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Inferences Left Hanging

We know who Rich Cowan is; Michael Baumgartner, not so much

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We know Rich Cowan: He is modest, maybe to a fault. He is understated, preferring conversation to argumentation, compromise to rigidity, practicality to ideology. He knows his way around small businesses. He has clear ideas about infrastructure needs. He has actually produced jobs, not merely talked about it. Moreover, his films have attracted visitors and brought attention to Spokane and the region. Cowan is a "what you see is what you get" kind of guy — everything that his opponent, incumbent 6th District Senator Michael Baumgartner, is not.

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Baumgartner's résumé, as seen on his campaign website, begins, as do most, with his high school accolades, then WSU, and then he's off to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where in 2002 he earns an MPA. So far, OK. I'm very interested in the period from 2002 through 2008, if only because Baumgartner makes so much of his accomplishments during this time.

We learn that he "worked" in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Venezuela and Afghanistan. He did everything, but all unspecified — telecommunications, there was a gold mine operation, an economics officer in the State Department, counter-narcotics, economic development.

The "who" he worked for is even more impressive, depending on your point of view. He tells us he "worked" at the office of the Dubai Crown Prince, the "Civilian Police International," and the State Department as a "consultant" teaching troops about economic development "before deployment."

On his résumé, you find that word "worked' six times and the words "consultant" and or "advise" four times. But without more detail, these are merely bloat words — no mention of assignments, no mention of organization, nothing specific, just vague words that convey that he was "doing important stuff for very important people." These are words intended as inferences, hanging inferences, which I define as inferences that beg to be qualified but aren't.

My personal all-time favorite "hanging inference" comes from Richard Nixon's famous "Checkers Speech." I refer to Dick's war experience line: "Let me say that my record was not that unusual... I went to the South Pacific. I guess I'm entitled to a couple of battle stars. But I was just there when the bombs were falling." The hanging inference: "I'm a modest war hero." The truth? The nearest Nixon got to any bomb falling was about 500 miles.

Baumgartner cites authority to embellish his hanging inferences. Example: Boston Globe writer Kevin Cullen referred to him as Iraq's "architect of hope." The hanging inference: "Wow, I've discovered Michael Baumgartner, who just could be the second coming of George Kennan." But then you find out that Cullen drew this conclusion after a single chance encounter at Harvard and later some phone calls. Hardly an informed opinion.

Fast forward to Baumgartner's first term in the Senate: Now the hanging inferences really begin to pile up. Take government reorganization, for example. There he is on his campaign video, picturing himself with Governor Christine Gregoire at her signing of SB 5931. His campaign line reads: "Governor Christine Gregoire called Michael's reform bill the most significant transformation of state government in 20 years." And, yes, he was a co-sponsor. The hanging inference — that he deserves all the credit — makes about as much sense as calling the 1964 Civil Rights Act the Dirksen-Mansfield Act. (Ev and Mike were the co-sponsors of the bill in the Senate.)

Here are the facts: In 2010, Gov. Gregoire, then very concerned about the state's budget, began to explore cost savings reorganization options. In July of that year, working with the Washington Center for Government Reform, she created what she called "The Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Panel." She then took the ideas produced by this panel and in late October formed the "Governor's Budget Transformation Committee." The recommendations this committee produced became the basis of SB 5931, which Baumgartner did help to push through but he now reduces to a self-important photo op. At least when Nixon said "I was... there when the bombs were falling," he added the word "just" after "I was." Not so with Baumgartner, who mentions Gov. Gregoire, only to leave us with the hanging inference that even she gives him all the credit for "Michael's Bill."

Baumgartner's medical school hanging inferences are his most blatant. How about: "I brought a new medical school to Spokane." Wow! This must be news to the small army of civic and academic leaders who have been on this "research university for Spokane" quest for decades now, from way before the time he was working for the Crown Prince of wherever that was. More recently, that group has refocused its efforts on a medical school.

What emerges from all this — his résumé, legislative record, campaign and selected kudos? Whatever the label one wants to put on it, Baumgartner has taken the hanging inference to new levels of self-serving half-truth, leaving us with the question: Will the real Michael Baumgartner please stand up? ♦