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Daily Howler: Reporters asked the darnedest questions on a great saint's famous bus
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INQUIRING MINDS WANTED TO KNOW! Reporters asked the darnedest questions on a great saint’s famous bus: // link // print // previous // next //

THE SCRIBE FROM VERSAILLES: We’ve often suggested that these life-forms aren’t human. And darn it! The thought came to mind again when we read the following part of Gail Collins’ new column. Simply put, these people can’t—or won’t—reason at all. The italics are by Collins:

COLLINS (4/3/08): The story that McCain said he was prepared to stay in Iraq for 100 years is on one level unfair, although this fall Democrats will be featuring it in commercials about every six seconds.

What he meant was that he's prepared to keep troops stationed in Iraq for 100 years as long as no one is ''injured or harmed or wounded or killed'' in the process.

Sorry, but that isn’t what McCain “meant.” That’s what he explicitly said. But again, you see how these life-forms function. When they loved him, they pandered and fawned, telling the world what a giant he was (see below). Now, some of them see that he’s really a Strangelove—and they react by refusing to tell the world the things he has actually said. Robinson did it—and Collins does too. (As above, they sometimes project the thing they themselves are now doing onto “Democrats-in-the-fall.”)

Guess what, liberals? The mainstream press is going to be an upper-class institution for a very long time. If you let them play by these rules, it will hurt the candidates you prefer time after time after time.

And yes, this is an artefact of life inside the palace. As she starts her latest can of blather, Collins adopts her standard tone—a tone that comes straight from Versailles:

COLLINS (4/3/08): The woes of the world have been so multitudinous lately that it's hard to give them all proper attention. You start fretting about the collapse of the housing market. Then you wander off into melting glaciers or large cranes collapsing at urban construction sites. And before you know it, the day is over.

Standard Collins. Don’t worry—if she had reported the liberation of Dachau, she would have found a way to drop a “tongue-in-cheek” framework around it.

It’s hard to give all the world’s woes full attention? How about trying just one?

Background: In some ways, Collins strikes us as the strangest bird in the current Big Pundit collection. Understandably, many readers hear “tone-of-Dowd” when they fight their way through her pieces. (It’s surely odd that the New York Times’ only female columnists adopt such similar, “who gives a sh*t” attitudes.) But Collins’ notion that humor helps the rubes choke down the news seems to have started in the Age Before Dowd, during her days at the Hartford Courant. We read some accounts of her theoretics last year. We’d guess they involve some projection.

Is Collins human? It’s hard to be certain. Today, she refuses to tell the simple truth about what Saint McCain actually said. Two cycles ago, she was making it up about somebody different, of course; she was making it up about Gore. As we’ve said before, this punishing account of the first Gore-Bradley debate is exceptionally hard to reconcile with the actual tape of what actually happened. Beyond that, we think the highlighted statement may be the most inhuman thing we’ve seen in ten years at this post:

COLLINS (10/29/99): Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat, and when he tries to look animated he practically crashes into the wallboard. On Wednesday he hijacked the auditorium early on, begging for a chance to do a pre-debate Q.-and-A. ("This person has a question! Do we have time for his question?") He tossed in a little Spanish and a long joke, and made endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience. ("How old is your child, Corey?” “Are you unionized, Earl?") At the end, he refused to be dragged offstage. ("Can I say one more word? I would like to stay!") He bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher for more homework. Mr. Bradley, lounging on his stool, arms folded across his chest, looked like the high school athlete watching the class nerd volunteer to stay and clap erasers.

“Corey” was New Hampshire resident Corey Martin—a young mother who had a sick child. Gore asked her how old her child was (five) and if the family had insurance (they did). To Collins—and to others in her sick cohort—this could, by the rules of game, mean only one unflattering thing. And it had to involve the vile Clinton.

(In fairness to Collins, a long string of her colleagues also mocked Gore as “Clintonesque” for daring to ask Corey Martin that question—for daring to ask a young woman about her sick child. You really see who the sick ones are when you fight through their palace-bred columns.)

If you watched the tape of that debate, you’d see how bogus that paragraph was. But every pundit was typing it up, and Collins—plagiarizing Jacob Weisberg rather openly with that crap about “Clintonesque mind-melds”—typed it up with the other dukes and the duchesses. This was the novel they were writing—and it’s how we got to Iraq.

