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FRANKLY, RICH GETS IT RIGHT! As we often say around here, thank goodness for Frank Rich: // link // print // previous // next //

RUSSERT PLAYS ALTOONA: Let’s review the basic data about the big political stars of NBC News—Tim Russert (Meet the Press), Brian Williams (Nightly News) and Chris Matthews (cable ranting). The three were hired or anointed under the regime of conservative mogul Jack Welch; as chairman of General Electric, Welch was in charge of NBC News, and was heavily involved in its operation. Welch recruited the three, and made them multimillionaires; he even let Russert and Matthews live with him amid the swells of Nantucket. And oh yes: The three have been kicking the sh*t out of Dem White House hopefuls from that day right up to this.

For that reason, we were struck by part of Russert’s performance on yesterday’s Meet the Press. Too much! In political dictionaries, there should be a picture of this big tool right next to the word “chutzpah:”

RUSSERT (4/7/08): Governor Rendell, these were the headlines in the New York Daily News and across the country on Saturday. Here it is, the “109 Million-Dollar Couple: Bill and Hill make more than $15 million a year since leaving the White House.” Fifteen million dollars a year—$109 million in seven years. How is that going to play in Lancaster, Altoona, Erie, PA?

We suppose that question might make some sort of marginal sense—if Russert ever bothered to ask it about people like John McCain. On April 3, Sharon Theimer laid out the goods on McCain’s holdings in a lengthy AP report which will be widely ignored by the press corps. These goods are rarely discussed:

THEIMER (4/3/08): The McCains' marriage has mixed business and politics from the beginning, according to an expansive review by The Associated Press of thousands of pages of campaign, personal finance, real estate and property records nationwide. The paperwork chronicles the McCains' ascent from Arizona newlyweds to political power couple on the national stage.

As heiress to her father's stake in Hensley & Co. of Phoenix, Cindy McCain is an executive whose worth may exceed $100 million. Her beer earnings have afforded the GOP presidential nominee a wealthy lifestyle with a private jet and vacation homes at his disposal, and her connections helped him launch his political career even if the millions remain in her name alone.

Why, Theimer even used the term “prenuptial agreement!” The term was frequently used about girlie-man Kerry during Campaign 04. But according to Nexis, it has never been applied to McCain in the Washington Post, right up to this very day. Before that front-page hit-piece in February, it had been applied to McCain in the New York Times only once—in 1989.

At any rate, McCain is married to an heiress whose worth may exceed $100 million. How would that play in Altoona? We don’t have the slightest idea, and frankly, we don’t really care. But it’s amazing to see the way people like Russert pimped the Clintons’ wealth this weekend—as with Kerry and Edwards before them—having spent so many years failing to mention McCain’s. And having told us about the great man’s “rustic cabin” in Sedona, of course. (Click here for Jamison Foser’s report. For an extended tour of the rustic cabin, why not let HGTV show you around? Theimer says the property is worth almost $1.8 million. The McCains’ main residence, in Phoenix, is worth $4.6 million, she says.)

Some questions about the Clintons’ wealth may actually be relevant. But poor Russert! After Rendell described the large sums the Clintons had paid in taxes and charity, Russert returned to the troubling thought that had lodged itself way up in his keister:

RUSSERT: But the—the median income in Pennsylvania is $46,000 a year!

Plainly, Russert was deeply troubled by the optics of the Clintons’ vast wealth. Of course, the median income is even lower in Buffalo, the place Russert moved away from—except in his books—when he became so wealthy himself.

Russert went on to pound away at the source of the Clintons’ income. Some of those questions may even be semi-relevant—but as we watched Russert worrying hard about this deeply troubling matter, we couldn’t help recalling the source of his own gigantic income. So let’s repeat that story again, since the career liberal world never chooses to do so: Russert was made a multimillionaire by a conservative Republican defense contractor—by Jack Welch, the conservative Republican defense contractor who hand-picked him for his job.

(By the way: According to estimates by Howard Kurtz, Russert, Williams and Matthews have made close to $200 million between them since Bill Clinton left the White House. Estimated incomes: Williams, $10 million per year. Russert and Matthews, more than $5 million each. For Russert, that estimate appeared in 2004. By now, we’ll guess it’s low.)

