17 January 2000
The Howler review: Churls in charge?
Synopsis: It brings us no pleasure to report what we found when we reviewed the January 6 hopeful forum.
Commentary by Tim Russert, Jenny Attiyeh, Alison King, John Stasio
GOP Presidential Forum, MSNBC, 1/6/00
It brings us no pleasure to report what we found when our analysts
reviewed the 1/6 GOP forum. Following the event, the Manchester
Union-Leader, one of its sponsors, apologized for the conduct
of the debate, and we finally went and reviewed our tape of the
event this past weekend.
In truth, the work of the moderators might have been scripted
by writers from Saturday Night Live. It gives us no pleasure
to report the judgments our review has forced us to make. But
the work was so striking that our incomparable mission requires
us to say what occurred:
Fairness. The Union-Leader complained that moderator
Tim Russert gave favored treatment to McCain and Bush. NBC said,
in response to the criticism, that time allotments to the hopefuls
turned out to be fairly even.
The statement is impossible to justify. The debate began with
a (roughly) 35-minute segment in which four moderators questioned
the hopefuls. This is the part of the program over which the moderators
had direct control.
In the course of this segment, Russert repeatedly asked Bush
and McCain to comment on other candidates' answers. As a result,
this is the breakdown of speaking time that we were able to record:
McCain: 9:45 (minutes:seconds)
Some of the difference in speaking time reflected the hopefuls'
aggressiveness. Most of the difference in speaking time reflected
Questions to Forbes and Hatch: The Union-Leader has
endorsed Steve Forbes, and any Forbes supporter would have been
upset by the lack of questions directed to him. But even more
striking was the type of questions directed at Forbes and
Hatch. In the first round of questioning, all six hopefuls were
given a three-minute segment, in which they fielded a series of
questions on some single topic. As noted above, Russert frequently
augmented these segments, asking McCain and Bush to comment on
things that other candidates said.
Twelve and a half minutes into the hour-long forum, only three
hopefuls had spoken at all-Bush, McCain and Bauer. Finally it
was time for Forbes' first (and only) question. Reporter John
Stasio asked this:
STASIO: Mr. Forbes, you're a wealthy man with a tax cut plan.
Your social policies have shifted some to the right in the past
four years. You've been known in the state for four years, spent
millions, still remain at 10 or 11 percent in the polls. Please,
without a campaign speech, open up a little bit, it's getting
latetell us why you're not yet connecting, or not connecting,
with a large segment of New Hampshire voters. Is it that some
view you as aloof and out of touch, while others may say that
you're just not the genuine article?
And no, we don't make this stuff up. Stasio's condescension
is apparent throughout; he doesn't shy from telling Forbes not
to give a campaign speech. (This season, moderators have frequently
lectured candidates on how they should answer the questions.)
But look at the subject of the question. After asking Bush and
McCain serious policy questions, the panel asks Forbes a question
about polls, riddled throughout with open attempts to define him
for the viewers. Incredibly, this was the only question
directed at Forbes in the 34 minutes controlled by the moderators.
Meanwhile, when Orrin Hatch got his one question (right after
Forbes), he too was asked about the polls! The moderators' work
here was simply incrediblea segment from an SNL spoof
that would likely be cut as overdone.
Moderator incomprehension: Hopeless imbalance; repeat
questions on pollinghold on, folks, we're just getting started.
Also striking was the panel's inability to comprehend simple responses.
We've already discussed Jenny Attiyeh's response when McCain answered
her question about FCC letters (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/7/00).
After McCain gave a direct, responsive answer to her question,
she snidely accused him of not being "forthcoming."
This forced McCain to waste everyone's time, restating the basic
points of his answer. But Attiyeh also seemed overmatched when
she asked Alan Keyes' his one question:
ATTIYEH: Mr. Keyes, I have a short question for you. What does
the term "separation of church and state" mean to you?
Perfectly predictably, Keyes pointed out that the phrase "separation
of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution;
he argued that it is the government's duty to protect the right
to practice religion in all areas of life. As we've noted, the
answer was completely predictable from a Christian conservative
perspective; there are any number of policy areas in which one
might direct a cogent follow-up. But Attiyeh seemed puzzled by
what Keyes had said. Here was her follow-up question:
ATTIYEH: Can you just interpret that for me? Are you for or
against the separation of church and state? Are you willing to
abide by it?
Keyes has just said that, in his view, "separation of
church and state" is not a constitutional principle. In response,
Attiyeh wants to know if he's fur-'r-agin it. It's hard to believe
that this is the best we can do in selecting a president.
Let's make some news: Not much better was Russert's
attempt to nail Bush down on taxes. Responding to Stasio, Bush
said he would provide a $483 billion tax cut. This pledgefrom
a Republican running at a time of big surplusesis about as surprising
as snowfall in Nome. Any Republican running this year would
pledge to cut federal taxes. But Bush's father once broke a tax
pledge (in very different economic circumstances), so journalists
have recently had Big Fun pretending that Bush has rekindled Big
Questions. Here was Russert's labored attempt to make Bush's statement
RUSSERT: Governor, so we're clear, even in the case
of a prolonged world war, with the United States involved, would
you not consider raising taxes?
Even Bush had to laugh out loud at the kindergarten-caliber
BUSH (laughing): If you're talking about the extremest of the
extreme hypotheticalswhich you sometimes have the tendency to
RUSSERT: Which sometimes happen
Which sometimes happen! It "sometimes happens" that
asteroids hit cities, and if that happens in Washington this Sunday,
Meet the Press might not air on time. But that doesn't
mean that Meet the Press doesn't have a regular schedule,
or that NBC ought to "make things clear" by explaining
this fact in TV Guide. There were obvious questionsobvious
questionsto ask Gov. Bush about his tax plan. Specifically:
Does he plan to stick to the 1997 spending caps on which the
projected non-SS surplus is based? But this obvious
questionnever asked; never askedwas passed over for Russert's
pointless query. Do you mind if we make an impolitic statement?
