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21 February 2000

Our current howler (part I): Saints elsewhere

Synopsis: The press corps told us a story they liked. In South Carolina, reality bit them.

Wake Me When It's Almost Over
Frank Rich, The New York Times, 1/29/00

Commentary by Brit Hume
Fox News Sunday, Fox News Channel, 2/20/00

Commentary by Linda Douglass
This Week, ABC, 2/20/00

Commentary by John McCain
Meet the Press, NBC, 2/20/00

Bricks and Mortars
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 2/20/00

We tend to agree with something Frank Rich wrote last month in the Times. As New Hampshire voting was drawing near, Rich assessed conventional wisdom about the four major hopefuls:

RICH: [C]onventional wisdom has it that this election is a battle over character—hence the endless dissection of smirks and sighs and the constant lookout for this year's magic balm, authenticity. But none of the big four show any sign whatsoever of being sociopaths or, despite the Bickersons routine of Messrs. Gore and Bradley, compulsive liars. Nor, being politicians, will any of the four prove to be completely authentic or free of smarminess—including Mr. Bradley, who resuscitated Willie Horton for no logical reason, and Mr. McCain, who suddenly found benign dignity in a rebel flag just 24 hours after he had condemned it as a symbol of slavery.

We don't agree with every word; for example, we wouldn't call any of the four hopefuls "smarmy," and we think Rich gives Bradley a major break in his account of the Horton hoohah. (There was a perfectly "logical" reason why Bradley spun Horton. He wanted to win an election.) But in general, Rich's view is spot-on. We see no particular "moral" difference in the way the four hopefuls have run their campaigns—no sign that one or two of the hopefuls are saints, or that one or two are in fact gruesome sinners.

But that isn't the way the celebrity press corps has chosen to tell this year's story. Novelizing furiously, as is their wont, the celebrities chose to improve on the facts, telling a pleasing morality tale in which The Two Authentics—Saints John and Bill—went to battle with Vile Gore and Prince Georgy. In their telling, Gore was more vile than Bush by far, and John ended up more pure than Bill. But Newsweek's October 22 cover piece set the Official Story in stone—McCain and Bradley were the "authentic" "straight-shooters." From that day to this, as we have reported, the celebrity press corps has worked long and hard to make stubborn facts fit this pre-scripted tale.

In South Carolina, reality bit them. Yesterday, the panel on Fox News Sunday discussed McCain's Saturday night concession speech. Juan Williams called it "bitter;" Fred Barnes called it "over the top." Brit Hume then said this:

HUME: We've talked about this McCain concession statement, if that's what it was. It was I think perhaps the most unfortunate such statement since Bob Dole's 1988 famous interview with Tom Brokaw...This was bad news for John McCain. It was McCain at his least attractive, and I think to the people on Capitol Hill and around the country and elsewhere, Republicans who know McCain and don't particularly like him, this was a little taste perhaps for the first time of the McCain they know and don't particularly care for.

Moments later, Hume related this to press coverage of McCain:

HUME: McCain, it seems to me, at this point is showing sides of himself that we hadn't seen before. You know this was the man who was somehow different. New Hampshire, every four years, or often in these cycles, falls in love with someone who seems to be kind of the un-politician or the anti-politician. McCain philosophical about the possibility of defeat—you remember in all the early going it seemed so attractive—and then reporters from Newsweek and other such places were "swooning" over him, and so on. That man last night that we saw on that lectern was not the same fellow that these reporters had been in love with. It will be interesting to see if that romance ends.

We presume that Hume, in singling out Newsweek, was also referring to the October cover story in which Newsweek (and lead author Howard Fineman) identified themselves as principal authors of this year's defining "authenticity" story line.

Others have commented on the tone of McCain's concession. And some were predicting that McCain would change his approach. On ABC's This Week, Linda Douglass said McCain would now engage in "negative campaigning," but would just call it something else:

DOUGLASS: The speech which was tinged with its moments of bitterness says that he will go after Bush in Michigan in the next 48 hours. Yes, he's taken a pledge not to do any negative campaigning. He's just going to call it something else—"clarifying of the record," "drawing distinctions between the two of them."

