Companion site:


Google search...


Daily Howler: They Man They Loved was often clueless--about his own proposals
Daily Howler logo
AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER! They Man They Loved was often clueless—about his own proposals: // link // print // previous // next //

CHRONOLOGICALLY CHALLENGED: This morning, the New York Times struggles and strains to preview Friday night’s debate. Previewing John McCain’s debate style, Katherine “Kit” Seelye novelizes instantly; she says McCain heads into Friday’s session “with the instincts of a fighter pilot.” But we were more struck by John Broder’s chronologically bungled attempt to preview Obama’s style.

At the very top of the pile, can our journalists ever get anything right? Broder writes only 1100 words. But he finds room for this howler:

BRODER (9/23/08): From [mid-January] on, Mr. Obama’s performance improved. At a debate in late January, Mrs. Clinton accused him of getting financial favors from a Chicago ''slumlord,'' a reference to Antoin Rezko. Mr. Obama shot back that while he was doing community organizing work, she had been sitting on the board of Wal-Mart. But he seemed uncomfortable with the exchange and a few minutes later lightened a tense moment with his answer to a question about whether Bill Clinton had been the first ''black president.”

As always with Times reporters, Broder is able to say how Obama “seemed.” But he can’t get his simple chronology right. In the high-profile exchange to which Broder refers, Obama’s cutting remark about Wal-Mart preceded Clinton’s cutting remark about Rezko. But then, just a few paragraphs earlier, Broder seemed to reverse the chronology of an earlier high-profile exchange:

BRODER: One of Mr. Obama’s worst moments came in the first Democratic debate, in South Carolina in April 2007. The candidates were asked how they would respond to a new series of terrorist attacks.

Mrs. Clinton gave a short answer, ending, ''Let's focus on those who have attacked us and do everything we can to destroy them.”

But Mr. Obama gave a rambling reply on emergency response, intelligence flaws and the importance of engaging “the international community.” He had to ask for a second chance to answer the question in order to say he would go after the terrorists.

From that, you’d likely think that Clinton answered first. In fact, Obama answered this question first; Clinton had the benefit of going third, after both Obama and Edwards. (For the record, Obama’s “rambling reply” was 206 words long. Edwards’ response comprised 245 words, Clinton’s 157.)

Do these errors/apparent errors matter? Not much. But they do reflect the requisite bumbling found at our biggest newspapers. Later in his piece, Broder devotes four paragraphs to an Obama debate from the year 2000—a debate he clearly hasn’t seen (he sources his account to David Mendell’s book on Obama). Meanwhile, has Broder watched tape of Obama’s 2004 debate with Alan Keyes—a debate to which he devotes five paragraphs? There’s no reason to assume that he has. Broder cites two exchanges from that debate. One was cited three days ago in this AP debate preview. The other was featured by James Fallows in his Atlantic piece.

Broder has published lightly in the past month; presumably, he had plenty of time to assemble this preview. But his work is hackneyed, and it features chronological bungling. Did we mention the fact that this lazy work appears in the great New York Times?

THE HUNDRED-MILLION VIEWER MAN: Meanwhile, Chris Matthews has been feeling the excitement about Friday night’s debate! Last night, he repeated a prediction he has excitedly made in the past few weeks:

MATTHEWS (9/22/08): Welcome back to Hardball and the “Politics Fix.” Tonight`s round table, Richard Wolffe of Newsweek and Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times—two professionals. Let`s talk about how this all fits together. What a week!Trash compactor; biggest economic crisis since the 1930s, converging on a debate which maybe 100 million people will watch about a totally different topic, foreign policy. How will it converge this Friday night for an hour an a half?

As noted, Matthews has been making this excited prediction for the past several weeks. (September 8: “Maybe 100 million people are going to watch that first debate in Ole Miss at the end of this month.”) But then, Matthews and the NBC gang made excited predictions about audience size before the first Bush-Gore debate, too. Here he was, at 5 PM Eastern, four hours before that encounter:

MATTHEWS (10/3/00): It's fight night in Boston as Al Gore and George W. Bush face off in their first presidential debate....In what may prove to be the closest presidential election in 40 years and with an expected 75 million Americans tuning in tonight, the debate could be a defining moment in the race for the White House.

