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14 February 2000

Our current howler (part I): Poppy smear

Synopsis: Maureen Dowd said Bush was smearing McCain. In the process, she smeared Bush herself.

King Of the Hoods
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 2/14/00

Gore Hammers Bradley As Using Negative Attack
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 1/28/00

If you want to see the moral corruption of the celebrity press corps—and its non-existent intellectual standards—you really ought to take a look at yesterday's Maureen Dowd column. Dowd closes her piece with a serious charge about an important public figure:

DOWD (paragraph 16): Like his father before him, [Governor George] W. [Bush] is morphing from moderate to conservative, from easy-going to do-what-it-takes, to win an election.

Governor Bush will "do-what-it-takes" to win the election? That's CelebCorps's current atomic bomb—involving use of a phrase that is normally reserved for aggressive spin about Gore (see tomorrow's DAILY HOWLER).

Yep—Dowd ends her piece with a serious charge about Gov. Bush's character. You'd almost think the column itself would include evidence supporting her charge. Sorry. Dowd's column is a textbook smear, a textbook example of guilt-by-association, in which Dowd sullies Bush with ancient tales about other people, several now dead.

There isn't a word by Dowd in this column, not one, alleging that Bush has done anything wrong. There isn't a word alleging misconduct by Bush in the current campaign. Instead, Dowd enters a revery about other people, behaving badly in other campaigns. Her "thought" process kicks off like this:

DOWD (paragraph 2): Whenever the Bushes start flailing, I mull whether it would be different if Lee Atwater were still around.

(3) I used to wonder if the cocky strategist, the Ricky Martin of dirty campaigning, could have pulled President Bush through in '92, as he did in '88, when he zestfully turned Willie Horton into the bogeyman. Now I'm wondering how Mr. Atwater would be smashing up John McCain's insurgency.

Of course, Dowd has no way of knowing how Lee Atwater might have affected this campaign (if at all). So she simply starts to reminisce about other campaigns, long ago—campaigns in which her target, Governor Bush, wasn't involved in any way whatsoever. Here's Dowd's first example of "mulling:"

DOWD (6): Profiling Mr. Atwater for Esquire in '86, David Remnick recalled the 1980 Congressional race in South Carolina's Second District "between Atwater's man, Republican Floyd Spence and a Faulknerian figure named Tom Turnipseed...At one press briefing Atwater planted a reporter who rose and said 'We understand Turnipseed has had psychiatric treatment.' Atwater played it cool and refused to comment, but later told the reporters off the record, 'In college I understand he got hooked up to jumper cables.'" (Dowd's deletion)

It certainly makes a colorful story, and it's certainly easy to build a column out of long quotes from real writers' old stories. But what does this tale have to do with Bush? Nothing, of course, since Dowd's borrowed anecdote concerns alleged misconduct, twenty years ago, by a man who's now long since dead. (Gov. Bush had nothing to do with this 1980 congressional race.) But then, Dowd's second tale isn't about The Dub either. It's even older, of 1978 origin:

DOWD (7): In 1986, Phil Gailey wrote in The Times about a controversy that erupted when [former S.C. governor Carroll] Campbell was running for governor. His critics charged that in his 1978 campaign for Congress, Mr. Campbell had tried to make an issue of the Jewish faith of his Democratic opponent, Max Heller.

The tale stretches on through six more paragraphs, taking up the bulk of Dowd's column. Dowd lazily quotes from Gailey's old story about Campbell's alleged misconduct.

Why does Dowd include this tale? Because Campbell supports Bush in the current race (at least he isn't dead). Campbell's alleged misconduct in 1978 is meant to reflect on Bush now. But again, there is no description by Dowd—none at all—of any misconduct by either man now. Dowd merely recites the allegations about Campbell and Atwater, and then jumps straight to her closing remark—that Gov. Bush, just like his pap, will do-what-it-takes to win.

But let's be fair—let's quote in full. Here is Dowd's hopeless attempt at a closing QED:

DOWD (15): Mr. McCain accused Mr. Bush of push-polling in South Carolina—calling voters on the pretense of gathering information when you're only spreading dirt. Mr. Bush has denied it. Senator McCain said things had gotten so ugly, he would no longer air ads criticizing Mr. Bush. Bush aides seethed as Mr. McCain once more pushed ahead in the virtue sweepstakes.

(16) Like his father before him, W. is morphing from moderate to conservative, from easy-going to do-what-it-takes, to win an election.

See the thinking? McCain says that Bush has done something wrong; therefore, Dowd concludes that it's true. Plus his pappy did wrong, in 1988. The pap's (alleged) sin is passed on to the son.

Let's note again—except for McCain's unproven charge, Dowd describes no misconduct at all by Bush in any campaign. But she goes ahead, by a slick, lazy route, to say that he'll do-what-it-takes. In this column, Dowd describes the late Atwater as "king of the hoods." In ways that Dowd surely doesn't intend, this horrid column does evoke the man's memory.


Tomorrow: Gore will do-what-it-takes to win too. In Newsweek, Bill Turque spins to "prove" it.

Tales of Spinner One: Never have we laughed so hard at a small example of the press-corps-at-spin as when we read this account, from Spinner One, while we were up in New Hampshire:

SEELYE: [Gore] continued to hammer at Mr. Bradley's proposals for Medicaid. "I am going to fight to protect Medicaid," Mr. Gore said, adding: "Senator Bradley's plan would eliminate Medicaid and replace it with an inadequate substitute. That's a fact, not a negative attack." Mr. Bradley has proposed replacing Medicaid with a larger health insurance program that would cover more people.

Seelye's last sentence is a textbook example of her unmatched daily spinning. Gore says Bradley's substitute for Medicaid is "inadequate;" she replies that Bradley's substitute program is "larger" and "would cover more people." (Translation: What could possibly be "inadequate" about that?) But as Seelye of course understands, Gore's claim is that current Medicaid recipients would get, at best, vastly reduced medical coverage under Bradley's plan. Is that true? Here at THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue, because the New York Times, like other major outlets, simply refuses to examine the topic (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/23/99). But Seelye pretends to play the reporter's role, while presenting a comic-book account of this dispute. Silly work like this insults the public discourse. But it appears every day in the Times.