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GROUNDING JOE KLEIN! Klein front-runs for Obama—today. For whom will he front-run tomorrow? // link // print // previous // next //

GROUNDING JOE KLEIN: Joe Klein has been kicked off McCain’s campaign plane. Front-running mightily as is his wont, Klein is accepting praise from liberals over at Time’s “Swampland” site.

In our view, a progressive might want to view this scene rather differently.

In fact, Klein’s grounding ends a decade of journalistic front-running for Republican hopefuls—first for Bush, then for McCain. Today, Klein has jumped to the front of the latest line; he’s now front-running for Obama. But his conduct has been highly erratic over the course of the past dozen years. As Americans, we can’t build a strong politics—or a strong journalism—out of such endless front-running.

A sensible progressive might want to see Klein get out of the business altogether. Let’s review the recent history of his amoral front-running:

Front-running for Saint McCain (2006): In 2006, Klein published his definingly awful book, Politics Lost. He devoted a seven-page chunk of the book to the moral greatness of Saint John McCain. His portrait was classic McCain Veneration—and it was extremely hard to reconcile with Klein’s previous work. For a quick sense of Klein’s shape-shifting, consider how his profile of McCain began. In 2006:

KLEIN (2006): For a time, in the winter of 1999-2000, John McCain seemed to have struck the perfect balance. If Jerry Brown’s Maryland campaign was the most fun I’ve ever had covering politics, McCain’s New Hampshire race was the most exhilarating. This was a candidate without fear, speaking in the plainest possible language. I never saw him duck a question, and his best responses had a startling clarity. Asked about health-care reform, for example, he said: “The problem is the Democrats are in the pocket of the trial lawyers and we Republicans are in the pocket of the insurance companies. And so there is gridlock, and there will continue to be, until we get the special-interest influence out of politics.”

There is no more compelling spectacle in politics than watching a man on a white horse attempting to traverse a muddy field. McCain drew the largest, and most diverse, crowds I’ve ever seen in New Hampshire.

This passage ran from page 165 through page 171 of Politics Lost. It was Standard McCain Veneration, of the type the mainstream press corps had perfected long before.

Coming from Klein, how fake was this portrait? Please note: Klein began by saying that Candidate McCain had never ducked a question during Campaign 2000. Indeed, “his best responses had a startling clarity,” Klein asserted—and as an example, he gave McCain’s response to a question about health-care reform. This was odd, because during Campaign 2000 itself, Klein was one of the few major pundits who had challenged these silly portraits of McCain. And omigod! When he’d profiled McCain in real time, Klein had specifically cited health care as a topic McCain couldn’t handle!

Uh-oh! In a January 2000 New Yorker profile, Klein recorded awkward exchanges with McCain about a long string of policy matters. (He noted that the press corps would never let Candidate Bush get away with such serial ignorance.) “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 in that piece. “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 these were hardly McCain’s only problem areas; McCain was “boggled by health care,” Klein wrote. Indeed, Klein recalled the embarrassing scene when McCain released his bollixed health care plan, just one month before:

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.)

McCain’s presentation had been an embarrassment. But the press corps had covered it up.

In January 2000, Klein specifically cited health care as a topic McCain hadn’t bothered to master—even though “he [was] running for president.” But so what? Six years later, Klein portrayed a candidate “on a white horse”—and he specifically cited “health-care reform” as a topic on which McCain had shown his brilliance! But that’s the way a guy like Klein works, when he starts front-running for a candidate. In 2006, he presented a standard profile of McCain on a horse. At the time, Saint McCain was the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

Why had Klein reinvented things so? We don’t have the slightest idea. But here’s a possible hint: In 2006, the presumptive Democratic nominee was a certain Hillary Rodham Clinton. And make no mistake: If Clinton had run against McCain this year, this campaign would have been covered quite differently by more than a few major “journalists.” Today, Klein front-runs on behalf of Obama—and he’s been booted from Saint McCain’s plane. A skeptic might wonder if Klein was pre-scripting a different campaign in his book.

Front-running for decent, kind Bush (May 2000): Given the standards of his cohort, Klein was quite frank, in January 2000, about the shortcomings of McCain. But uh-oh! Four months later, he was out there front-running—this time, for Candidate Bush.

To see the way Klein flip-flops and front-runs, let’s consider another passage from his book—from the book which appeared in 2006. In this passage, Klein describes Candidate Bush’s disgraceful conduct in Campaign 2000. By the time Klein’s book appeared, Bush had become a pariah, of course—and Klein was willing to hammer him hard. As this passage starts, Klein is referring to the 2000 New Hampshire primary:

KLEIN (2006): McCain beat George W. Bush—who seemed a cardboard candidate, ghostly pale in the face of his opponent’s florid humanity—by nineteen points in New Hampshire. He was a national hero, a political phenomenon. Money began to flow into his campaign via the Internet. And then his candidacy began to disintegrate.

To be sure, Bush’s disgraceful South Carolina campaign had a great deal to do with McCain’s decline. There was also the stark political reality that McCain just wasn’t very popular among members of his own party; all his successes came in states where Democrats and Independents could cross over and vote for him.