That was exciting. But about ten minutes later, Matthews bumped his number up, questioning Campbell Brown:

MATTHEWS (10/3/00): Have you got a sense in your conversations with [Bush’s] people as to what his strategy is? What would be a home run for him tonight? What's he trying to do out there before 90 million people perhaps?

Brian Williams hosted MSNBC’s 8 PM hour. As the moment of truth drew near, he went with the larger number:

WILLIAMS (10/3/00): In one hour, Al Gore and George W. Bush will face off against each other for the first time, two men going 90 minutes in front of a nationally televised audience that may go as high as 90 million viewers at some point during the hour and a half, coming as it does during an interesting time in this race, with our MSNBC-Reuters News Agency Zogby tracking poll showing Al Gore cracking through the margin of error, but just barely, 46 to 40 against George W. Bush.

When Bri-Bri threw to Matthews, the excitable fellow cited his third different estimate:

MATTHEWS (10/3/00): These [undecided voters] are only now tuning in. I'm not knocking it, I'm just stating it. They have not tuned in to this election. Now, tonight, they'll tune in—80 million people may watch tonight...So finally, most Americans now are tuning in as are these people here.

Of course, most Americans didn’t tune in. After all the excitement had subsided, the actual audience was estimated at 45 million. But so what? Excitement was running very high, and so were this silly gang’s estimates.

How many people will watch Friday night? Like Hardball’s highly excitable host, we have no earthly idea.

The hundred-million viewer woman: As Bri-Bri’s gang continued to vent, Peggy Noonan made it official. It was roughly 8:15. She used the magic number:

NOONAN (10/3/00): Up until now, this whole campaign for most normal human beings has been a blur. It's a blur you see on the TV as you walk by it. Tonight, two men in front of 70 to 100 million people are going to walk forward in their big dark suits and look at us and it's not going to be a blur anymore. It's going to be a real impression.

As we’ve long noted, the “impression” Noonan later reported was that Gore had kicked Bush’s keister.

Special report—An affair to remember!

BE SURE TO READ EACH INSTALLMENT: The press corps conducted a long love affair—but, alas, love can be blind. For that reason, The Man They Loved often skipped the straight talk. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/22/08.

Today, we learn that The Man They Loved was often remarkably clueless:

PART 2—THE MAN THEY LOVED WAS FREQUENTLY CLUELESS: The Man They Loved dispensed straight talk—except, of course, when he didn’t. Frequently, he would descend from his famous bus and play New Hampshire voters for fools—savaging that Republican tax bill, the one for which he had voted (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/22/08). In a profile in U.S. News, Roger Simon described The Man They Loved doing that in September 1999. But when William Greider profiled McCain for Rolling Stone, he noticed—and seemed to excuse—this same peculiar conduct. His profile was posted in late October, five weeks after Simon described this conduct. In this passage, The Man They Loved is addressing New Hampshire voters:

GREIDER (10/28/99): The Republican party's $790 billion tax-cut bill, the senator further warns, contains ugly surprises for ordinary voters (though he fails to mention that he voted for it, too). Huge tax breaks for corporations and other special interests become effective immediately, but tax breaks for families are postponed until 2003. The bill was a meaningless partisan charade, he explains, since everyone knew Clinton would veto it. “I ridiculed the bill on the floor of the Senate the day I voted for it," he confides later with quirky satisfaction.

Because they loved this man so much, this odd approach was dismissed as a “quirk.” (To Simon, it showed that he sometimes “avoided candor.”) As a result, McCain kept telling voters how outrageous that tax bill was—the tax bill for which he had voted.