And then, five days later, she took it all back! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/3/99, then answer our long-standing question. Are these life-forms actually human? Or are we just seeing the gruesome effects of life inside Versailles?

Special report: Ryan’s rerun!

BE SURE TO READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Lizza’s profile of life on the bus recalled life from eight years ago:

PART 1: Lizza profiled life on the bus. Amazingly little had changed. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/1/08.

PART 2: Journalists still “run out of questions” when they ride around on that bus. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/2/08.

In part 3, we get a look at the types of questions they ask:

PART 3—INQUIRING MINDS WANTED TO KNOW: We finally felt it was just a rerun when Lizza mentioned that “awkward silence.” Ryan Lizza had enjoyed the bracing experience of riding around on John McCain’s bus in the weeks before New Hampshire voted. And omigod! The great man took so many questions that he tamed the beasts of the field:

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...but talks until the room is filled with the awkward silence of journalists with no more questions.

When Lizza described that “awkward silence,” he called to mind a string of profiles from McCain’s bus-capades during Campaign 2000. Back then, many scribes marveled at the way McCain would dish so much straight talk that reporters would simply run out of questions. “You run out of questions to ask the guy. He's that available,” Frankln Foer once said.

As a general matter, this story element was repeatedly used to portray the great man’s stunning openness. But uh-oh! If you actually read the many profiles which emerged from the bus during Campaign 2000, you got to see the kinds of questions these ingenues were actually asking. Lizza hints at the problem in his New Yorker profile, in the February 25 issue (text below). But you couldn’t avoid it eight years back: To all appearances, McCain was taking endless questions from a group which was endlessly daft.

On February 14, 2000—Valentines Day!—Foer described the scene in a U. S. News piece. As Lizza would do eight years later, he gasped at the way McCain conducted his affairs right in the open, where the horde of journos—who sat at his feet—could hear, touch, see, smell, feel them:

FOER (2/14/00): This is the stuff journalists are not supposed to see—a strategy session on abortion, the mocking of opposing campaign staffs, the candidate stuffing Krispy Kremes into his mouth. But it's happening in plain sight, on John McCain's bus—the Straight Talk Express—as it barrels across the bogs of South Carolina. With reporters sitting cross-legged at his feet, the candidate returns a call from [RNC chairman] Jim Nicholson.

Foer discussed that profile on Washington Journal; on that program, he mentioned the way “you run out of questions.” Unfortunately, he had already given U.S. News readers a glimpse of the types of questions the journalists seemed to be running out of. Here was his published accont of the topics which were being discussed on the bus:

FOER: He's a man who no compunction about revealing himself—all of himself. On recent bus trips, he has admitted to owning a pellet gun from East Germany, hating his pet chicken, and taking melatonin to fall asleep...And when reporters run out of questions, he jokingly goads them: "Come on. One of you lowlifes must have a question for me. What's going on in the world?”

In this passage, Foer marveled at the way reporters ran out of questions—after he described McCain talking about pellet guns and pet chickens. It wasn’t clear that reporters had actually asked McCain about these topics. But uh-oh! Months earlier, Richard Cohen had described reporters grilling McCain—and fatuous topics ran wild:

COHEN (11/16/99): The hero still does things his own way... Reporters sit with him in the back of his campaign bus and ask him anything they want. We talked about the Vietnam War and Kosovo, Chechnya and gun control, abortion, homosexuality, campaign finance, Marlon Brando movies, great books, flying off a carrier, reciting exciting movie plots to his fellow POWs, going over the wall at the Naval Academy lo those many years ago, and that dish from Rio, the fashion model he had such a crush on. For a while he wanted to find her but then someone told him, no—it's best to remember her as she was.

In Cohen’s telling, some serious topics had been discussed—but the list of trivial topics dragged on. They’d been allowed to “ask him anything they wanted”—but Cohen’s record of the conversation turned to Marlon Brando movies, and to that dish from Rio. For now, we’ll postpone the tales of the stripper ex-girl friends and fashion models, the tales that seemed to make every profile. We’ll only note that William Greider, in Rolling Stone, recorded similar fare—and he seemed to dump responsibility right on his fellow reporters:

GREIDER (12/99): Back on the bus, en route to Laconia, [N.H.], the reporters divert him with a series of fanzine questions. What are you reading, Senator? "John Updike's Best American Short Stories of the Century." What was your favorite book as a child? "King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table." Favorite living hero? "Ted Williams: best pilot, best baseball player, best fisherman."

