The Boston Phoenix January 4 - 11, 2001

[This Just In]


Jacoby, Begala, and Barnicle: together at last

by Dan Kennedy

Is Democratic warhorse Paul Begala really a liberal hatemonger? Or is Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby just the latest conservative critic to twist Begala's words out of context? This much is certain: Begala could have done a better job of writing, and Jacoby -- in his annual round-up of so-called liberal hate speech, published on December 28 -- could have done a better job of reading.

Our tale begins on November 13, when Begala posted a column on that closed with a response to fellow MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle. Earlier, Barnicle -- holding up a map that showed George W. Bush capturing virtually the entire South, Midwest, and Rocky Mountains, with Al Gore's support restricted to the two coasts -- had caricatured the election results as "family values versus a sense of entitlement."

After weirdly praising Barnicle as "one of the great voices of American commentary" (is this what you have to do to keep getting invites from Imus?), Begala wrote: "Yes, Barnicle is right when he notes that tens of millions of good people in Middle America voted Republican. But if you look closely at the map you see a more complex picture. You see the state where James Byrd was lynched -- dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart -- it's red. [On the map, Bush's states were marked in red and Gore's in blue.] You see the state where Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split-rail fence for the crime of being gay -- it's red. You see the state where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building and murdered scores of federal employees: red. The state where an Army private who was thought to be gay was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, and the state where neo-Nazi skinheads murdered two African Americans because of their skin color, and the state where Bob Jones University spews its anti-Catholic bigotry: they're all red too."

There's more, but hold on for a moment.

On November 17, Wall Street Journal columnist (and former George H.W. Bush speechwriter) Peggy Noonan quoted the Begala riff and called it "a remarkably hate-filled column." On November 22, Washington Post columnist (and Atlantic Monthly editor) Michael Kelly offered mega-dittos, writing, "Mr. Begala can be counted on to spelunk the lowest level of the sewer. But even for him, the passage above must stand as the ultimate smear."

Okay, now here's where the "more" comes in. Neither Noonan nor Kelly noted that Begala was responding to Barnicle's mild smear of Gore states. Worse (much worse, actually), neither of them acknowledged that Begala had followed up his outburst with this: "But that's not the whole story, either.... My point is that Middle America is a far more complicated place than even a gifted commentator like Mike Barnicle gives us credit for. It's not all just red and blue -- or black and white."

Considerably different, no? Indeed. And Begala's defenders were furious. New York Observer columnist Joe Conason sent an e-mail to Jim Romenesko's site on November 23 that blasted Kelly (Conason was apparently unaware of Noonan's column), calling his piece a "dishonest attack" that "lifts out of context and grossly distorts" Begala's meaning. On November 27, Begala himself responded with an piece titled HOW I WAS MUGGED BY THE ZEALOTS, saying, "Critics got my comments about Middle America completely and alarmingly wrong." Finally, on November 29, humorist/journalist Bob Somerby, impresario of the Daily Howler Web site and a college roommate of Gore's, banged out a piece basically endorsing Conason's criticisms, writing, "Perpetually-furious Michael Kelly was having his weekly meltdown."

Somerby's piece appeared nearly a month to the day before Jacoby dredged up Begala's poisonous paragraph one more time, commenting, "Ugly, nasty stuff." Like Noonan and Kelly before him, Jacoby neither noted that Begala was responding to Barnicle nor quoted Begala's "that's not the whole story" line, which -- at least to my eyes -- changes the meaning quite a bit.

Jacoby, though, refuses to back down, insisting that the offending passage isn't ameliorated in the least by what came before and after. "He's basically full of shit," Jacoby says of Begala's protests. "He makes it absolutely clear to anyone who reads his piece that he considers conservative voters to be the lowest of slime."

Well, I say that Begala handed his enemies a sword by writing such an over-the-top paragraph, but that Noonan, Kelly, and Jacoby took advantage by making his words look even worse than they actually were.

But you can decide for yourself. Begala's original column can be found at