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Daily Howler: Chris Matthews' panel unveiled a new script about Saint McCain's moral greatness
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HIS TWO SONS! Chris Matthews’ panel unveiled a new script about Saint McCain’s moral greatness: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, AUGUST 31, 2006

HERE’S HOW DUMB: How dumb was the punditry in 10/99 after the press corps “booed and jeered” Gore for an hour? After reading yesterday’s post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/06), a few readers wrote to inquire. In the archives, you can find much more detail. But we’ll offer three quick examples.

How dumb was the press after booing Gore? Here was Margaret Carlson, rolling her eyes on that weekend’s Capital Gang. Remember—this was Gore and Bradley’s first debate, a “town hall forum,” at which the hopefuls spent the full hour taking questions from New Hampshire citizens:
CARLSON (10/30/99): You know, I would say [Gore] looked over—he looked over-anxious...In this forum, Bradley comes across as more authentic than Gore does because he’s been told to adopt some of the Clinton personality tics, getting off the stool, asking for the name, and that's the last—that worked in the last election.
Gore got off his stool when he answered their questions! And not only that—he addressed these Granite State voters by name! Readers, what was supposed to be wrong with this conduct? Of course! It showed that Gore was just like Bill Clinton! In fact, CNN aired two separate debates that week—one for the Reps, one for the Dems. And at each debate, just as you’d expect, every candidate got off his stool to answer every question! (Also: The Republican candidates used people’s names at a higher rate than Gore.) But so what! Your pundit corps simply loved to say it: Gore is just like phony old Clinton. In truth, it’s hard to get dumber than this. But your pundit corps spent two years trying.

How dumb was the press after booing and jeering? Here’s how Mary McGrory began her Post column. Cover the ears of the children and pets:
MCGRORY (10/31/99): Vice President Albert Gore came to his fateful encounter with newly menacing challenger Bill Bradley carrying heavy baggage. He was wearing an outfit that added to his problems when he stepped onstage at Dartmouth College: a brown suit, a gunmetal blue shirt, a red tie—and black boots.

Was it part of his reinvention strategy? Perhaps it was meant to be a ground-leveling statement—“I am not a well-dressed man." It is hard to imagine that he thought to ingratiate himself with the nation's earliest primary voters by trying to look like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station. Maybe it was the first step in shedding his Prince Albert image.
McGrory closed by praising the hopefuls. She said, without a hint of irony, that neither man stooped to any “cheap shots.”

How dumb were they after booing and jeering? Omigod! This was the night when William Schneider said this on CNN:
SCHNEIDER (10/28/99): [Gore] even perspired, perhaps that was planned, to make himself look like a fighter.
When Gore perspired, “perhaps that was planned!” The script: Every move he makes is fake. (Implied: Just like Bill Clinton!)

As Charlie Pierce said on Tuesday at Tapped: “The profession” simply “lost its mind” during that twenty-month White House campaign. And yes: The U.S. Army is in Iraq because of what these fools did.

Trust us: These examples don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the lunacy which followed this debate—all of it aimed at Gore, of course. Liberals and Democrats, how do you feel? To know that, before they spewed this nonsense, they booed and jeered your guy for an hour? To know that they spent the next thirteen months dreaming up more of the same?

Special report: Imagine McCain!


PART 2—HIS TWO SONS: The press corps finds it “easy to imagine” the best about John McCain (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/06). In Sunday’s Post magazine, for example, Glenn Frankel’s profile was A-OK—until it came to McCain’s facial scars. Yes, they stem from a cancer incident, as Frankel noted. But Frankel also seemed to have a bit of that famous old love bug runnin’. He found it “easy to imagine” that they actually stemmed from McCain’s heroic years in Vietnam.

Yep! For Washington journalists, it’s “easy to imagine” the best about Saint John McCain. (Who we think of as a decent person, just like most Big Dems.) But it’s funny! When you ask them why they like him so much, they tend to stumble and stammer. As we’ve long told you—no other group is so disingenuous about its own behavior and outlook. Indeed, we got a small taste of this old routine on the Chris Matthews Show this past week.

After hearing some fawning about McCain, the host of the show broke the rules just a bit. Matthews has soured on McCain just a tad. So after sitting through serial panders, he posed an excellent question:
MATTHEWS (8/27/06): Why does the media—I want to ask a very relevant question after listening to the four of you. Why does the media like McCain? I mean, what’s going on here? Does he seem to be more authentic than other politicians?
Good question! But as usual, the pundits didn’t seem to know how to explain their own conduct. They’ve pandered and fawned to McCain for years. But Howard Fineman was first to reply—and he played things very careful. He restricted himself to the topic at hand—McCain’s views on Iraq:
FINEMAN: Well, I think part of it, on this—part of it, on this specific thing, he knows what he's talking about. He clearly has a lot of experience, militarily, from the inside out on the Armed Services Committee.

MATTHEWS: OK.

