Cheney’s Cheap Debate Shot

Chatterbox agrees with the conventional wisdom that last night’s vice presidential debate (click here for a transcript) was civilized and showed off both candidates well. But the convivial atmosphere was pierced at one point by Dick Cheney, after moderator Bernard Shaw asked Cheney whether he’d noticed Lieberman changing his positions on certain issues since being chosen as running mate. (Although posed to both candidates, Shaw’s question was a little unfair because only Lieberman has been accused of changing his positions. There was no corresponding “get Cheney” question.)

Cheney responded first with a good-natured joke (“We’ve been trying very hard to keep this on a high plane”), then with a predictable (and fair) knock on Lieberman for softening his criticism of Hollywood since joining the Gore ticket. Then came the nasty part:

We were especially disturbed, Joe, at a recent fund-raiser you attended where there was a comedian who got up and criticized George Bush’s religion. And I know you’re not responsible for having uttered any words of criticism of his religion, but to some extent, my concern would be, frankly, that you haven’t been as consistent as you had been in the past, that a lot of your good friends like Bill Bennett and others of us who’d admired your firmness of purpose over the years have felt that you’re not quite the crusader for that cause that you once were.

Lieberman’s response was Pavlovian:

First, let me talk about that joke about religion, which I found very distasteful. And, believe me, if anybody has devoted his life to respecting the role of religion in American life and understands that Americans from the beginning of our history have turned to God for strength and purpose, it’s me. And any offense that was done, I apologize for. And I thought that humor was unacceptable.

Wow, viewers must have been thinking, that must’ve been some joke! In fact, it was a totally innocuous (and not particularly funny) joke uttered by former Seinfeld producer Larry David about which William Bennett has been making an unconvincing and obviously partisan fuss. Bennett repeated the joke in a Sept. 22 Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined, “I’m Disappointed, Joe.” As a public service, Chatterbox will reprint this portion of Bennett’s tirade:

Before Mr. Lieberman spoke, Larry David, who was executive producer of “Seinfeld,” gave a speech in which he derided Gov. Bush as a “smirking” lightweight who is “making it possible for a lot of idiots like myself to actually consider running for office.” Then Mr. David, who is Jewish, ridiculed the Texas governor’s faith. “Like Bush,” he said, “I too found Christ in my 40s. He came into my room one night, and I said: ‘What, no call? You just pop in?’”

This is the sort of joke Chatterbox can well imagine being uttered by a Unitarian minister (or even an Episcopalian one after downing a couple of sherries). Here is how Bennett responded:

This comment was not made in good fun; it was part of a cheap, derisive attack against George W. Bush. This kind of thing ought to be denounced, and I would have hoped that Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman, who have thrust their own faith forward and embraced a message of religious tolerance in their campaign, would have been among the first to do so. Instead, Mr. Lieberman was quoted as saying after the event that he thought Mr. David was “very funny.” (Yesterday, when pressed about it, Mr. Lieberman said the joke was “in bad taste” but “on the other hand, that’s freedom of expression.”)

Lieberman was obviously lying when he said, belatedly, that the joke offended him. However, Bennett and Cheney were also clearly lying when they characterized the joke as an attack on George W. Bush’s religion. They were also lying, Chatterbox suspects, when they claimed to be offended themselves. Free Larry David!