bachmann is far from the only politician to use it.
This should serve as an example in the importance of pinpoint accuracy for Republicans operating in a hostile media environment, especially when aiming at a very large target such as Washington’s lavish spending. It’s not just the White House – lesser officials, and representatives of both parties in Congress, have enormous staffs and absurd expenses as well. (Remember when Senator Rand Paul trimmed down his office budget and refunded $600,000 to the Treasury last month? And $500k the year before that? Now that’s leadership by example.)
A great deal of this spending predates the current Administration and Congress. If Bachmann had inserted one more sentence in her speech – “These luxuries did not begin under President Obama, but he could end them” – she wouldn’t be taking all this grief. If she’d done enough research to knock out the line about the President dog walker, there wouldn’t be much for the “fact checkers” to do except grumble that maybe it’s a bit petty to complain about the size of the kitchen staff aboard Air Force One.
Republican politicians cannot afford to make a big deal about books they have not carefully vetted. Perfect accuracy in their criticisms is required, all claims must be documented, and they must be ready to stand up and directly engage response to their criticism. No, the other side doesn’t have to play by those rules. Does the GOP really need yet another lesson in how this works?