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
Our tale begins on November 13, when Begala posted a column on MSNBC.com 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
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 MediaNews.org 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 MSNBC.com 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