As you may have noticed over the years, career liberals refuse to discuss the striking (and comical) facts we’ve listed above. Welch’s role in this matter ought to be chastening; meanwhile, the Nantucket part of the story is just good for a few solid laughs. We’ve said, for years, that folks in Altoona ought to be told about these matters; it would help them form their ideas (and reservations and concerns) about the people who hand them their “news.” But yesterday, Russert was clownishly pounding away, secure in the cocoon of silence career liberals help maintain around him.

Within the press corps, it’s Hard Pundit Law: Massive wealth only raises a question about the judgment of major Dems. Meanwhile, career liberal writers want in on the game—so they can do good for the country, of course—and seem to know the price of admission. That price of admission would seem to be silence. We’ll guess that price will still be paid—even after the silly clowning Russert displayed this week.

LESS IS MORE: According to the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, John Edwards’ net worth is around $30 million. According to the Associated Press, McCain’s net worth is probably more than $100 million. Frankly, we don’t care a great deal either way. But according to your best recollection, whose net worth have you heard discussed more? Indeed, have you ever heard big pundits discuss a certain saint’s net worth at all?

FRANKLY, RICH GETS IT RIGHT: As we frequently say around here, Thank goodness for the analytical skills of the New York Times’ incomparable Frank Rich! We’d drop what he said about “being ashamed;” otherwise, we agree with the start of his Sunday column. And yes, we think it does matter:

RICH (4/6/08): Really, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton should be ashamed of themselves for libeling John McCain. As a growing chorus reiterates, their refrains that Mr. McCain is “willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq” (as Mr. Obama said) or “willing to keep this war going for 100 years” (per Mrs. Clinton) are flat-out wrong.

What Mr. McCain actually said in a New Hampshire town-hall meeting was that he could imagine a 100-year-long American role in Iraq like our long-term presence in South Korea and Japan, where “Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.” See for yourself on YouTube.

On-line, Rich links to three parts of that “growing chorus”—to pieces by Factcheck.org, by the Washington Post, and by the Columbia Journalism Review.

We also agree with most of what Rich said after that, about McCain being, in essence, a Strangelove. We agree that McCain’s real views on Iraq should be as much a point of concern as the tortured statement about the hundred-year war which has been put in his mouth.

But beyond that, we think Rich omitted a key, basic point, a point all Dems should keep in mind. Here it is, and this really matters:

When you misstate about McCain, the mainstream press will fact-check you. You run the risk of making him into a martyr, as happened with Bush in 2004. During that campaign, Dan Rather made an egregious blunder about the Texas Air National Guard—and he got fact-checked hard. Bush was thereby turned into a victim, and the accurate parts of Rather’s story got lost. Similarly, when you make misstatements about McCain, you run the risk of creating a public discussion about your own misconduct, thereby distracting attention from the aspects of McCain’s views that really should be discussed.

This is all a way of noting our disagreement with someone we almost never disagree with—Jamison Foser, the utterly brilliant media head-banger over at Media Matters. (Also Boehlert.) We think Foser was basically wrong last week—he never is—when he defended those statements about McCain, saying they were basically accurate. For accuracy, here’s what he actually said on this point. Foser’s analytical frameworks are typically brilliant—but we don’t agree with him here:

FOSER (4/4/08): McCain's 100-years comment came as he avoided directly answering questions about how long he would be willing to continue fighting a war in Iraq in which American troops are being wounded and killed. Yes, Mr. Straight Talk was ducking the question. During the same event, McCain said "setting a date for withdrawal is a date for surrender, and we would then have many more casualties and many more Americans sacrificed if we withdraw with—with a setting a date for surrender." In effect, McCain is having it both ways—he refuses to set a date by which the United States will stop fighting in Iraq, but when critics accuse him of being willing to continue fighting in Iraq for 100 years, he and his campaign reject that. Well, which is it? If he refuses to set a date by which we will stop fighting, then it is fair to say he's willing to keep fighting for 100 years. And if he isn't willing to keep fighting for 100 years, then he doesn't really refuse to set a date by which we must stop fighting. But neither the Times nor the Post explore that tension in their articles about McCain's 100-years comments.

