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Daily Howler: Why did Matthews ask dumb questions? Bored silly, Broder explains it
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MAY NOD OFF AGAIN! Why did Matthews ask dumb questions? Bored silly, Broder explains it: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 11, 2007

SEE DUB SPIN: It was a typical shaky decision to have Bob Woodward review Tenet’s book. After all, there’s a giant conflict involved here. The most ballyhooed passage from Woodward’s Plan of Attack was the famous “slam dunk” scene, where Tenet persuades a high-minded Bush that Saddam really does have WMD. (In Woodward’s account, Bush wisely tells Tenet, “several times,” not to stretch any intelligence. This is all happening four months after Bush and Cheney started stretching the intelligence.) But uh-oh! When Tenet’s book appeared last month, the instant talking-point was his claim that this anecdote unfairly made him the scapegoat—that Woodward had gotten it wrong.

Predictably, Woodward spins and spindles Tenet, criticizing his take on this matter. But Woodward’s review does include a fascinating new statement:
WOODWARD (5/6/07): Tenet incorrectly suggests that I had one source for this report. There were at least four firsthand sources. When I interviewed President Bush in December 2003, he quoted the "slam dunk" phrase four times, and then in a fifth citation the president said, "And Tenet said, 'Don't worry, it's a slam dunk.' And that was very important." I provided this portion of the transcript to Tenet.
Wow! One year after the 12/02 meeting where Tenet made the “slam dunk” comment, Bush was pimping the incident hard. No, this anecdote never really made chronological sense, for the reason we cite above. But it was very helpful to Bush in his 2004 re-election campaign. And there he was, in 12/03, quoting Tenet’s statement so many times that anyone except Brother Woodward might have become suspicious.

In his review, Woodward continues to pass by the matter he first passed by in his book. Here he is, describing a speech which was given four months before Tenet said “slam dunk:”
WOODWARD: On Aug. 26, 2002, seven months before the invasion of Iraq, Tenet says he was totally surprised when Vice President Cheney said during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Cheney was effectively issuing his own National Intelligence Estimate—he was treading on Tenet's territory. "The speech also went well beyond what our analysis could support," Tenet writes, and he acknowledges that he should have privately told Cheney so.
In Plan of Attack, Woodward describes how shocked Powell was when Cheney made this provocative speech. There too, Woodward said that Cheney effectively issued his own NIE. Implausibly, Woodward claimed that Bush had no idea that Cheney was going to say these things. Nor did he make any effort to say how Bush reacted to Cheney’s new claims. Powell was shocked—and Tenet was shocked. But somehow, Woodward forgot to ask Bush how he may have reacted.

In Woodward’s book, Bush begins stretching the intel in September—three months before the “slam dunk” comment. But then, maybe Woodward is just too fat and happy to bother with calendars any more. In this part of Sunday’s review, he continues from the passage above about the “slam dunk” comment:
WOODWARD: "I truly doubt President Bush had any better recollection of the comment than I did," Tenet writes in At the Center of the Storm, "Nor will I ever believe it shaped his view about either the legitimacy or timing of waging war." Tenet could be right about that...

But 10 weeks after the "slam dunk" comment, Tenet and the CIA provided Secretary of State Colin Powell with the intelligence he used in his famous Feb. 5, 2003, presentation to the United Nations and the world, arguing that Saddam had WMD. Tenet writes that he believed it was a "solid product." That, of course, is a less memorable and less colorful way of saying "slam dunk."
Woodward’s error there isn’t important. But the “slam dunk” comment was made on December 21. Powell made his UN presentation on February 5. That is nowhere near 10 weeks. Bush’s subsequent “slam dunk” hype to the side, perhaps modern life is a typo.

YOU GO TO THE POLLS WITH THE VOTERS YOU HAVE: What do voters think about evolution? In Sunday’s Post, Chris Cillizza filed this intriguing report on the subject. We thought it was the most interesting thing we saw in the papers all week.