Writing in 2006, Klein had little good to say for Bush, who was now a pariah (and a lame duck). During Campaign 2000, Bush had seemed like “a cardboard candidate, ghostly pale in the face of [McCain’s] florid humanity,” Klein recalled. And Bush had run a “disgraceful South Carolina campaign,” hastening McCain’s decline. That’s what Klein was saying in 2006, when he almost seemed to be front-running for Saint McCain.

But as we showed you two days ago, that isn’t what Klein was saying in the spring of 2000, when he front-ran for Candidate Bush and spent the rest of his time trashing Candidate Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/20/08). Again, this was Klein in May 2000, just ten weeks after that “disgraceful South Carolina campaign.” Ten weeks after Bush had disgraced himself, Klein was praising the “decent, kind, sweet” man—and was savaging vile, nasty Gore:

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.

Ten weeks after that “disgraceful South Carolina campaign,” Klein warmly praised George Bush’s character—and joined Russert in trashing Vile Gore. “The thing that Gore has to worry about is this—Bush is legitimately a decent, kind, sweet guy,” Klein told Russert. The “scurrilous” campaign was only mentioned in passing—and it was attributed to “Bush’s people,” not to Bush himself. Bush himself was a sweet, decent guy—and Klein was front-running again.

It’s sad to go to Swampland this week and see young progressives praising Klein. For regular people, it’s hard to grasp the sheer dishonesty of major, front-running pundits like Klein. In 2000, Klein front-ran for Candidate Bush. Six years later, he had flipped; he was front-running for Saint McCain.

Today, Klein front-runs for Obama. But your country will never have a sensible discourse as long as it’s scripted by creeps like Joe Klein. Don’t worry—another flip will come. If the future is like the past, career liberals will scramble in line.

Tomorrow: Chris runs for office (click here).

Watching Saint McCain duck: Comical! In 2006, Klein said McCain never ducked a question during Campaign 2000. He specifically cited that mavericky response regarding health-care reform. “The problem is the Democrats are in the pocket of the trial lawyers and we Republicans are in the pocket of the insurance companies,” Klein remembered hearing McCain say. To Klein, this answer captured the greatness of this straight-talking man.
To others, that very soundbite was a sample of McCain’s refusal to deal with real issues. In January 2000, Stephen Pomper evaluated the various candidates on a range of issues in the Washington Monthly. He gave McCain a grade of D-plus on health care reform—and he specifically cited that scripted reply as he explained McCain’s shortcomings. Here is Pomper’s full report on McCain and health care reform. Too funny! Pomper said McCain was ducking this issue—and he cited that very reply as part of the way he ducked:

POMPER (1/1/00): McCain supported Senator John Chafee's reform proposal in 1991 but disappeared during the great national debates and has only recently started to talk about health care again. He has offered a campaign proposal that would give limited grants to low-income elderly people to help them pay for prescription drug and he has even talked about expanding CHIP. But even today, he has not made the issue a strong priority and he has trouble staying on topic.

Here is McCain's response to health-care questions raised a few minutes after Orrin Hatch had been discussing the Internet (a subject McCain really likes) during the first Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire:

Moderator: "Senator McCain, several major HMOs are failing financially. The system isn't working. What do you propose to fix it?"

Senator McCain: "We need a Patient's Bill of Rights, and the reason why we haven't gotten it through the Congress is because on the Democrat side the trial lawyers have them in their control and they'll want to sue anybody for anything under any circumstance. On the Republican side, we're in the grip of the huge money from the insurance companies and the HMOs—the typical gridlock which has caused Americans to have such a low opinion of what goes on in Washington."

Not bad. But then he veers off-topic.

"The Internet should not be taxed. The Internet should not be taxed. The Internet is the greatest thing that's happened to the world—somewhere between the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution..."

After another 100 words endorsing the Internet, the bell sounded and the moderator tried again:

Moderator: "Let me return to the issue of health care and HMOs. Given how expensive health care is, HMOs are now waking up to the fact that they can't deliver the promises they made to consumers and still be profitable. If, ultimately, HMOs disappear, what then fills the void?"

McCain: "Obviously, the HMOs need to be made whole. We need to spend more money to make sure that they do. We have added more money for Medicare and Medicaid payments in the last emergency supplements that we passed. All of those things have to be done, but I believe we have to take care of patients first. And if the patients are not well treated in HMOs, then obviously then the HMOs are not going to be sought out by them. Again, on the Internet, we need to install—we are installing in every school..."

The Internet is important. But so is health care.
Grade: D+

For the record, here’s the rest of McCain’s second non-answer answer, which ran another 41 words: “Again, on the Internet, we need to install—we are installing in every school and library in America filtering software that would filter out according to community standards the objectionable material. That's the way we resolve this issue of such a flood of pornography. And we are wiring those schools and libraries at taxpayers' expense.” In such ways, McCain routinely ducked when asked about health care reform!

As Pomper watched McCain, he saw him “veer off-topic” two times after making his mavericky statement. As Pomper noted, that mavericky statement was part of McCain’s way of ducking this issue. But so what? Six years later, Klein was citing that very sound-bite—as he happily told the world that McCain never ducked a question. But so it goes as front-running scribes invent their front-running novels.

Klein front-runs for Obama—today. For whom will be front-run tomorrow?