RNC ad about court debate does real harm

04/03/2012 12:00 AM

04/02/2012 8:19 PM

Just when you thought the venality of political advertising people could not get any deeper, along comes the Republican National Committee.

The RNC, determined to kill the health care law, posted online a mashup of the audio of the U.S. Supreme Court arguments of last week. The ad extracted a few seconds from the opening remarks of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, chopped up and spliced them, and presented its version as an authentic part of the court record.

Incredibly, the RNC’s communications director, Sean Spicer, not only admitted the piece’s falsity but seemed proud of totally distorting a document produced by the nation’s highest court.

As the offering of a national political party supposedly run by responsible adults and not a high school prank, it was far over any line of defensibility.

Any voter knows by now that accuracy and fairness are rarely watchwords of political campaigns. But this ad rewrites history by having Verrilli struggling for 20 seconds, twice stopping to sip water, stuttering and trailing off, unable to complete his thought.

The RNC pitch: “Obamacare. It’s a tough sell.”

Spicer happily admitted the piece was falsified: “Are there multiple clips in that video? Yes. The point was that he continually had to stop because he was having trouble making the case for why Obamacare was valid.”

Understandably Verrilli, the first attorney called to argue one of the court’s most historic cases, was nervous. Even the most accomplished attorneys, and Verrilli is one of them, will tell you it’s the toughest audience one can face, even for routine cases.

Those who listened to the court’s audio could not miss his once stopping to sip water and his hesitation of a few seconds as he began his first point, but he immediately stabilized and very much held his own through 90 minutes of tough questioning. The RNC’s counterfeit version of reality makes it seem far worse.

Bloomberg News reporters pointed out to Spicer that it was the first time Supreme Court audiotapes had been used in a campaign ad, and Spicer was even arrogantly proud of that, saying, “Is it novel? Are we ahead of the curve at the RNC? I hope so.”

It’s precisely the kind of nightmare scenario that for decades kept the Supreme Court from releasing even audio of its public sessions much less allowing live television coverage.

The justices have long argued that live broadcasts, which could educate people about the court, the law and democracy, would be risky because attorneys or even justices might occasionally misspeak or be tempted to play to the audience rather than focus on the serious business at hand.

The juvenile and unthinking action of Spicer and the RNC is a far worse offense against the court than a little lawyerly showboating, and it is also an offense against the American public.

It gives the justices a demonstrated reason, well beyond a vague fear, to deny broad public access to the court’s historic work.

You can bet on three things:

•  The RNC will “withdraw” and perhaps even disavow it, but it’s viral on the Web and thus its lie will live forever.
•  It will be a very long time before the court considers more transparency.
•  Even more Americans will give up on a sick political system.

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