There’s nothing new here, but the facts about this are always striking. In this part of Cillizza’s report, he describes the three choices voters were given in a recent survey:
CILLIZZA (5/6/07): A recent Newsweek survey presented people with three explanations for the origins of human life: [1] that humans developed over millions of years, from lesser to more advanced forms of life, while God guided the process; [2] that God played no hand in the process; and [3] that God created humans in their present form.

The first option is a sort of hybrid creation-evolution endorsed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the debate; "I believe in evolution," he said. "But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon...that the hand of God is there also."

The second option is evolution as explained by science, and the third summarizes the idea of creationism.
Those were the three choices. As you might have been able to guess, a small percentage—just 13 percent—said they believe in straight-up evolution. Almost half picked Option 3:
CILLIZZA (continuing directly): Nearly half the sample, 48 percent, said the creationism option was closest to their beliefs, and 30 percent chose the hybrid option. Just 13 percent of the sample chose evolution alone as the best approximation of their view of human development.
As Cillizza notes, these results are quite typical. At any rate, 48 percent of this sample don’t believe that humans evolved at all.

This isn’t exactly a voting issue. But we think it’s good for us high-minded liberals to remind ourselves what the public is like. We were especially struck by this report because it appeared just as we began to marvel at liberal reaction to Sally Quinn’s op-ed column this Saturday—a column in which Quinn gave Obama’s campaign some good sound basic advice.

In the column for which she was battered, Quinn speculated about the reasons behind Obama’s “incredible popularity.” After praising his “many attractive attributes,” she discussed his possible downside:
QUINN (5/5/07): The doubts about Obama in this country are usually twofold: He's too young and he doesn't have the necessary experience. People tend to forget that in fact, if Obama were elected next year, he would be older than Teddy Roosevelt, Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton were when they became president.

As for the inexperience, who has ever had more experience in government than Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld?

The biggest problem that Obama has is this: We don't know who he is. Who are his people? Whom does he surround himself with? Whom does he listen to? Who gives him advice? He's so new to the national political scene that he hasn't had time to choose the team that would be with him in the White House. The more we see him in action, he's still just campaigning. He still has the quality of an unknown. And as attractive and likable as Obama is, we still need references.
Quinn pokes some holes in the “youth/inexperience” card—but she also offers superb advice about the way Obama will be attacked if he becomes the Dem nominee. Because Obama is relatively new and unknown, she says, he should offer reassurances about himself by helping us see what sorts of advisers he’d select. “The staff Obama chooses will speak volumes about his judgment of people and what he thinks the job of president entails,” Quinn writes. “[W]hat will matter more for him than for other candidates, because of his youth and inexperience, is the expertise, wisdom and decency of the administration he puts together.”

Guess what? That’s good advice. If Obama becomes the Dem nominee, the RNC will instantly move to marginalize him; they’ll try to paint him as an inexperienced, strange outsider. In short, they’ll try to “Dukakis-ize” him—make him seem slightly alien. (This worked quite well with Dukakis, who had a problem with the pledge of allegiance.) For this reason, Quinn’s advice makes perfect sense. Obama should identify a set of reassuring advisers, she says. And he should start doing it now.

So how did liberals respond to this? Of course! By trashing Quinn for her racial bad faith! By insisting that she was polluting the world with her rank insider outlook! Even our smartest, most productive leaders had this unhelpful reaction.

For the record, the Bush campaign followed Quinn’s course early in Campaign 2000. They knew that Bush was like Obama; they understood that his inexperience was one of his major vulnerabilities. So they did precisely what Quinn is advising; they widely pimped a long list of names of Bush’s veteran advisers. They did this early and often. In September 1999, for example, Bush gave his first speech on national defense. This was part of Terry Neal’s report in the Post:
NEAL (9/24/99): While Bush has experience in education and social issues as governor of the nation's second-most populous state, he has virtually none in defense or foreign policy, as his opponents have stressed. Bush has relied this year on advice from former advisers to his father, former president George Bush and former president Ronald Reagan. Among them: Condoleezza Rice, Brent Scowcroft, Colin L. Powell, Richard B. Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, George Shultz, Richard L. Armitage and Richard Perle.
As Quinn notes, this turned out to be the worst group of advisers in recorded human history. (Scowcroft, the wise one, got kicked to the curb.) But their names were reassuring back then—and the Bush camp pimped them far and wide. Voters heard about Bush’s veteran helpmates all through 1999. This was an obvious move for Bush. It’s an obvious move for Obama.