Greider seemed to describe the reporters as “fans.” But then, Cohen had gone out of his way to call McCain a “hero.”

Readers will think we’re cherry-picking accounts of a generally high-minded process. But in fact, a long string of profiles from Campaign 2000 recorded the pointless questions which seemed to predominate on McCain’s bus. In late December, Jill Lawrence profiled McCain for USA Today. Had she ridden when Greider was there? Or were these topics standard fare? Either way, she took the portrait of the questioning a bit further:

LAWRENCE (12/28/99): As his bus drove through the White Mountains one bright day, McCain unwound in his signature way: by fielding a barrage of questions.

Recent reading? The First World War by John Keegan and
The Best Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike.
Childhood favorite? Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. He read it when he was 13.

Favorite word? Principle. Living hero? Legendary Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams. Why? He gave up baseball for five seasons while he was in the military; he was the best bone fisherman, best pilot, best baseball player. And he set a gunnery hits record.

Dead hero? Lincoln...

They just couldn’t stump this guy—even when they asked him to reveal his “favorite word!”

As noted, Lizza’s profile seems to hint that this chatter is currently present—but let’s attempt to complete the record from Campaign 2000. The day before New Hampshire voted, David Von Drehle profiled the bus in the Washington Post. By now, you can see that many elements of his profile were Quite Thoroughly Standard. In Von Drehle’s account, McCain starts out discussing policy. But it’s “straight” downhill from there:

VON DREHLE (1/31/00): [F]rom early morning until late at night, McCain rolls around New Hampshire in a luxury bus he calls the "Straight Talk Express." He sits on a little couch surrounded by reporters in every seat, on the windowsills, perched on tiny tables. And he talks. And talks. And talks.

McCain talks about tax policy, about doughnuts, about the night he and his wife slept in the secret villa that once belonged to North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. ("It just shows, if you live long enough...")

He talks about high school, about his wife's old boyfriends, about popular and higher-brow culture. He quotes from his favorite movie, "Viva Zapata," and from the cartoon series "Ren and Stimpy," and from his favorite book, "For Whom the Bell Tolls." He talks about his love for Hemingway—everything except "The Old Man and the Sea," a book that left him thinking: "Just catch the damn fish and kill the damn thing!"

Every word is on the record, from the story about seeing Donald Trump making out with his girlfriend in the Metropolitan Opera House lobby, to the story about the "pathetic" members of Congress who show up hours before the State of the Union address to get a seat on the aisle "so they can be on television for a split second."

Every word was on the record! Even the part about Donald Trump making out with his girl friend!

It was hard to miss the rolling inanity captured by these profiles. And, even as reporters kept saying that McCain would talk till they ran out of questions, a wide range of questions never seemed to get asked aboard that famous bus. During this period, McCain was openly lying about both Bush and Gore, and later about his own campaign practices—but reporters somehow never seemed to question such things. Beyond that, his policy blunders were virtually endless, as became clear if you read all the profiles—but reporters failed to put them together. And wouldn’t you know it? It seems that a childish group dynamic had been developing on the bus. Late in the game, Dana Milbank, on Reliable Sources, constructively blabbed about this:

MILBANK (2/19/00): It will probably be a nice thing if we could be looking at the issues now. I spent a week on McCain's bus up until earlier this week, and the reporter—I think it was from USA Today—actually apologized before asking a policy question, apologized to the other reporters. Everybody groaned, you know, in an exaggerated sense.

Kill the pig! At any rate, the Chicago Tribune’s Jim Warren was on this same program. He’d seen the peer pressure too:

WARREN: Dana, if you want to see people groan, you should see them in back of the McCain bus when I start engaging him on the subject of U.S. policy toward Rwanda.

U.S. policy toward Rwanda was for squares!

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the sorts of topics these inquiring minds seemed to love. But part of Lizza’s recent piece brought these telling old profiles to mind. Don’t you get a whiff of rerun when you read this passage from his profile? Here’s a quick hint about life on the bus in New Hampshire, just this year:

LIZZA (2/25/08): 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! Stretches of banter were long, Lizza said—and policy discussions were short! Conversations weren’t always about substantive issues, a rising star diplomatically said.

TOMORROW—PART 4: The allure of the broken screen door.