Withdrawal of Gregg creates Truth-O-Meter dilemma
When Sen. Judd Gregg withdrew from consideration for commerce secretary on Feb. 12, it created a predicament for us. Two days earlier, we had published a Truth-O-Meter ruling on Obama's claim that it was "unprecedented" to have three Cabinet secretaries from the opposite party of the president.
We originally ruled that statement True because presidential historians told us that Obama was right. No other president had more than two. (We really liked the item because we learned that Ike's Cabinet was nicknamed Nine Millionaires and a Plumber, which we decided would be a great name for a rock band.)
Despite Gregg's withdrawal, we've decided to keep our ruling True because of two key principles in our Truth-O-Meter jurisprudence: timing and wording. So here's a brief explanation of each:
• Timing. We pay a lot of attention to when someone makes a statement that we check. For example, when we checked spokesman Robert Gibbs' claim that the stimulus bill contained no earmarks, we examined versions of the bill that existed at the time he said it. We think this is the only fair way to make our rulings. We can't expect people to anticipate the future and make statements based on future circumstances. They can only speak to conditions as they exist at the time they make the claim.
Likewise, we don't change rulings if situations change after someone made the statement. The accuracy depends on the circumstances at the time they said it.
That's why, one year ago, we gave Obama a False when he said gas prices had never been higher. He was wrong on Feb. 10, 2008, because the inflation-adjusted peak for gasoline prices had been in 1981. Gas prices later went even higher than the 1981 peak, but we did not change the ruling on Obama's statement. He was wrong on the day he said it.
In the case of the Cabinet claim, Obama was right at the time he said it.
• Wording. When we are having difficulty making a ruling, we often invoke one of our mantras: "words matter." We pay a lot of attention to the specific words people use.
In this case, Obama said, "Putting three Republicans in my Cabinet . . . is unprecedented."
Here's the full quote, which came after he was asked in a news conference if the White House was abandoning its pledge of bipartisanship.
"You know, when I made a series of overtures to the Republicans — going over to meet with both Republican caucuses; you know, putting three Republicans in my Cabinet, something that is unprecedented; making sure that they were invited here to the White House to talk about the economic recovery plan — all those were not designed simply to get some short-term votes," Obama said. "They were designed to try to build up some trust over time. And I think that as I continue to make these overtures, over time hopefully that will be reciprocated."
So we were checking his claim that it was unprecedented to put three Republicans in his Cabinet. Given that he was making a reasonable assumption that Gregg would be confirmed, we checked that specific wording with historians and found it was true.
Indeed, if he again seeks a Republican for a Cabinet post and repeats the claim, it would still be true.
So that's our reasoning. We recognize that our readers may not necessarily agree with every Truth-O-Meter ruling we make, but we want you to know that we apply some consistent principles.