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Daily Howler: Joe Klein agrees to forget
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SAME OLD MCCAIN/SAME OLD KLEIN: McCain ran robocalls in 2000 too. Joe Klein agrees to forget: // link // print // previous // next //

SAME OLD MCCAIN/SAME OLD KLEIN: Eight years ago, John McCain got slimed by robocalls during the South Carolina primary. Joe Klein described the matter last week at Swampland. He stressed the idea that John McCain has become a giant hypocrite:

KLEIN (10/16/08): Back in 2000, in South Carolina, the robocalls—and calls to local right-wing talk radio shows—were about John McCain's "interracial child" and Cindy McCain's drug addiction. They were a craven, disgusting tactic by the George W. Bush campaign. McCain was, rightly, outraged by them.

Now McCain's campaign is making robocalls distorting Barack Obama's non-existent relationship with Bill Ayers.

McCain opposed the robocalls—then. Today, his campaign makes similar calls. Yesterday, Chris Wallace offered a similar critique on Fox News Sunday:

WALLACE (10/19/08): But Senator, back—if I may, back in 2000 when you were the target of robocalls, you called these “hate calls” and you said—

MCCAIN: They worked.

WALLACE: —and you said the following, "I promise you, I have never and will never have anything to do with that kind of political tactic.” Now you've hired the same guy who did the robocalls against you to—reportedly, to do the robocalls against Obama.

In reply, McCain said that his robocalls are “legitimate and truthful,” unlike the calls from Campaign 2000. We think that claim would be hard to sustain—but Wallace didn’t address it.

In last week’s post, Klein stressed a favorite pundit notion. He stressed the idea that McCain has changed—that the honorable man of Campaign 2000 is playing a different game now. Klein said this, after quoting McCain’s most recent robocall:

KLEIN (10/16/08): Now this isn't quite the spew that McCain suffered in South Carolina, but hey, he's got three more weeks to descend to that. Certainly, such calls are not the sort of activity normally attributed to "a man whose courage has never been questioned," as McCain described himself last week. Real men don't hide behind robocalls. It is nowhere near honorable.

But, my friends, I give you John McCain, 2008 edition—John McCain for the history books.

For ourselves, we can’t imagine what would be wrong with running accurate robocalls. But people like Klein rarely waste their time with such obvious points.

At any rate: According to Klein, McCain’s robocalls give us a look at “John McCain, 2008 edition.” He forgot to say what he surely knows: That McCain ran robocalls in Campaign 2000—in that case, against George Bush. In some ways, those calls were worse than the calls McCain is now running. You see, McCain ran those robocalls anonymously—and he and his aides flatly lied when asked if they were running them.

Pundits like Klein keep insisting that this is a new, different, vastly-changed McCain. It does make a wonderful, novelized tale. But we thought you might want to know the truth about Campaign 2000.

Joe Klein knows the facts which follow. We thought you should know them too.

McCain’s past robocall effort: Klein is right about one thing; McCain got badly slimed in South Carolina during the 2000 primary. But just for the record, McCain did manage to cut a few corners in that race himself. He had two local “race men” running his campaign, and he lied about his views on the confederate flag, a central issue in the state. He opened his campaign with TV ads which criticized Bush so harshly that, after Republican voters complained, he had to take them down. And uh-oh! After saying he would do no negative campaigning, he distributed attack fliers around the state, then repeatedly lied when asked about it. But so what? The press corps was on this great saint’s side, and they largely overlooked this conduct. It’s true: McCain was badly trashed during South Carolina. But he cut quite a few corners himself—which led straight on to Michigan.

McCain was beaten in South Carolina on Saturday, February 19, 2000. After giving an angry speech, he flew directly to Michigan, whose primary would be held on Tuesday, February 22. In Michigan, he unleashed a wave of anonymous, negative robocalls; these calls, which went to Catholic voters, suggested that Bush was anti-Catholic. The AP began reporting the calls on Monday, February 21. Here’s part of the New York Times’ first report, by James Bennet:

BENNET (2/22/00): Late into the evening [on Monday, February 21], the Bush and McCain campaigns traded accusations of sinister telephone calls. Bush aides supplied the telephone numbers of women who said they had received calls accusing Mr. Bush of being anti-Catholic.