So Quinn offered good advice in her column; we assume the Obama campaign understands this. But we liberals! We seem to revel in our ignorance of recent White House campaigns—in our utter cluelessness about the ways their candidates win and ours get beaten. And there’s nothing we seem to enjoy so much as displaying our racial arrogance. No one is quite so fine as we—certainly not the dumb-ass voters! The instincts we put on display in this matter are a road-map for how Dems can lose.

Quinn’s perspective on Obama’s race isn’t ours, but there was nothing wrong with what she said about race in her column either. But how we luvv to tell the world about our vast superiority! For our money, the most annoying observer was Reed Hundt, who ought to know much better. (His Savannah kin-folk would be insulted!) But our preening, priggish moral superiority was quite widely observed. By the way: Hundt figured out what happened to Candidate Gore—seven years too late.

You go to the polls with the voters you have, and most of those voters are fair, decent people. But no, they don’t always see the world in quite the way we high-minded liberals do. Cillizza’s report reminds us of this—and it suggests an important question. Do we want to win next year—or do we want to announce how much better we are? Most voters won’t see a problem with what Quinn wrote. They will see a problem with us.

Special report: Let’s play nut-ball!

EPILOGUE—MAY NOD OFF AGAIN! “True insanity!” “Crazy!” “Close to criminal!” “Madness!” In yesterday’s column, the Dean of All Pundits was having a fit about the upcoming primary schedule! But sadly, this Dean doesn’t reason real well any more. In what follows, he explains one of the two “scary scenarios” he says we face next year. This is what happens if the two parties’ nominees still haven’t been chosen after February 5:
BRODER (5/10/07): [I]f nothing is decided by the night of Feb. 5, the chance of a quirky result from the oddity of the political geography of the remaining states will be greatly increased. Democrats will have to compete in Indiana and North Carolina, where they rarely win in November. Republicans will be judged in Massachusetts and Vermont, where their party membership is minuscule.

None of this helps the country get the best-qualified candidates, and none of it helps either party put forward its best candidate.
Nightmare! If the nominees aren’t picked by February 5, Democrats will have to compete in Indiana! And the Reps will be forced to please-come-to-Boston! It’s hard to know why Broder finds this thought “scary;” presumably, this would favor centrist candidates, the type he constantly says he prefers. But Broder’s columns rarely make sense—though the press corps agrees not to notice.

But our analysts really howled at the first of Broder’s “scary scenario.” Suppose the nominees are chosen in February! When Broder spoke about that dread option, he showed us the broken soul of his press corps, in a familiar manner:
BRODER: This crazy calendar sets up one of two scenarios—both scary. If one candidate in each party wraps up the nomination by gaining momentum in the January contests and amassing delegates on Feb. 5, we will be looking at the longest, most-dragged-out general election ever. The conventions are late in 2008; the Democrats' the last week in August, the Republicans' the first week in September. The time from February to Labor Day will be boring beyond belief.
Poor darlings! The Washington press corps will find itself bored! Months will roll by with nothing to do! They’ll be “bored beyond belief.”

Let’s start with a few basic facts. If the nominations are set by February 5, that will produce a long campaign—but it won’t be much longer than the last two. In 2004, Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nod on March 2, with Bush set as his opponent. In 2000, Candidates Bush and Gore went over the top with primary wins on March 7. Next year’s general election would be longer than those—but only by about a month. Of course, the press corps was “bored beyond belief” during those campaigns too. But only by their own doing.

Why will the press corps be so bored if the nominations get settled that early? Let’s consider what these dim bulbs did during Campaign 2000.