But that highlighted claim is extremely tortured. Like political candidates in a campaign, commanders-in-chief involved in military action rarely set specific dates after which they’ll stop fighting. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re “willing to keep fighting for 100 years;” did anyone say that about Candidate Kerry during Campaign 04, for example? If we head down this road in our public discourse, a great deal of mischief lies ahead. And, as we’ve often said: The mainstream press corps will be an upper-class institution for a long time to come. If we let them play by lax interpretive rules, those rules will be used against progressive interests (and Democratic candidates) much more often than not.

That said, let’s notice something Foser said which is right on target—and let’s use it to flesh out the basic point of the series we did last week. Foser said this early on in his piece. As usual, it’s a bulls-eye:

FOSER: [W]hat is most notable about the coverage of McCain's 100-years comments is that while news organizations like the Times and the Post have rushed to McCain's defense with reports pointing out what McCain didn't say, those reports have failed to explore what he does mean.

If you search the Nexis news database for mentions of McCain's 100-years comments in the Times and the Post, you'll get about three dozen hits, including the two articles explicitly rebutting criticism of McCain.

While several of those articles quote McCain staff members asserting that his comments have been distorted, not a single one gives any indication that either paper has asked McCain or his staff any questions that would clarify how long McCain is willing to continue fighting in Iraq.

Bingo! This is the point we were trying to make last week, although we did a semi-poor job of wrapping it up on Friday.

To wit:

In Ryan Lizza’s recent profile of life on McCain’s bus, he restated a pleasing old trope from Campaign 2000: The great McCain is so open and honest that reporters run out of questions to ask him. This pleasing point was frequently made during Campaign 2000. But as we noted eight years ago, there was little sign that those exhausted reporters ever got around to asking McCain serious questions about real things that actually matter—including the endless blunders, mistakes and misstatements he was making out on the trail. Instead, they asked him to name his favorite tree, and they thrilled to the tales of his stripper ex-girl friends. A similar process may be under way now, Lizza’s profile seemed to suggest:

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...provide comic relief and distraction when McCain becomes bored or wants to change the subject.

That’s precisely what Foser complained about. Concerning the New York Times and the Washington Post, we too find little indication “that either paper has asked McCain or his staff any questions that would clarify how long McCain is willing to continue fighting in Iraq.” It happened during Campaign 2000, and it seems to be happening now. For some strange reason, those exhausted reporters “run out of questions” with may key questions un-asked.

It’s the law! When you misstate about McCain, you’re going to find yourself fact-checked hard. (Yes, the rules were totally different when the misstatements concerned Al Gore. But these are the current rules of the game—and very few voters know much about this double standard, because liberal journals have constantly ducked the topic.) But as Rich notes, it’s pretty much open-and-shut: McCain didn’t say what the two Big Dems said. If we keep insisting he did, we’re going to get batted back. Hard.

THAT SAID: That said, progressives shouldn’t convince themselves that McCain’s position is worse than it actually is as a political matter. What would McCain say, on that bus, if he were asked how long he’d keep fighting? What follows is a short exchange from a recent Hannity & Colmes:

HANNITY (3/16/08): Last question. Back to Iraq for one second as the areas of agreement. As long as it takes to finish it? Because Hillary and Barack Obama have both attacked you on that.

MCCAIN: And could I just mention this “hundred year” thing? I love town hall meetings, and I'm going to continue them. That's the important way you learn from people as well as they learn from you. I was in exchange with a guy—look, that's American presence.

This war—this war will be won if we stay with it. And then, it's a question of American presence. We have troops in South Korea as a result of the Korean War. We have troops in Germany and Japan, etc., etc. So that's an agreement. We have troops in Kuwait as a result of the first Gulf War. But we will win this war. We will win it. We will succeed.

It’s easy to state McCain’s position. And at present, it isn’t obviously awful as a political matter. (It could get worse, of course, depending on trends on the ground.)

“This war will be won if we stay with it,” he said. After that, it’s a matter of maintaining an American presence, as in Germany or Japan. Could Iraq ever be like Germany? Surely not, progressives will say. But the presentation he made to Hannity isn’t hard to defend as a matter of politics, to voters who don’t share certain assumptions or predispositions. We liberals sometimes defeat ourselves when we assume that the things we believe will be blindingly obvious to others. Quite often, they aren’t. It’s self-defeating to convince ourselves otherwise—although, of course, it feels good.

Final point: Why didn’t Rich fact-check the endless misstatements about Gore? Uh-oh! Because, in several major instances, he had helped make them up.