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Daily Howler: Three Post pundits attack McCain's character. But a question still hasn't been asked
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POP THE QUESTION! Three Post pundits attack McCain’s character. But a question still hasn’t been asked: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MAY 15, 2008

TAKE THE WALK: If you get a chance to see Nova’s new program, “A Walk to Beautiful,” we strongly recommend that you take it. (For the program’s web page, just click here.) We watched it last night for the second time (channel 26, 2 AM); we don’t know when we’ve seen a more brilliant and moving documentary hour. From the web site’s program description, this summary: “The film tells the personal stories of rural women who make their way to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, seeking treatment for obstetric fistula, a life-shattering complication of childbirth that was once common in the pre-industrial United States but that is now relegated to the poorest regions of the world.”

For our money, the web site’s super-gloomy preview doesn’t begin to do this show justice. “A blessed man!” So says a young woman named Almaz, late in the program, referring to gynecologist Haile Aytenfishu. But a blessed woman is lurking here too—gynecologist Catherine Hamlin:

HAMLIN: My husband and I came to Ethiopia in 1959. The previous gynecologist that we replaced said to my husband, "The fistula patients will break your hearts." And that's really what they did.

We didn't plan to stay, but as we began to cure them, of course, more and more came to us, so we stayed on. I have been here ever since. My husband would still be here if he was alive.

A blessed woman! You also see the good hearts and minds of the young women at the heart of this story.

From the web site, we see that a feature-length version of this program has been winning honors around the world. So much was memorable in this hour that we wanted to go there too.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE TRIVIAL: We recommend this post by Digby, though we’ll start by disagreeing a bit with a couple of points.

First, the bad news: We disagree somewhat with Gabor Steingart (der Spiegel), whom Digby quotes, about the relevance of the Reverend Wright story. Here is his take on this matter:

STEINGART (5/13/08): Even the eccentric pastor from Obama's church, Jeremiah Wright, is not worth the fuss. "God damn America," he preached. So what? The priest at my Catholic church was a reactionary, while my class teacher was a communist.

We liberals and Dems have sometimes erred, down through the years, in taking this “so what?/not worth the fuss” approach to certain stories. (The Dukakis prison furlough program was the classic example. And yes, it was Dukakis’ program, despite the phony baloney stories we churned out, pretending otherwise. For the record, we greatly admire Dukakis, a plainly decent man.) For better or worse, the emergence of Wright suggests that Obama may not be precisely the person he seemed to present himself as last year. He presented himself as a lofty reformer, and as a blend of us all; the Wright story suggests that he may in fact be more of an urban hipster. Some progressives may not care about this; it wouldn’t change our vote, for example. But this is the down-side of nominating the “new guy” (there are also up-sides); voters have little idea who the new guy is, and they’ll take their info where they can get it. Liberals were unwise to blow off the prison furlough story; we’re unwise to take a “what’s the fuss” posture when it comes to this story too.

Next, the good news: We’ll tend to disagree with Digby’s assessment of Maureen Dowd’s current position. Yesterday, when Digby read Dowd’s latest cracked pottery, she felt it showed “which way the wind is blowing among the gasbag pundits and village scribes.” We’ll be a bit more upbeat about it. In our view, Dowd has gone so far around the bend that few of her colleagues have followed her there. (With her endless eye-rolling snark, Gail Collins almost comes close.) Dowd was smack-dab in the mainstream during Campaign 2000, when the press corps’ loathing of All Things Clinton/Gore produced a two-year group nervous breakdown. But as far as we can tell, Dowd is not in the pundit mainstream this year. Last night, for example, her gruesome friend, Chris Matthews, defended Obama’s racial vision, as he has done many times in the past. It’s always good to plan for the worst; for that reason, we’ll compliment Digby for playing Cassandra, a role we normally reserve for ourselves. But in our view, that group nervous breakdown of the late 1990s won’t likely be reproduced this year. That doesn’t mean that you’ll love the coverage. It means that Dowd’s nasty, inexcusable lunacy won’t be found wherever you look.