But the press corps overlooked other problems during this long love affair. For example, The Man They Loved was frequently clueless—about his own proposals! Love is blind, so they didn’t much care. But consider what happened when The Man They Loved discussed his own tax plan with Jonathan Chait. Chait’s piece, in The New Republic, was dated January 31, 2000. New Hampshire voters went to the polls on February 1 of that year:

>The Man They Loved was clueless about his own tax plan: The Man They Loved had produced an inspiring plan—if you let The Man They Loved tell it. Indeed, he had been telling New Hampshire voters that his inspiring budget plan was designed to help “the have-nots.” But McCain’s proposal—he wanted to expand the lowest tax bracket upward—would only have affected the top 25 percent of earners, as Chait explained to McCain during a long, quiet moment he shared with McCain on his famous bus. How did McCain respond to this news, which anyone with a passing knowledge of the tax code would have understood without coaching?

According to Chait, McCain was “at first undaunted” when the contradiction was noted; the affected people “are in that [top 25 percent] bracket, but their boats are not rising,” the famous straight-talker said. (For fuller text of Chait’s piece, see below.) “They’re a group of have-nots. They’re in the have-not group.” But soon, McCain turned apologetic. “Maybe I’m not paying enough attention to the poorest of Americans,” he told Chait. “Maybe my priorities are not correct.” Please note: At the time he spoke, The Man They Loved was a seventeen-year veteran of Congress—a man who was running for the White House. But when he spoke with Chait, it became quite clear: The Man They Loved didn’t understand how his own tax plan worked.

Chait also noted McCain’s explanation for the change in his long-held stance on fiscal matters. As a senator, McCain had always been a standard Republican supply-side tax-cutter; now, he had adopted a balanced-budget, fiscal caution that flew in the face of his previous stands. McCain’s explanation? “In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't pay nearly the attention to those issues in the past," he confessed. "I was probably a 'supply-sider' based on the fact that I really didn't jump into the issue...I also hope that my thinking has changed as a result of the times. I am compelled by information that indicates that there's a growing gap between haves and have-nots in America.” As Chait pointed out, this explanation didn’t seem to make much sense. “The gap between rich and poor began to widen in the late '70s,” he noted, “and it expanded most rapidly during the '80s, when McCain loyally supported Reaganomics.” But this, of course, was The Man They Loved, and Chait was deeply caught up in the gushing. He explained, throughout his fawning piece, that McCain was slowly becoming a liberal. It didn’t seem to occur to Chait that The Man They Loved had simply been clueless down through the years—or that The Man They Loved may have been playing politics.

The Man They Loved was also clueless about prescription drugs: It seems strange to think that a major candidate could be so confused by his own budget plan. But several reporters had similar tales about McCain’s prowess in other areas. In a November 1999 profile, for example, The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson described the sketchy quality of McCain’s approach to many issues. (Ferguson was not in love.) “McCain has prefabricated a brief response for most of the issues,” he wrote. He then quoted McCain discussing the price of prescription drugs (we can’t find a free link):

FERGUSON (11/15/99): On the issue of prescription drug prices, for example, which are far higher here than in any other developed country: “I kept getting asked all these questions about it, so I went back to our guys and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to come up with something here.’ So we kicked around some things for a couple of hours.” What they came up with is a plan for the government to provide money to old people who can’t afford the drugs—a simple, straightforward, and possibly bankrupting solution. He booms the idea at every meeting, though he says, “We haven’t costed it out.”

From anyone but The Man They Loved, might this have raised a question of character? Did it raise a question of character when an experienced senator, running for president, “kick[ed] around” an important issue “for a couple of hours,” coming up with a sweeping proposal which he hadn’t yet “costed out?” If so, questions could be raised about John McCain’s character, because his fumbling with major issues was often baldly comical. Just consider The Man They Loved’s understanding of health care:

The Man They Loved was clueless on health care: In a January 2000 New Yorker profile (no link), Joe Klein recorded an awkward exchange with McCain about several policy matters. “When asked about the current state of welfare reform, he admitted that he hadn’t given much thought to the hard-core unemployables who soon may be left without benefits,” Klein wrote. “Nor had he given much thought to the estimated thirty percent of teen-age pregnancies that, according to some studies, may be the result of statutory rapes.” And McCain was “boggled by health care,” Klein wrote. Klein recalled the embarrassing scene when McCain had released his health plan in December 1999:

KLEIN (1/17/00): Health care isn’t easy, but McCain is running for president. He had just released, with no small fanfare, a “plan,” but it was almost laughably sketchy—with no real answers for the forty-four million people without health insurance, many of whom work at low-wage jobs. (Even the accompanying fact sheet was filled with errors.)