What happened in Campaign 2K after Bush and Gore wrapped up their parties’ nods? Here’s what happened: The candidates put forward important proposals—and the press corps refused to cover them! In Politics Lost, Joe Klein described what happened to Candidate Gore when he tried to discuss global warming in June 2000:
KLEIN (page 151): Gore decided that what he really wanted to do was give a major speech on global warming. This elicited a chorus of groans from his political consultants, who pointed out that the environment was way down the list of issues people cared about, according to their polls. But Gore ignored them. The environment was the issue he cared more about than any other; he had written a best-selling book about it, Earth in the Balance. He wanted to tell the public, as precisely as possible, what he was going to do about it—and he wanted to do a lot: a $150 billion program over ten years, using the Clinton budget surplus to pay for it...

He delivered the speech on June 27, in Philadelphia.

And nothing happened. The New York Times got the story right, citing Gore’s “broad vision” in the lead, but buried it on page 24. The Washington Post played it inside as well and worse, emphasized that this was Gore’s attempt to deal with high gasoline prices. The television networks also played the gas-price angle. The speech caused barely a ripple. “What the fuck happened,” the vice president asked his staff the next day. “What went wrong?”
Klein goes on to blame the consultants, his iconic bogey-people. (You know the rules—the press corps itself is never at fault.) But by this time, the press corps had already refused to cover another major proposal—Bush’s proposal for partial privatization of Social Security, which he brought forward in a ballyhooed speech at (where else?) Rancho Cucamonga on May 15 of that year. We’ve discussed, in great detail, the press corps’ refusal to explore the merits of Bush’s proposal and Gore’s opposition (links below). Instead of fleshing out Bush’s ideas, they turned this giant policy dispute into their latest morality tale; robotically, they pimped Bush as a brave “bold leader” who was daring to “touch the third rail of American politics,” and they said that Gore’s opposition just showed, once again, that he was too nasty and negative (examples below). It’s hard to believe how little they did to help the public understand how Bush’s proposal might actually work. But the press corps’ clowning was simply cosmic. So too its refusal to serve.

Why does Broder look with horror on the boredom of early nominations? Because of his cohort’s sad, broken soul! In fact, early nominations could be a great thing. They would sweep the lightweights off the stage and let us focus on the real proposals brought forward by the real nominees. But Broder’s gang has long made it clear—they find such tedious matters quite boring! As readers may recall, this is how this tired old man described Gore’s convention speech in August 2000—in a year which changed the world’s history:
BRODER (8/20/00): But my, how he went on about what he wants to do as president....

On some of the headline proposals—for Medicare prescription drug benefits or a patient's bill of rights—Gore humanized his presentation by pointing to specially invited families in the audience who would have benefitted directly from the programs he is promoting. But I have to confess, my attention wandered as he went on through page after page of other swell ideas, and somewhere between hate crimes legislation and a crime victim's constitutional amendment, I almost nodded off.
Amazing! By using the contemptuous phrase “swell ideas,” Broder advertised his open disdain for the man who made him listen to all that claptrap. Others, of course, thought different. As you may recall, Gore’s speech was hugely well-received by the public; it sent his polling through the roof, and changed the shape of the White House race, to the point where the press corps finally had to invent new examples of Gore’s troubling “lies.” (The doggy-pills; the union lullaby. Mid-September, 2000.) But plainly, Broder was “bored beyond belief” during Campaign 2000 too! Indeed, he “almost nodded off” during Gore’s tiresome speech. And he fears the same death sentence this year, absent the distraction of primaries and conventions, which may help keep him awake.