Adrienne Karns, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, said she received a call at 5:30 this afternoon [February 21] that issued a "Catholic voters alert." Then, she said, the anonymous voice told her "that George Bush had gone to Bob Jones University, and Bob Jones University was anti-Catholic, and George Bush was anti-Catholic." Then, she continued, "It said John McCain was pro-Catholic and I should vote for John McCain."

The McCain campaign denied any knowledge of the calls.

“The McCain campaign denied any knowledge of the calls”—although the campaign was running the calls, as would soon become clear. But so what? The campaign kept lying about the calls until after the polls closed in Michigan. At that point, the McCain campaign admitted the truth—having added Michigan to its win column. (For the record, McCain’s “Catholic Voter Alert” robocalls also ran in Washington, a state Bush won one week later.) By Thursday morning, David Broder was able to give a fuller report about McCain’s conduct:

BRODER (2/24/00):Arizona Sen. John McCain today rejected accusations by Texas Gov. George W. Bush of underhanded appeals to religious prejudice, as the winner and loser in Tuesday's primaries exchanged long-distance charges of improper campaign tactics.

Weary but upbeat about his prospects for the Republican presidential nomination after victories in Michigan and Arizona, McCain brushed off complaints from Bush that it was "shameful" for McCain to launch a last-minute phone campaign in Michigan that Bush said "call[ed] me an anti-Catholic bigot."

After denying any knowledge of the calls early Tuesday, the McCain campaign confirmed today [Wednesday, February 23] that they had been made, but McCain said the statements were "accurate and didn't call anybody a bigot."

The recorded phone calls said, "This is a Catholic Voter Alert," and alleged that Bush in the South Carolina primary had sought "the support of Southern fundamentalists who have expressed anti-Catholic views." They referred to Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University, whose head, the calls said, "has made strong anti-Catholic statements. . . . John McCain, a pro-life senator, has strongly criticized this anti-Catholic bigotry, while Governor Bush has stayed silent."

The calls were nasty and anonymous—and they were plainly inaccurate. (By that time, Bush had repeatedly criticized Jones’ past statements about Catholicism.) But so what? In subsequent days, McCain dissembled his way through a string of questions about the phone calls on major TV shows (links below); he defended his robocalls as accurate, although they plainly weren’t. When asked why he’d lied about sponsoring the calls, he gave slippery non-answer answers; he kept pretending he’d misunderstood when people asked if he was running the calls. Simply put, McCain was lying through his teeth—just as he’d done in South Carolina when he was asked about his campaign’s attack fliers. But so what? To the press corps, John McCain was the world’s greatest saint—and, within days, all was forgiven. Today, Klein pretends that McCain’s robocalls represent a break from the past. No, it isn’t actually true. But it makes a simple, clean story. And it helps direct us away from Klein’s past conduct.

Make no mistake: John McCain did get slimed by robocalls in South Carolina. Today, Klein is outraged by Bush’s vile conduct. “[The robocalls] were a craven, disgusting tactic by the George W. Bush campaign,” he wrote in last week’s post.

That’s what Joe Klein writes today. But to help you understand how we all got here, we thought you might like the chance to recall what Klein was saying about these events in real time. And what a shock! In real time, Klein was soon boo-hoo-hooing about how nasty and negative Candidate Gore was. At the same time, he was describing Bush, who had run those “disgusting” calls, as one of the most decent guys ever!

You see, this was the spring of 2000—and the press corps was staging its War Against Gore. McCain had been named a secular saint—but now, McCain was out of the race, and Bush was the press corps’ new favorite. Klein savages Bush for his robocalls—now. But in real time, things were different. Is there a bigger fraud than Joe Klein? We think you should read the full story:

George Bush—warm, decent guy: Today, Joe Klein is front-running nicely, bashing Bush for those past robocalls—for that “craven, disgusting tactic.” But in May 2000, when it actually mattered, Klein appeared on the cable show Russert, where he sang a different tune. On that show, he and his host battered Candidate Gore—because the vile man had dared oppose Bush’s proposals for Social Security (link below). And uh-oh! When he remembered the South Carolina race, Klein was quickly wetting his pants about the wonderful acts he had seen Candidate Bush perform there! Once again, this was Klein in May 2000, ten weeks after the South Carolina primary. He told Russert a story about that campaign—a story which helped us see what a “sweet,” “decent,” “kind” man Bush actually was. This is how Klein went to Carolina in his mind, back when it actually mattered:

