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The Myth of Bob Casey's 1992 Non-Speech

By Brendan Nyhan

A New York Times story this morning headlined "Obama's View on Abortion May Divide Catholics" begins with this parable:

Sixteen years ago, the Democratic Party refused to allow Robert P. Casey Sr., then the governor of Pennsylvania, to speak at its national convention because his anti-abortion views, stemming from his Roman Catholic faith, clashed with the party's platform and powerful constituencies. Many Catholics, once a reliable Democratic voting bloc, never forgot what they considered a slight.

In fact, the campaign officials who made the decision said Casey was denied a speaking slot because he hadn't endorsed the Clinton-Gore ticket, as Michael Crowley reported in The New Republic:

According to those who actually doled out the 1992 convention speaking slots, Casey was denied a turn for one simple reason: his refusal to endorse the Clinton-Gore ticket. "It's [Casey's claim that he was denied a convention speech because of his pro-life views] just not factual!" stammers James Carville, apoplectic over Casey's claims. "You'd have to be idiotic to give a speaking role to a person who hadn't even endorsed you." "Why are you doing this to me?" moans Paul Begala, who, with Carville, managed two Casey campaigns before joining Clinton's team in 1992. "I love Bob Casey, but my understanding was that the dispute was not about his right-to-life views, it was about the Clinton-Gore ticket."

Media Matters further points out that anti-abortion speakers have repeatedly been given the opportunity to speak at Democratic conventions:

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Sens. John Breaux (D-LA) and Howell Heflin (D-AL), and five other governors who opposed abortion rights did address the convention in 1992, as detailed in a September 16, 1996, article in The New Republic on the Casey myth. In addition, anti-abortion speakers have spoken at every Democratic convention since 1992, including Breaux in 1996 and 2000, former House Democratic Whip David Bonior (D-MI) in 1996 and 2000, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in 2000 and 2004.

Unfortunately, the story reinforces an accurate narrative about the parties dividing more clearly on the abortion issue. As a result, it lives on as conventional wisdom more than fifteen years later.

Update: In its post on the controversy today, Media Matters unearths another salient fact: [T]he Times itself reported in an August 1, 1996, article that White House officials 'have always said that had [Casey] not declined to endorse Mr. [Bill] Clinton in 1992, he would have been allowed to speak to the convention.'"

Tom Maguire dissents, citing a 2005 post. I stand by what I wrote, but I do hope we can agree that the Times should have acknowledged that this claim is disputed.

Brendan blogs regularly at Brendan-Nyhan.com