For Broder, this reaction to Gore was no anomaly. Last May, Hillary Clinton made The Dean sit through a speech about energy policy; once again, he made no effort to hide the fact that the event bored him silly (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/25/06). In fact, this millionaire press corps has long made it clear—they just don’t care about energy, health care or Social Security, or all those other swell ideas. This brings us around to an e-mail we got about Chris Matthews’ god-awful performance last Thursday. Why did he ask such damn-fool questions, our e-mailer sensibly asked:
E-MAIL (5/10/07): Why didn't Matthews ask about health care or climate change? Why didn't Bob Schieffer ask one question about the environment in his awful performance as "moderator" of the debate on domestic issues during Campaign 2004? I don't know, but it sure does seem like these guys are covering for the Republicans. I mean, why ask questions about issues people really care about when substantive answers aren't there?
Was Matthews “covering for the Republicans” when he skipped past most of the nation’s big issues? We don’t know either, but in our reply, we suggested a different possibly—one which seems quite apparent:
ANSWER: "Why didn’t Matthews ask about health care or climate change?"

My best guess on that would go back to Margaret Carlson and Imus, 10/00. What I took her to say that day was the following: "Most of us are pretty rich. We don't care about all that issues sh*t. Instead, we’re attuned to politics as 'fun, entertainment and sport.' Because my brother always needed the government's help to survive, I happen to know that outlook is wrong. But to tell the truth, I don't give a sh*t either."

Matthews has shown good instincts on Iraq, but he discusses no other issues—ever. He talks about how shrill Hillary sounded last week, and what the latest polling shows. That's it. My guess would be that he gives little thought to that other stuff. At the debate, he asked about the things that he finds intriguing—Schwarzenegger, Libby, who should be in the cabinet and, of course, Bill Clinton's wild sex drives.

Almost surely, any question he asked about climate change would have been spectacularly dumb. He’d have no idea what he should ask, or how to follow up. Regarding health care, I took my lesson on that matter from Mary McGrory's appalling column after Gore and Bradley's first debate in 10/99: These people already have good health care, and they don't give a sh*t if you do.
Poor Broder! He quivers and quakes, thinking how “boring” it all could become. And Matthews? Matthews asks about Arnold! After all, he was sitting there in the front row—and his muscles were surely rippling.

Afterwards, Matthews went out to eat. And good fortune! Tom Selleck was there!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: How did the “press corps” cover Social Security during the boredom of Campaign 2000? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/06 (scroll down to SECOND EXCERPT). Or see our four-part report on the topic, starting with THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/14/02.

But make no mistake—the pundits were nicely on-message, well-scripted. Bush began to preview his privatization proposal in early May 2000. Gore expressed his opposition—and the reviews rolled in:
Hardball, MSNBC, May 5, 2000:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Norah, let’s start in talking about this amazing campaign. Who would have believed that George W. Bush would have looked so clean and so good right now after that bruising fight with John McCain? He’s up five points in a number of polls this week, and yet you see Al Gore picking away at him with these left jabs of his…It’s the same thing he did to Bill Bradley—attack, attack, attack.

Russert, CNBC, May 6, 2000:
JOE KLEIN: The concern I have about the Gore campaign is that he has learned one lesson and he’s kind of becoming a one-trick pony.

TIM RUSSERT: Attack. Attack. Attack.

KLEIN: Attack. Attack.

RUSSERT: Governor Bush put forward a Social Security plan calling for a partial privatizing, and he attacks, saying that is risky…Why—why—why does Gore just, almost knee-jerk, attack, attack, attack?

Inside Politics, CNN, May 17, 2000:
CHARLIE COOK: For Governor Bush, it’s a chance to show sort of bold leadership…But at the same time, getting into that area is certainly a risky thing and it’s going to test all of George Bush’s abilities of persuasion to sell this, because Al Gore is very good at the attack, just look at what he did to Bill Bradley on health care…

BERNARD SHAW: What comes to mind, Stu?

ROTHENBERG: Well, in general, he has been attacking for months now and there’s been a lot of criticism that he’s been overly negative. Once again here, attack, attack.
Calling Gore a one-trick pony, the pundits all said it: “Attack-attack-attack.” In this manner, world history changed—and we liberals still won’t discuss it. Brian Williams opens the new campaign with suggestions of our “treasonous” conduct. And we liberals stare into air. At least he didn’t say it on Fox, we turn and say to our friends.

Bush was looking “so clean and so good,” Matthews said, way back then.