KLEIN (5/6/00): Let me tell you a story about George W. Bush. In the midst of the South Carolina primary, which was one of the most scurrilous campaigns I have ever covered, I go to see George W. Bush at a town meeting in Hilton Head, South Carolina. And a guy gets up and says to him, “What about all these unwanted”—and I hope I can say this word—“bastards who are being brought into the world by these welfare mothers and all they do is commit crimes and do dope and rob us?” And the guy rants like that. And I've seen Republicans and more than a few Democrats answer this question a certain way for a long, long time. But Bush looked him straight in the eye and he said—and he was really angry—and he said, “Sir, the first thing we must remember is that we have to love all the children.” And then he began to talk about some of the programs that he favors—faith-based social programs—that'll give these kind of kids the love and support that they need. And this happened in the midst of the most unlikely campaign where his people were doing these terrible things to John McCain. And so these moments happen all the time.

The—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.

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 auto-, almost knee-jerk, attack, attack, attack?

KLEIN: Well, because it's—it's, you know, scaring people about Social Security and Medicare has worked for the Democrats since time immemorial.

According to Klein, “Bush’s people” had done “these terrible things.” But so what? He spent his time telling a story about what a decent guy Bush was—and this led him into a long discussion, in which he and Russert trashed Candidate Gore for being such a nasty attack dog! Bush got a pass for running those smears. It was Gore who got attacked as nasty and negative—for opposing privatization!

No. We’re not making this up.

Just how bad did this nonsense get? “The thing that Gore has to worry about is this—Bush is legitimately a decent, kind, sweet guy,” Klein soon told Russert. That smear campaign had been wiped from Klein’s mind. Within moments, he even said this:

KLEIN (5/6/00): I don't think George W. Bush actually is a conservative. I really think that, you know, when he campaigned for governor, he campaigned in a bus that said “Opportunity” on one side and “Responsibility” on the other side. Bill Clinton campaigned for president using the words “opportunity,” “responsibility” and “community.” Two out of three ain't bad.

You see? According to Klein, Candidate Bush was the caring fellow, just like Candidate Clinton before him. By contrast, Candidate Gore was the nasty attack dog, the guy who was just “scaring people.” And yes: This is the way it actually was in the spring of 2000, as Klein and Russert (and their disgraceful “mainstream” cohort) staged their astonishing War Against Gore. According to Klein, it was Bush who had run those slimy phone calls—but Bush was now praised as sweet and decent. The thing that really rubbed Klein the wrong way was Gore’s stand against private accounts!

Klein and Russert went on and on that day—about Gore’s attack-dog conduct!

Today, Klein savages Bush for those robocalls—for that “craven, disgusting tactic.” Back then, though, Candidate Gore was, by law, the press corps’ Official Vile Demon. Bush and McCain had run nasty, inaccurate, anonymous phone calls; according to Klein’s reckoning, both men had then lied about their own conduct. But so what? Gore, why had done nothing like this at all, was now the target of Klein’s condemnations. It was Gore who wouldn’t stop attacking. Bush was “sweet,” “decent” and “kind.”

This is how we reached the point where McCain may yet end up in the White House. And this is why the dead of Iraq stare up in the face of Joe Klein. Why on earth would any liberal put up with a guy like Joe Klein?

Visit our incomparable archives: Klein and Russert went on—and on—about Gore’s attack-attack-attacks on poor Bush. How dare he oppose those private accounts? But then, a long string of big pundits were reciting this script as their War Against Gore gathered steam. For more of Russert and Klein’s discussion, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/7/07. To see other pundits say the same thing, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/20/02. (Scroll down to “The Daily Update.”)

We discussed McCain’s 2000 robocalls in real time. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/24/00, 2/25/00 and 2/29/00. To see Chris Matthews fumble and flail with McCain on this topic, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/3/00. McCain dissembled his way through a string of shows, After that, all was forgiven.