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Politicians Aren’t the Only Ones Who Use Fuzzy Math; Journalists Like It Too

This week’s New Yorker features an interesting article by Hendrik Hertzberg about American presidential dynasties. He quotes an A.P. article by Nancy Benac which states that “[f]orty per cent of Americans have never lived when there wasn’t a Bush or a Clinton in the White House.”

Really? That’s amazing.

Hertzberg quotes Benac further in the next paragraph:

“Talk of Bush-Clinton fatigue is increasingly cropping up in the national political debate,” Benac goes on. “If Hillary Clinton were to be elected and reëlected, the nation could go twenty-eight years in a row with the same two families governing the country. Add the elder Bush’s terms as Vice-President, and that would be thirty-six years straight with a Bush or Clinton in the White House.”

While these statements pack a nice rhetorical punch, if you examine the initial claim — that 40 percent of Americans have never lived without a Clinton or Bush in the White House — against the U.S. census data by age group (click the top link to download an Excel spreadsheet of the data), the numbers don’t add up. Unless, that is, you’re already counting George Bush Sr.‘s eight years as vice president — which Benac freely admitted she was:

Already, for 116 million Americans, there has never been a time when there wasn’t a Bush or Clinton in the White House, either as president or vice president (emphasis added).

Hertzberg, apparently in order to make his point at the top of the piece, left out that crucial fact — i.e., that you need to include the elder Bush’s 8 years as vice president in order to reach the eye-catching 40 percent.

It looks like it isn’t just the candidates who tend to monkey with numbers to make a point; it’s the journalists too.