A wonderful summary: But the thing which led us to pimp this post is Steingart’s superlative, pithy summary, nicely captured by Digby: “A journalist's twin points of references should be the real and the important.” For many years, the jealous god, Trivia, has sat high in the pantheon of pundit deities. People will disagree, of course, about what counts as “real and important.” But liberals and Dems would have been well served, in the past dozen years, if we had trumpeted Steingart’s summary over and over and over again. Libs and Dems should constantly go to the public and directly ask them to ponder this basic question: Are you being handed trivia? On our highest levels, we have rarely recommended that standard to voters. Along the way, we have paid a high price.

POP THE QUESTION: Three cheers for Ruth Marcus, who proved on Wednesday that it actually can be done! Omigod! She wrote a column which challenged John McCain’s character—but unlike her colleague, Richard Cohen, she didn’t feel the need to tell us about McCain’s vast integrity first! Her column was headlined, “High Court Caricature.” She pulled few punches as she described the “tired broadside” McCain had offered about those famous old activist judges. How fake and phony was McCain’s presentation? Somehow, Marcus managed to give this example without feeling the need to praise his unparalleled honesty first:

MARCUS (5/14/08): McCain's bill of particulars against activist judges was particularly unimpressive. He assailed one justice for stating "that he was basing a conclusion on 'my own experience.' " This was John Paul Stevens this year questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty—and then, respecting the importance of precedent, voting with the majority to uphold lethal injection.

Grisly—but all too familiar. We don’t agree with every word in this column. But somehow, Marcus was able to describe McCain dissembling and pandering—without first taking a moment to let us know what a vast moral giant he is.

Harold Meyerson did the same thing, although we thought his column was weaker. (He had to drag West Virginia in!) Unfortunately, Meyerson failed to produce a good sound-bite. But he showed us McCain in full demagogue mode, playing the “real American” card. In a column called “McCain’s America,” Meyerson started with what is just gruesome, not with a tribute to McCain’s wondrous soul:

MEYERSON (5/14/08): If the McCain campaign is still trying out songs, there's one by a couple of Brits, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, that it should consider. We have to change the words "an Englishman" to "American" to get it to work, but, that done, the song expresses succinctly and entirely the case for John McCain and, by implication, against Barack Obama:

For he himself has said it,
And it's greatly to his credit,
That he is American!
That he is American!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the sum total of the Republican message this year. That is why McCain's first post-primary ad proclaimed him "the American president Americans have been waiting for." Not the "strong" or "experienced" president, though those are contrasts he could seek to draw with Obama. The "American" president—because that's the only contrast through which McCain has even a chance of prevailing.

Why is McCain pimping himself as “the American president?” Must we really ask?

At any rate, real progress was shown on Wednesday’s op-ed page. Marcus and Meyerson both ran columns challenging McCain’s basic character. And miracle of miracles! Neither pundit told us first about how great this great man really is.

This still leaves us with a challenge for our major pundits:

On Tuesday and Wednesday, three Post columnists were plainly troubled by McCain’s recent conduct. Richard Cohen (“McCain in the Mud”) said McCain has been attacking Obama in a “distinctly ugly” way. Marcus (“High Court Caricature”) said McCain churned a “tired broadside” that was full of “red herrings.” And Meyerson (“McCain’s America”) said that McCain has been pimping race. Only Cohen felt the need to start by praising McCain’s character.

Marcus and Meyerson didn’t do that. But there’s something else they didn’t do, which leads us to this morning’s question. If McCain is 1) attacking in a “distinctly ugly” way; 2) offering “tired broadsides” full of “red herrings;” and 3) playing the race card, might John McCain have a character problem? And isn’t it time someone asked?

In our view, McCain has shown such problems for years, even in the glory days when Cohen rode around on that big white bus. (“In a metaphorical sense, [I] never got off,” he said in Tuesday’s column. We’ve noticed.) But we’ve never seen a big major pundit directly raise that question. In the wake of these three columns, we ask a key question: Why not?

Down through the years, the pundit corps has happily trashed the character of major pols. (One of the people they endlessly savaged now holds the Nobel Peace Prize. Have you seen one pundit explain this?) But when will pundits directly raise the basic question about McCain’s character? When will pundits directly raise the question implied by their work?