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Daily Howler: Journalists run out of questions for Saint McCain! It helped make Lizza's profile a rerun
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STILL SPEECHLESS AFTER ALL THESE YEARS! Journalists run out of questions for Saint McCain! It helped make Lizza's profile a rerun: // link // print // previous // next //

THE AGE OF THE NOVEL: A golden age of novelization began in 1992. In today’s Post, Michael Gerson begins his column with one of this era’s earliest tales. Please enjoy the “dramatic moment” as we get to hear, once again, the dramatic tale in which the vile, imperious Bill Clinton “humiliates” a great good man:

GERSON (4/2/08): Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr.’s endorsement of Barack Obama last week...recalled another dramatic moment in Democratic politics. In the summer of 1992, as Bill Clinton solidified his control over the Democratic Party, Robert P. Casey, Sr., the senator's father, was banned from speaking to the Democratic convention for the heresy of being pro-life.

The elder Casey (now deceased) was then the governor of Pennsylvania—one of the most prominent elected Democrats in the country. He was an economic progressive in the Roosevelt tradition. But his Irish Catholic conscience led him to oppose abortion. So the Clintons chose to humiliate him. It was a sign and a warning of much mean-spirited pettiness to come.

Splendid enjoyment! As sad little Gerson weeps and shivers, we get to enjoy the drama again, complete with the requisite character profiles. As always, the petty, mean-spirited Clinton was “solidifying his control” on something or other. And Casey, a man of wonderful conscience, was humiliated—for being pro-life. Gerson returns to this stirring “humiliation” in his closing paragraph.

For weak-minded fellows of Gerson’s class, this is one of the most pleasing stories of this sixteen-year, novelized age. And of course, here—as in all their dramas—the Gersons omit elementary facts to make their stirring tales parse. They leave out the facts which weaken the drama; in this case, Gerson forgets to say that Casey was refusing to endorse Clinton, his party’s presidential nominee. For a short version of this matter, see this post by Media Matters. Here’s a chunk of a longer take, offered in 1996, by Michael Crowley, in the New Republic (not available on-line):

CROWLEY (9/23/96): Since leaving office in 1995, Casey himself has rehearsed the tale ad nauseam. "The raging national debate about tolerance on the issue of abortion was ignited," Casey wrote in the August 23 Wall Street Journal, when "the party denied me ... the right to speak because I am pro-life and planned to say so from the convention podium."...

But the story is not so simple. 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 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."


Indeed, the more one examines the version offered by the Democratic hacks [sic], the more compelling it seems. Casey's claims to a speaking slot were tenuous from the outset. He was about to retire from politics, and convention speeches are usually allotted to those running for re-election. "It wasn't like he was going to be on there and they said, Well, you're off now,' or something," Carville says. Besides, Casey repeatedly bashed Clinton during the primaries, calling Clinton's success "very tragic." Less than three months before the '92 convention, he urged, "Convention rules provide for the selection of an alternative candidate. Let's pick a winner." Why would Clinton invite him to speak?

Since we’re discussing the age of the novel, Crowley’s key statement here is the following: “But the story is not so simple.” Such statements can’t be allowed to stand in this heavily novelized era. As E. R. Shipp explained in March 2000: Elementary facts will be changed or discarded to make the press corps’ narratives function. Weeping babies—fools like Gerson—are thus allowed to “have their way” with the facts, producing the type of child-like tales their fatuous cohort adores.

And these tales typically tilt one way. Last Friday, Gene Robinson enlivened his own Post column with another smoothly-polished character tale from the start of this era. What follows is pure political porn, from the age of the adult novel:

ROBINSON (3/28/08): Hillary Clinton is a brilliant woman whose many exemplary qualities are obscured by a campaign that fights as if it couldn't care less about collateral damage it might inflict—on the Democratic Party or on the front-runner for the nomination.

That was always Bill Clinton’s political method: Do what you have to do; apologize later, if necessary. You can't save the world unless you get elected, and to get elected you have to be what the people want.

So familiar—so perfectly memorized! Of course, Bill Clinton only “got elected” two times, in 1992 and 1996. Did he “do what he had to do, apologizing later, if necessary” in these elections? We’re not sure what Robinson means. In 1992, Clinton won the Democratic nomination from Tsongas/Kerrey/Brown. In order to pretend that he did something wrong, you have to pretend he was unfair to Tsongas, as Chris Matthews, one of Robinson’s handlers, did on Hardball not long ago (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/21/08). The case is laughably weak, of course, but it’s part of the novel which rules these weak minds—and no one has even really imagined a tale in which Clinton “did what he had to do, apologizing later” to Bush, Perot or Dole, his general election opponents. (Indeed, it was Bush who apologized later, for the romp through Clinton’s private passport papers. It was Bush’s man who apologized later, as he neared death, for siccing Willie Horton on Dukakis.) But so what? In this addled age of the novel, people like Robinson simply recite their memorized, group-approved character homilies. And Democrats are still imperiled by their lingering power. This morning, Gerson moves ahead from his tears about Casey to trash the vile Obama. How dare he use the word “punished!”