Meanwhile, here was McCain on Meet the Press:

MCCAIN: Look, this is a tough business we're in. This isn't beanbag. We've got to compare records. I mean somebody who for 5_ years who's never said a word about campaign finance reform and then comes and portrays himself as a, quote, reformer—that's not right. So we're going to draw those differences.

All Sunday, McCain said in Michigan stops, "If Gov. Bush is a reformer, I'm an astronaut." McCain isn't. You can fill in the rest.

Here at THE HOWLER, we don't think there's anything wrong with that. But it isn't what the Saint had been saying, when he was quoting the (silly) Eleventh Commandment. And it's just what the Saint had already been doing, when he had criticized Bush's budget proposal in New Hampshire (more tomorrow)—although the press had continued to spread the message that Saint John just don't take that low, "negative" road.

We, of course, have no idea what will happen in the Michigan primary. But for the record, one part of Hume's statement about McCain was plainly wrong. Quite plainly, the McCain who spoke from that lectern Saturday night was the same fellow the press had swooned for, even if his attitude didn't quite jibe with the McCain we've heard described for so long. For indeed, though the press corps has labored not to tell you, the McCain of New Hampshire, like Gore/Bradley/Bush, had been all too human at times on the trail—had sometimes spun and fudged like the others, and had sometimes said one thing and done quite another. And the McCain of the profiles—of the Timberg books, for example—is a man who has long had temperament problems (though the press labored hard to skim past it). It should have been no surprise—nor is it a sin—if defeat went down a little bit hard. If McCain was grouchy in his Saturday statement, it wasn't all that big a deal—but it should hardly have been such a shocker.

We want to stress: we do not think that John McCain is in any way unqualified to serve. We do not think that Senator McCain is unfit for the office he seeks. But we also see no sign that McCain is the saintly authentic the press has described. Their efforts to tell the story that way has produced a long, embarrassing press corps performance, in which the corps has improved both the hopeful's life story and his conduct out on the trail.

In our view, Rich had told it pretty much right. If you want a saint (or a socio), you'd better go somewhere else. But the press corps liked a different story. And as we'll see once again in the next several days, the press tells the stories it likes.


Tomorrow—surplus spinning: Bush first complained about McCain on January 5. A month later, the scribes were still clueless.

Why do you think they call it "Liberties?" Does anyone have the slightest idea what primary Maureen Dowd was watching this weekend? Dowd's Sunday column would have been the perfect piece—if Bush had lost South Carolina by eleven points. Dowd quoted Bill Kristol making the claim that Bush hurt Bush more than he hurt McCain in the primary. Then she offered this statement:

DOWD: By jumping into the arms of Bob Jones III, Pat Robertson, Strom Thurmond and Dan Quayle, by slighting Catholics and blacks, by switching to a low Atwater-style campaign, Mr. Bush lost touch with all the things that had made him attractive in the first place.

There's only one problem with that statement—Bush won, by eleven big points. There it was, on page one of the paper. But Dowd didn't seem to have heard:

DOWD: Down south, the Texas governor simply tried to become the Arizona senator. But his backers were not impressed when the rich kid ran through $50 million to come up with a slogan as transcendentally dorky as "Reformer With Results."

Yo! Maureen! Slogan worked! Rich kid won! This was Dowd's closing paragraph:

DOWD: Mr. Bush could not morph into Mr. McCain, but he did manage to morph into Steve Forbes, running a destructive—and self-destructive—campaign against a war-hero senator.

They never quit with that "war-hero" stuff. Yo! Maureen! Listen up! The voters don't vote just on that!

In fairness, there was the germ of a hackneyed thought floating around in Dowd's strange piece—the column could have been retouched to say that Bush may have actually hurt himself elsewhere by the way that he won in SC. But that really isn't what Dowd's piece said. Repeat: not a word of this column would have been out of place if Bush had lost in a rout.

Again in fairness, there were deadline problems: Dowd prefers to write her Sunday column as she watches her Thursday soaps on TV. But according to the dateline, the Times had shipped her south this week. Times backers, we'd guess, may not be impressed. Their question: Why did we bother?