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The myth of Robert Byrd and the USS Abraham Lincoln

By Brendan Nyhan
June 18, 2003

In what can only be described as a collective hallucination, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) has been described by a wide range of journalists and commentators as having criticized the cost of President Bush's speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier returning from the Middle East. The reality is that Byrd never mentioned the cost of the carrier event, at which Bush dramatically arrived on a Navy jet; the Democrats who most prominently raised those questions were Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Conyers (D-MI). But because of Byrd's well-known success at directing federal funds to his state, commentators simply attributed the statements of Waxman and Conyers to Byrd and then called Byrd a hypocrite. This absurd political myth is now being widely repeated as fact.

On May 7, Byrd denounced Bush's landing and speech on the Lincoln from the Senate floor, saying that Bush "exploit[ed] the trappings of war" and used the military "as stage props to embellish a presidential speech." Waxman requested that the General Accounting Office investigate the cost of the event, while Conyers issued a similar request to the Defense Department.

Amazingly, the media couldn't even manage to get the facts right that day. On MSNBC's "Buchanan & Press," co-host Pat Buchanan said, "Senator Robert Byrd is saying bah humbug to the president landing on that carrier. He wants to know how much it cost and he thinks it was just a stage and a prop for the president's speech."

As The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby pointed out, Time columnist Margaret Carlson then went even further the next day, attacking Byrd for alleged hypocrisy in a Diary column on Slate:

Bush could land on the carrier twice, and I wouldn't whine. Speaking of whining about that, isn't Sen. Robert Byrd himself the king of government spending and cost overruns? He's paved over West Virginia and gotten every federal building to move there. It's not for him to complain about the marginal cost of Bush going out to meet the carrier as opposed to waiting on shore.

On the 8th, radio host Rush Limbaugh also misrepresented Byrd's statement (Windows Media audio), saying "He's upset about the cost" of the carrier landing. Calling Byrd the "king of pork," Limbaugh proceeded to read a list of federally funded institutions, buildings and roads named after him in West Virginia.

The Augusta Chronicle of Georgia was the first newspaper to weigh in against Byrd on fictitious grounds in a May 9 editorial:

In what was the height of partisan hypocrisy, Byrd excoriated the nation's commander in chief for spending taxpayers' money to fly onto an aircraft carrier in a Viking jet to congratulate the troops and to declare an end to major fighting in the Iraqi war...
The West Virginian's not called "Mr. Pork" for nothing. He's used his powerful Senate posts over the decades to ladle more federal pork on his home state than any congressman in history.

At this point, the meme began to gather steam. On the May 10 edition of CNN's Capitol Gang, Carlson again attacked Byrd for hypocrisy, as Somerby noted:

[I]t sounded as if Bob Byrd wanted those troops to file a class action suit that they stayed at sea a day longer, which, in fact, they didn't. And by the way, Bob Byrd has brought every piece of political pork to West Virginia he can, so you know, the state is practically paved over with federal dollars...

The San Diego Union-Tribune joined the chorus on the 10th in a second editorial denouncing Byrd:

There is only one word to describe Sen. Robert Byrd's upbraiding of President Bush for his tailhook landing on the Abraham Lincoln: churlish. The West Virginia Democrat, famous for larding up bills with billions of dollars in dubious pork projects for his home state, objects to the cost of Bush's visit to the carrier, which was intended to pay tribute to America's military personnel for their swift victory in Iraq.

A third came on May 11 from the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, which claimed Byrd, Waxman and Conyers "criticize President Bush for having made a tailhook landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. That maneuver, they said, cost the taxpayers too much." It goes on to mock Byrd, writing "There are already so many highways, federal buildings, libraries and research centers named 'The Robert C. Byrd' whatever that no West Virginian ever has that name out of sight."

Syndicated columnist Mort Kondracke, the executive editor of the influential Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, then implied Byrd echoed the criticism of the event's costs in a May 12 column. "Questioning the propriety and cost of Bush's fly-in to celebrate the defeatof Saddam Hussein," he wrote, "Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., made the Democratic Party look petty and resentful of the victory itself."

The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina entered the fray on May 15 with yet another accusation of hypocrisy leveled without a single direct quote from Byrd, claiming his "complaints about the extravagance of President Bush's recent arrival on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln contrast poorly with the senior Senate Democrat's own record of federal spending."

By the 18th, Hartford Courant reporter Liz Halloran was repeating these claims as fact, citing "Byrd's criticism of Bush's aircraft carrier visit as an expensive campaign stunt" and describing criticism of his alleged hypocrisy.

From there, the myth was recycled into more complaints by syndicated pundits, as conservatives Cal Thomas and Ben Shapiro repeated the claims on May 22 and June 12, respectively.

This episode is a sad testament to the uncritical way the media repeats spin points that conform with conventional wisdom without questioning whether they are accurate. The victim, once again, is the truth.

Correction (6/19): The Augusta Chronicle of Georgia was previously incorrectly referred to as the Augusta Chronicle of Maine. Spinsanity regrets the error.

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