We’ll note two things about this age, and about its leading purveyors:

First: Gerson was the top speech-writer for the man who took us into Iraq. Before that, Robinson worked quite hard, as “Outlook” editor, to craft ugly novels about Candidate Gore. These are the people whose bad judgment changed the world’s history—put us in the mess we’re now in. And as a result, of course, they have been given the keys to the kingdom! They now appear on the Post’s op-ed page, where they keep driving their novels.

Second: During this age, novels were also written about major Republicans—and these novels often stressed their high moral character. Such novels were endlessly written about McCain, who is now polling ahead of Obama. Our question: During these years, how hard did you see your liberal/progressive journals fight against these novelizations? How hard did they fight against the demonization of the Clintons and Gore? Against the sanctification of McCain? How often did they name the names of the media stars who kept pimping these novels?

Since the answer is fairly obvious, we’ll ask you why they fought so little. And we’ll ask you one last question: Did you happen to catch Salon’s Joan Walsh on MSNBC last night? Did you wonder if Salon will ever challenge the loathsome conduct of that net’s biggest stars? Did you wonder if your “liberal journals” will ever stand and fight such mainstream entities—in a world where they gain so much from their perpetual silence?

Saint McCain is a very good man! The Clintons—and Gore—are really quite vile! Since the summer of 2002, we’ve explicitly asked them to fight these novels. But nothing on earth can make them do it. Simply put, they never will.

Special report: Ryan’s rerun!

PART 2—STILL SPEECHLESS AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: Hay-yo! Ryan Lizza, “a rising star in our business,” was riding around on John McCain’s bus up in New Hampshire a few months ago. (You know? The bus whose “name” they rush to mention?) We realized that nothing had changed in the past eight years when he crayoned a hoary old chestnut:

LIZZA (2/25/08): It is bracing to drop in on the McCain campaign after covering the overly managed productions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The Democratic candidates rarely speak to the traveling press. McCain not only packs his bus with reporters (whom he often greets with an affectionate “Hello, jerks!”) but talks until the room is filled with the awkward silence of journalists with no more questions.

It’s soooo much better to ride with McCain! Instead of with those stage-managed Dems! Of course, there’s at least one obvious reason why McCain can gab so freely on his bus. And we’ll guess that Lizza may know it.

Why can John McCain gab so freely as he rides around on his bus? Let’s go back to Campaign 2000, when this glorious joy-ride began; let’s recall what made it so easy for McCain to blab back then. Perhaps in the grip of the “Stockholm Syndrome” which Joe Klein attributed to McCain’s press corps, Nancy Gibbs blurted an embarrassing truth, right in the pages of Time:

GIBBS (12/13/99): There is no entourage, no bubble of staff members around him...And then there are the stories he tells—to which, if there's a pattern, it's to exalt other people and deflate himself. A presidential candidate is not supposed to talk at length and on the record about the rules he broke or the strippers he dated, or the time he arrived so drunk that he fell through the screen door of the young lady he was wooing. The candor tells you more than the content, and reporters sometimes just decide to take him off the record because they don't want to see him flame out and burn up a great story.

We’ll hold McCain’s stripper-dating tales until a later point in the week. But why could McCain blather freely back then, as he rambled about on his bus? Oh! According to Time’s top political writer, the boys and girls who were munching his donuts had cooked up a strange bit of journo group culture. When McCain engaged in too much “candor,” they would “sometimes just decide to take him off the record because they didn't want to see him flame out and burn up a great story!” Let’s translate that into simpler language: At the same time these inane gorillas were inventing wild statements and pretending Gore said them, they were providing an opposite service for McCain, the virile scourge of the broken screen door. Here goes: If McCain said stupid things, they would agree not to tell you about them! For the record, Gibbs and Dickerson weren’t alone in copping to this remarkable conduct; many pundits copped to this tale. For example, two days after the Gibbs piece hit the stands, Howard Kurtz quoted Jacob Weisberg:

KURTZ (12/8/99): "At one level, the press protects him," says Jacob Weisberg, political writer for Slate magazine. "He delivers these stupid lines all the time. The typical response from journalists is either not to report it or to congratulate him for being so blunt...

The typical response is not to report it! Indeed, if you read back through the real-time posts we did about life on the bus during Campaign 2000, you’ll see that this appalling press conduct worked quite well for McCain—until (in one example) a substitute New York Times scribe reported a few of his “candid” remarks, and the solon was forced to deal with public reaction to his wonderful “candor.” (To his use of the word “gooks,” for example—but that’s not the only example.) At any rate, it isn’t hard to drop all the stage-managed stuff if you know that the “journalists” you’re stuffing with donuts won’t report the unfortunate things you might say. From that day to this, rising stars have pretended they don’t understand this transaction—even though it blew up in the press corps’ faces several times during Campaign 2000. (To see Mara Liasson defend this general approach, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/15/99.)