December’s bungling was reported by several news orgs—and then was rarely mentioned again. Instead, pundits returned to praising The Man They Loved and describing the fun on his bus.

But then, there seemed to be no policy area The Man They Loved really understood. Consider what happened when Jacob Weisberg discussed McCain’s plan to give vouchers to public school students. For the record, Weisberg admitted it—he was deeply in love:

The Man They Loved was clueless on vouchers: In a fawning profile in Slate (in October 1999), Weisberg shared a comical moment concerning McCain’s education proposal. Taking advantage of all the free access The Man They Loved was giving to scribes, Weisberg asked him about his plan to give public school students $2000 vouchers to attend private schools. According to his profile, Weisberg told McCain that the plan “wouldn’t give vouchers a fair test, because it doesn’t fund the voucher at anywhere near the cost of most private schools.” In response, McCain said, “I’m unembarrassed to tell you that one of my happiest days in recent years was when my daughter was accepted in Catholic school.” The amusement began right after that, when The Man They Loved decided to fact-check Weisberg’s objection:

WEISBERG (10/4/99): McCain then called across the aisle of the plane to his wife. “Cindy, good morning. How much is our tuition for Meghan at Xavier?”

“$6,100,” Mrs. McCain answered. “Not including books or uniforms.”

D’oh! “McCain seemed surprised at how high it was,” Weisberg wrote. “And the next thing I knew, he was running with my criticism, trashing his own proposal.” McCain turned against his own voucher plan—as he turned against his own tax plan when chatting with Chait three months later.

Such incidents plagued The Man They Loved when he talked about policy matters. In the New Yorker, Klein recorded McCain’s admission that he would have to bone up on a wide set of issues as he campaign continued. “It occurred to me that such an admission would be disastrous for any candidate playing by the traditional rules of politics,” Klein wrote, “and particularly for McCain’s primary opponent, George W. Bush.” But because this was The Man They Loved, he wasn’t playing by traditional rules; time and again, reporters put a smiley face on his misadventures. Weisberg provided a striking example in The Case of the Puny Vouchers. “You could say that McCain is to be faulted for not working out a better education proposal in the first place,” he lovingly wrote. “But in a way, being able to profit from valid criticism [Weisberg’s own, of course] is more important than being a master of policy detail.” You could fault The Man They Loved for not preparing a better proposal? You could fault him for offering a plan on a major topic—a plan he would be willing to dump at a moment’s notice? According to Klein, scribes would have faulted Candidate Bush for exhibiting such cluelessness. And even as they pandered to McCain, these same pundits were savaging Gore, pretending they had caught him lying about 1) Saint Bradley’s health care plan and 2) his own past record on abortion and 3) any goddam moronic thing they could gimmick. Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! And: Al Gore introduced Willie Horton to the American people! Except that, no—he actually didn’t. Except in the tales of the very same people who fawned to The Man They So Loved.

Was a double standard being applied? The term fails to do their misconduct justice. They were head over heels for The Man They Loved—and they were destroying this man whom they hated. The Man They Loved was frequently clueless—about his own proposals, for instance. But so what? Love is blind, and they kept glancing away—or they’d praise him, as Weisberg did. As Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek: “The animating principle of McCain’s life is honor…[E]ven his failures just seem to deepen the character lines.” Even his failures deepened the love they felt for The Man They Loved!

Many chapters remain to be told about this vast affair to remember. But tomorrow, let’s take a brief interlude, stopping to note a remarkable fact. As we all know, journalists aren’t supposed to conduct love affairs with the men they cover. But this affair was conducted in public. They loved The Man They Loved so much that they routinely confessed to their vast affair—the love affair which may yet send this flawed man off to the White House. They hate him today—but they loved him back then. And they loudly proclaimed it, as liberals and Democrats stared.

TOMORROW: Right out in the open.