Bob Franken

Hearst-New York Times Column

^LEFT AND RIGHT FEET IN MOUTH@< ^(For use by New York Times News Service clients)@< ^By BOB FRANKEN@= ^C.2011 Hearst Newspapers@= WASHINGTON _ Let's set aside for the moment the argument over who is ``fair and balanced'' or whether that idea even suggests that the various sides in our public arguments should be granted automatic equivalency. Frankly, they often should not. But what they do deserve from those of us who aspire to journalism is fairness. Which brings us to the epidemic of foot and mouth disease. Many of us have been getting some gaffe laughs at the expense of Rep. Michele Bachmann for her various factual errors and exxagerations. But if she's going to get bruned by us, shouldn't we also hold Vice President Joe Biden's loose lips to the fire? After Bachmann's recent reference to the present dangers of the ``Soviet Union,'' I was one of those joining in the ridicule, saying that she didn't need the kind of ``gotcha'' questions that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich complained about in the last Republican debate, because she was ``a walking, talking gotcha answer.'' The point was that she has repeatedly made foolish verbal mistakes. But Biden has been doing that for decades. Those who keep track remind us that in August 1987, he was forced out of a presidential run when he was caught plagiarizing the words of a British Labor Party leader and inflating his law school standing. In that case, he claimed he had graduated in the top half of his class at the Syracuse University Law School, when he actually ranked 76th out of 85. 24 years later, he's still going strong. There he was last weekend in Chengdu, China, speaking to Sichuan University students during his official visit when he blurted out this intended criticism about that country's harshly enforced one-child-per-family rule. His point, as he put it, was ``you have no safety net. Your policy has been one which I fully understand, I'm not second guessing, of one child per family. The result being that you're in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people. Not sustainable.'' "Fully understand"? "I'm not second guessing"? This is a forced population control policy, he was talking about, one that the US State Department itself in 2010 called one of China's "principal human rights problems"

The opposition back home jumped all over Biden’s comment. Antiabortion leaders like Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., charged they serve to “enable dictatorship, to enable forced abortion and forced sterilization.” Mitt Romney weighed in: “There can be no defense of a government” that engages in such heavy handedness.

On the following Tuesday, the VP’s Press Secretary, Kendra Barkoff, clarified: “The Obama administration strongly opposes all aspects of China’s coercive birth limitation policies… and “the vice president believes such practices are repugnant.”

All well and good, but in the unforgiving world of politics, and more importantly, in foreign relations, one of the absolute rules is this: “If you have to explain what you said, you shouldn’t have said it.”

One can argue that Bachmann or Sarah Palin or even Rick Perry have an excuse when they trip over their tongues, which is that they are relative newbies who are flustered by the thuggishness on the campaign’s mean streets. What’s more important than their unintentional words are their intentional ones and what they say about their policies.

But when it’s the likes of a Joe Biden or a Newt Gingrich who have been misfiring rhetoric over decades of playing at this level, we need to make sure that when they let loose with their slipshod sound bites they get bitten even harder than the others. While inexperience is always a fair issue, not learning from experiences is even more valid.

The sad truth is everyone involved provides plenty of opportunity. Which probably explains the mess we’re in.

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