Why didn’t Gore freewheel like McCain? (By extension, why don’t Clinton and Obama?) Could it be because of this: When Gore made a passing remark about Love Story—a passing remark which was perfectly accurate—the slobbering goons for whom Lizza covers turned it into a three-year “scandal?” Surely, every scribe understands these dynamics (for historical context, see links below). They just don’t want you understanding them.

At any rate, Gibbs and Dickerson were riding around, “taking McCain off the record” when he displayed too much “candor.” And other courtesies were extended to this greatest of known living men. During that same month, for example, McCain unveiled his comically bollixed “health plan;” he had to withdraw it the very next day, so ineptly had it been drawn (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/06). But so what? Everyone knew to downplay the embarrassment—and the bus-capade joy-ride continued apace. McCain gave them their donuts and said they were smart—and they kept explaining how wondrous he was. More than anything, of course, he was a straight-talker—except when he made such straight remarks that they knew they mustn’t report them.

This is the way these goons behaved—while their colleagues invented a string of bogus tales about the vile candidate Gore.

But none of that is what we noticed in the passage we quoted from Lizza. Let’s sift through that passage again, and remind ourselves that this is a rerun. In eight years, very little has changed:

LIZZA: It is bracing to drop in on the McCain campaign after covering the overly managed productions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The Democratic candidates rarely speak to the traveling press. McCain not only packs his bus with reporters (whom he often greets with an affectionate “Hello, jerks!”) but talks until the room is filled with the awkward silence of journalists with no more questions.

What a man! McCain keeps talking and talking “until the room is filled with the awkward silence of journalists with no more questions.” This made a great narrative eight years ago, and Lizza chose to recycle the story element, giving his piece the feel of a rerun. So you’ll know, here’s Howard Kurtz, in the Washington Post, reporting this same wonder—eight years ago:

KURTZ (2/14/00): [T]he traveling caravan more often resembles an endurance contest. Last Wednesday, as the bus rolled from Charleston [S.C.] to Columbia to Greenville, as the note pads and tapes filled up with candidate verbiage, the reporters, for the moment, had run out of questions.

Wow! And a week before that, Franklin Foer had marveled about this same phenomenon, on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal:

FOER (2/6/00): The McCain bus is kind of—you have this amazing amount of access to the candidate when you're riding across New Hampshire or South Carolina with him, and in fact it sometimes is too much access. You're sitting with him for hours on end and you run out of questions to ask the guy. He's that available.

Foer had to spoil things a bit, going farther. “And the other component of it is he's just incredibly funny,” the goggle-eyed youngster confessed. “And I think that explains to a certain extent why the media has such incredible fondness for the guy.”

Recover from your embarrassment so we can explore what this seems to mean:

It seemed like a rerun when we read it: Now, as then, the journalists simply run out of questions, McCain is willing to answer so many. This is odd in one way, of course; when you think of all the obvious things you’ve never seen this candidate forced to discuss, you might be surprised to read this from Lizza. But uh-oh! Lizza gives a hint of a deeper, more comic reality in the following passage, which is also familiar. Minor point, thrown in for comic relief: Note the way the rising star now uses the McCain bus’s nick-name!

LIZZA: Conversations on the Straight Talk are not always about McCain’s views on Iraq or tax reform or, really, substantive issues of any kind. Rather, the scene consists of long stretches of banter punctuated by short, intense discussions of politics and policy. A rotating cast of characters—the loyalists who have stuck with him, some without pay—provide comic relief and distraction when McCain becomes bored or wants to change the subject.

Huh! Most of the time, the scribes aren’t asking real questions at all! Instead, they engage in “long stretches of banter!” Do the journalists “run out of questions?” You can’t know how foolish this whole construct is until you go back to the 2000 profiles and see the types of ludicrous questions these nincompoops actually ask.

McCain is willing to be fully candid—when asked to name his favorite tree! No, we really aren’t making that up—and yes, the questioning gets more insipid! Do these journalists “run out of questions,” so willing is McCain to speak? When you see the questions they actually ask, you’ll find this fact much less impressive.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: The pattern seemed to be there 48 years ago, in Teddy White’s The Making of the President 1960. The favored candidate can yak with the press all he likes; the disfavored candidate has to keep quiet (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/14/03). Nixon understood it—and so did Gore. Everyone understands it, in fact—except the press corps’ readers.

We strongly recommend this post, about two famously close elections. You see strikingly similar patterns of conduct, separated by forty years. One thing has changed in those forty years, though—the direction of the corps’ bias.