When a candidate frequently scolded as dumb is asked a question
as silly as this, a striking fact is put on displaythe intellectual
superiority of the two parties' candidates when compared to the
Washington press corps.
Russert's final word: Most striking by far in this forum
was Russert's treatment of Social Security. The topic arose 30
minutes along in a question to McCain. (This was McCain's third
round of questions. Forbes, Hatch and Keyes received one.)
Predictably, Russert asked Bush to critique McCain's answer, and
Bauer forced his way in for a comment. But, though Keyes and Forbes
were trying to speak, Russert held up his hand, talked over the
top of them, and said this before starting the forum's next segment:
RUSSERT: We've all agreed the candidates will get a chance
to question one another. Just for the record, Mr. Bauer,
if nothing is done, benefits must be reduced by a third or the
taxes doubled by the year 2035. More to come, more to come.
This is Russert's view of the facts, but it's surely
not the view of several candidates. The idea that Russert
should establish "the record" on this seminal issue
provided the debate's most remarkable moment. Our analysts cheered
when Keyes finally said, "I begin to wonder when Mr. Russert
will declare his candidacy." But Russert's notionthat candidates
should be silenced so journalists can speakwas all too expressive
of moderator outlook in the dispiriting succession of performances
by moderators we have seen since these forums began.
Seeming is believing: We were awakened Sunday morning
in our sumptuous quarters by the unmistakable scream of sirens.
Then we heard the squeal of tires; the Manners Police had arrived
at our door! Melinda Henneberger leaped from the car, and began
calling out through a large bull-horn:
HENNEBERGER (paragraph 1): Backstage before the recent Republican
presidential debate in South Carolina, John McCain was yukking
it up with his new friend Gary L. Bauer when George W. Bush finally
showed uplate, as usual, and with a Texas-sized security detail...[T]he
other candidates rolled their eyes.
(2) Contrary to his laid-back image, Governor Bush seemed nervous,
wound a little bit tight, as he has before several of these events.
In a snub that might have been inadvertent, he stepped in front
of Mr. Bauer to have a word with Senator McCainthe only opponent
he sees as a peer, according to one Bush adviser. Orrin G. Hatch,
whose antipathy for his Senate colleague Mr. McCain is well known,
was nonetheless greeting each of the candidates perfectly correctly.
Finally! Someone with manners! You'll recall a recent
admission by ABC's Peter Jennings (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/10/00).
What had he wanted to tell the audience when he hosted a Democratic
debate? He'd wanted to describe the personal stuff he'd seen going
on backstage! At the Times, Henneberger finally got the OK to
give us this pointless information. Perhaps this pointless writing
would seem less silly at a paper that was able to explain simple
factssimple facts, for example, about budget projections, or
Bradley's health plan, or Bush's tax record. But the truth is,
this sort of drivel is what really consumes the denizens of the
celebrity press corps. Why won't the press corps report basic
facts? To all appearances, they care about this.
Meanwhile, we marveled at Henneberger's sense of how one establishes
information. Note aboveshe reports that Bush sees only McCain
as a peer because one (unnamed) adviser has said so. One!
It's amazing how stories just fall into place when this rule of
HENNEBERGER (3): ...[F]inally, with just minutes until air, Alan
Keyeswhom the others view mostly "as an entertainment dimension,"
according to another Republican adviserarrived with his
own security detail...
Henneberger now reports what five people think on the
basis of one person's comment.
Nor does Henneberger make out better explaining why
the hopefuls feel as they do. Gore doesn't take his spats with
Bradley personally, she says. But it's different for Bradley.
HENNEBERGER: But for Mr. Bradley, it does seem personalin
part, friends say, because of his experience as a tough athletic
Bradley takes it personally because he played in the NBA. This
makes sense to people on Marsand to editors at the Times. By
the way, last fall, when Bradley seemed "above the fray,"
his athletic experience was widely cited as the explanation for
that. To writers who like to write pointless stories, Bradley's
athletic experience has been cited as the explanation for everything
he does. (Note to press corps: McCain's supporters like to mention
Vietnam. Bradley's supporters like to mention pro basketball.
Some among you don't seem to have noticed.)
The saddest moment in this piece? It came in this troubling
HENNEBERGER: [A]s the campaign has gone on, Senator McCain's
attitude toward Governor Bush seems to have cooled. "McCain
has real doubts that Bush is up to the job, and you can see
that in the body language sometimes," said William Kristol,
a friend of both Mr. Bauer and Mr. McCain who was Mr. Keyes's
roommate at Harvard.
Kristol, the smartest guy on Sunday morning, had to be fired
for that very reason. Weeks later, we see him reduced to consulting
the Times on questions of McCain's body language.
Henneberger writes a long, pointless piece describing who likes
who among hopefuls. The word "seems" is her crutch and
- Issues and ideology seem irrelevant to the candidates
in choosing their friends.
- Mr. Bauer seems almost poignantly open to a real, and
not just to a political, friendship with [Bush].
- Mr. Bradley does not seem to have been able to
bring himself to return [Gore's] compliments.
- The vice president does not seem to be taking
it to heart.
- For Mr. Bradley, it does seem personal.
- Sen. McCain's attitude toward Governor Bush seems to
- Mr. Bauer seems to feel hopeful that even in the craziness
and intense pressure of a presidential race there is room for
the unexpected, uncalculated wild card of human feeling.
Aaaawww! Peter Jennings gnashed his teeth when he couldn't
discuss this pointless trivia. Waking us up with her big loud
bull-horn, Henneberger finally does.