"Every word in the ad is false and dishonest."
That's the line this morning from White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, one voice in a chorus of Republicans taking offense at a new TV spot from NARAL Pro-Choice America that links John Roberts to the violent acts of antiabortion extremists.
Could the White House be right? Not exactly. There are plenty of words in the ad that are neither false nor dishonest. The ad says that there was a bombing at a women's health clinic in Birmingham, Ala., in 1998. That's true. The ad says that a nurse named Emily Jones was nearly killed in the blast. That's true, too. The ad says that Roberts filed Supreme Court briefs "supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber." That's pretty much true, too.
As deputy solicitor general under the first President Bush, Roberts filed a brief and made oral arguments in Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic, a case in which the Supreme Court considered whether pro-choice groups and abortion providers could use an 1871 civil rights law to stop antiabortion protesters from blocking abortion clinics. Although the United States was not a party in the case, Roberts filed a "friend of the court" brief in which he argued that the law was not applicable in the context of antiabortion activities. In doing so, he took the side of Operation Rescue and Michael Bray, an antiabortion zealot who spent time in prison for his role in a string of abortion clinic bombings in the 1980s.
If NARAL had stopped its ad there -- if it had said, "John Roberts didn't have to get involved in this dispute, but he did, and he took the side of violent men like Michael Bray" -- the Republicans still would have howled, but they wouldn't have had much justification. Such an attack by NARAL wouldn't have been nearly as odious as some of the president's party's guilt-by-association smears over the years. In 2002, the Republicans defeated Georgia Sen. Max Cleland with a TV spot that suggested that Cleland, a man who lost both his legs and one of his arms in Vietnam, was somehow aligned with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But the key to success with such a sleazy tactic -- the thing the Republicans understand -- is that you've got to rely on innuendo rather than on an explicit statement of fact. The anti-Cleland ad didn't say that Cleland was aligned with Hussein or bin Laden, exactly; it just threw up pictures of the three men and then relied on viewers to draw that inescapable connection for themselves. Intellectually dishonest? You bet, but it's hard for anyone to say that you've got your facts wrong.
In the final line of its new ad, NARAL denies itself that plausible deniability. NARAL's ad says that America "can't afford a justice whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against other Americans." The problem? While Roberts did in fact come to the aid of Operation Rescue and Bray, he has also made it clear that he doesn't excuse the violence. That may be a fine distinction, but it's one that has forced NARAL to backpedal. In a statement on the group's Web site, NARAL President Nancy Keenan says: "I want to be very clear that we are not suggesting Mr. Roberts condones or supports clinic violence. Im sure he finds bombings and murder abhorrent. But still, his ideological view of the law compelled him to go out of his way to argue on behalf of someone like Michael Bray, who had already been convicted of a string of bombings."
We're all for fighting fire with fire. But NARAL could have hit Roberts just as hard without suggesting so explicitly that he excused antiabortion violence, and it wouldn't have anything to "but still" about today.