FINEMAN: He knows his stuff on that—on this particular question.
Fineman ducked the larger question, and gave an improbable, limited answer. Why does the press corps love McCain? Because he knows his stuff!

What makes that answer seem so unlikely? The corps was in love with McCain during Campaign 2000—no one really bothers denying it. Yet every profile seemed to include a minor passage about the cosmic way the saintly solon had misspoken on some major issue. We’ll offer examples in future posts—but trust us, the cumulative effect can be humorous. If you read the old profiles, it’s fairly clear—McCain was surprisingly uninformed across a wide range of domestic issues. Does the press like McCain because he’s well-informed? In 2000, that just wasn’t it.

Second to try was Norah O’Donnell. Her answer, while cautious, at least made some sense:
O'DONNELL (continuing directly): Sometimes people criticize the media for “liking” John McCain, but I think, quite frankly, if there's any sort of affection, it's because he actually gives us some access. He actually agrees to interviews, which very few politicians do and very few people that are running for president seem to shy away from the press and—
If there’s any sort of affection? Quite frankly, she still isn’t sure! But at least her answer was partially accurate. During the Campaign 2000 affair, reporters clearly loved the fact that McCain let them ride around on his bus; answered their questions, including the dumb ones; gave them free doughnuts whenever they asked; and kept telling scribes they were smart. (JFK used to tell them that too. Teddy White records it.) In fact, reporters do like the access he gives, though it’s clear that things go beyond that.

But it’s funny. Reporters almost always clam up when asked to explain their own conduct. History’s greatest example occurred in the fall of 1999, when Howard Kurtz asked two separate panels, on two occasions, why they were trashing Gore so hard (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/30/99). On the second occasion, the corps had just “booed and jeered” Gore for an hour, as Charlie Pierce recalled this Tuesday. But it was weird! When Kurtz asked his panel to explain Gore’s bad coverage, no one could figure out why it was happening! The pundits were thoroughly stumped. (Needless to say, nobody mentioned the booing and jeering. That remained their little secret.) On both occasions, the pundit panels wracked their brains. But no one could really seem to explain their own cohort’s puzzling conduct.

So no, modern scribes can’t explain what they like. But man, do they know what they like when they see it! And nothing can stop the modern scribe from “imagining” McCain’s moral greatness. When they see his cancer scars, it’s “easy to imagine” his Vietnam years! And when last weekend’s discussion began, the scribes found it easy to imagine his greatness again. In the process, a new script appeared:
MATTHEWS: Even though John McCain is as hawkish as Bush, let me be blunt here—he does come across as more sophisticated, sharper, more aware of what he's talking about about military issues. Does that protect him [politically]?

MICHAEL DUFFY: Sure. He's a Vietnam veteran, he's been one of the president's biggest critics on the war even as he has supported him, saying, “You don't have enough troops” and “I don't have any confidence in Rumsfeld.” He's been leading the way on saying Rumsfeld essentially needs to go. Plus, he’s about to have a son go into the Marine Corps who could be deployed in—

MATTHEWS: As an enlisted guy.

DUFFY: As an enlisted guy. So he's going to have—he's going to have three layers of credibility on the war going into this race.

MATTHEWS: He's got a son coming out of Annapolis, too.

DUFFY: That's right.

MATTHEWS: He's all over the place.

O'DONNELL: Right. And it was so fascinating about learning relatives of members of Congress who have family involved in the Iraq war. In other words, Senator McCain now has two of his boys that will be involved in fighting the war on terror, being in the military. Someone at the White House said they can't think of anybody at senior levels at the White House who has a family member involved in the war.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: And don't forget, when he—he has been really, really tough on the president. Don't forget about the torture amendment. He led the way on the—on, you know, we don't torture prisoners, and has really pushed the White House to into a corner on that.

FINEMAN: And he's done brilliantly—he's done it brilliantly from the base of strong, unshakeable conceptual support for the idea.
At that point, Mathews had heard enough. Why do we like McCain so much, he then—silly boy—tried to ask.

Why does the media like McCain? The media doesn’t do questions like that. But we were struck by a new script here—McCain’s two sons will be fighting this war. We’ll admit it—we’d never heard anything like that before. But at least three pundits were well prepared—well briefed, and prepared to advance the new story. Someone had whispered these facts in their ears. In turn, they began to recite them.

It’s easy to imagine what happens next. The press isn’t good at explaining its loves—but man alive, do they know what they like! McCain’s two sons are both in the war! Get ready to hear this heroic new theme wherever press spin is now sold.

IN WHICH WE LET BUMILLER WALK: For the record: In this post, Media Matters says that Elisabeth Bumiller also explained why the press likes McCain so much. By that time, though, the chat had moved on. (The Matters transcript has a fairly large deletion.) We think it’s fairly clear that Bumiller was explaining why the public likes McCain. Incomparably, we’ll let Bumiller walk.