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1 March 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Making Tucker Tanya

Synopsis: Joe Klein said you could call the bus the “Stockholm Syndrome.” He described a process that turned the press on its ear.

Sleepless in South Carolina
Tucker Carlson, The Weekly Standard, 2/14/00

Nice Try
Michelle Cottle, The New Republic, 2/14/00

Flawed Hero
Joe Klein, The New Yorker, 1/17/00

To Backers, Even Friends, Gore Remains an Enigma
Edwin Chen, The Los Angeles Times, 2/29/00

"We Raised Him for It"
Margaret Carlson, Time, 2/28/00

Can scribes end up as "candidate's pet" after riding around telling jokes, with free doughnuts? Some of the scribes now seem to sleep at the foot of Senator John McCain's bed! Tucker Carlson is one of our favorites, but here's his account of Day One in Carolina:

TUCKER CARLSON: A little before 9:00 A.M., the candidate is back on the bus and rolling through South Carolina. McCain made it to bed in Greenville at 5:00 in the morning, 24 hours after his day began in Nashua [N.H.]. An hour and a half after turning off the light, the phone rang. McCain couldn't immediately locate the source of the ringing and fumbled around his hotel room in the dark for a while until he found it. The phone turned out to be covered with buttons and immensely complicated to operate. By the time McCain finally pushed the right button, whoever it was had hung up.

McCain never went back to sleep. Exhaustion has made his eyes sensitive, and once on the bus he puts on his fabled sunglasses...

How can Carlson know all this? Either he now camps out on the hopeful's rug, or the scribes had another detailed "bull session" when McCain got back on his bus (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/29/00). Whatever. The worshipful scribe was waiting on board, impressed with how cool Big John is:

TUCKER CARLSON [continuing directly]: In speeches, particularly when he talks about The Special Interests, McCain can come off a self-righteous. Catch him in his sunglasses and you realize he couldn't be. No one who took himself seriously would ever wear anything so dorky.

Welcome back to high school, readers! Meanwhile, campaign aide Mike Murphy stood by, acting out the old chestnut about the hopeful who won't do what his handlers tell him:

TUCKER CARLSON [continuing directly]: Mike Murphy, McCain's campaign chief, has tried to prevent cameras from filming McCain when he has them on, And for the most part the effort has been successful. Unfortunately, there's nothing Murphy can do about the food.

Carlson goes on to portray the hopeful stuffing down boxes of doughnuts ("Krispy Kremes, now that the campaign has arrived in the South").

This schoolboy stuff—from a very good writer—is part of what happens when editors let scribes spend their time riding around on that bus. And whatever happened to Bill Bradley's coverage? Michelle Cottle offers this grisly clue:

COTTLE: So what changed? In part, as the presidential horse race gets serious, the novelty of a Bradley candidacy, which draws much of its energy from anti-Clintonism, is fading. And, of course, what the media build up they must also slap down (especially a candidate like Bradley who—unlike, say, McCain—isn't particularly nice to them).

He wouldn't tell jokes on his bus! Which part of Cottle's portrait does make you comfortable—the part where the press corps turns on Senator Bradley because he isn't funny enough? Or the part where they spend their time "building someone up," then—with no apparent reason—decide to slap him down instead? Again, reporters endlessly describe their peers engaging in firing-offense conduct.

We don't think editors have been especially wise, letting their scribes pal around on that bus. But in a balanced portrait of McCain in the New Yorker, Joe Klein almost implies that the good-natured hopeful has engaged in "psych ops" on the trail. The bus is misnamed, Klein writes:

KLEIN: The bus is called the Straight Talk Express but might just as easily be named the Stockholm Syndrome, candidate and press corps locked in a steamy, involuntary psychological symbiosis. The "I, too, have a weakness for John McCain" sentence has become a standard disclaimer in accounts of his candidacy which have appeared in political magazines of all ideologies.

Klein says that McCain's appeal to the public is more significant than the media's "crisis of the heart," but he goes on to describe the Svengali-like powers the hopeful has displayed with reporters:

KLEIN: [A] more subtle, and perhaps more powerful, quality in the Senator's arsenal of attractions is an unrelenting candor that verges on self-reproach—an analysand's candor, almost. This is rare in politics, and it has served McCain extremely well in the campaign.

According to Klein, McCain keeps confusing the scribes by confessing to sins before they have a chance to accuse him:

KLEIN: For journalists, the most seductive aspect of the McCain candidacy may be not that constant access—or even the fact that, unlike most politicians, he actually seems to like our company—but the startling, preemptive willingness to plead guilty to almost any and all sins, personal or political, venial or mortal.

Poor scribes! Like cheetahs programmed to launch their attack only when the wildebeest panics and runs, Klein describes a celebrity press corps confused by unbidden confessions. "The preemptive confession of personal inadequacy seems a distinctive McCain behavior pattern," he writes. And, even as Klein describes how hard it is to deal with this disorienting conduct, he seems to succumb to the syndrome himself in this wide-eyed narration:

KLEIN: [T]hese embarrassments are mere preliminaries to what McCain considers the three great mistakes of his adult life: signing a prison confession that he was a war criminal, under considerable duress; his role in the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal; and his responsibility for the dissolution of his first marriage, to Carol Shepp, after he returned home from Vietnam.. McCain's autobiography—which ends with his homecoming after the war—deals only with the first, and most excruciating, of his moral crises: the prison confession, which was coerced after a sustained period of torture.

Klein doesn't seems to notice an obvious fact—the one "moral crisis" McCain's book describes is the crisis for which no sane person would blame him (indeed, it's an "embarrassment" which makes McCain a hero); and the two "moral crises" he neglects to describe are the two for which he might well be graded poorly. Klein gives what seems to be a lightly sanitized version of McCain's Keating Five conduct (more next week), and he barely describes the marital conduct. The failure to mention McCain's marital conduct is standard in the press corps profiles; thus, the one hopeful whose sexual history resembles Bill Clinton's is constantly described as the "least Clinton-like" candidate, and we hear that it is on the basis of McCain's life story that he stands apart from the rest of the field.

The "Stockholm Syndrome" works on Klein as his profile comes to an end. McCain has been blubbering, quite unbidden, about how badly he treated his first wife. Before long, Klein is surprised to find himself reassuring the penitent hopeful:

KLEIN: "Why are you so hard on yourself?" I asked, realizing that McCain's candor had accomplished a complete reversal of the traditional reportorial situation. Usually, the implicit question is directed the other way, from politician to journalist: "Why are you being so hard on me?"

As I recall, the candidate didn't have an answer to my question. The plane was descending into Boston. A stewardess came back: the captain wanted the candidate's autograph.

Have scribes been disarmed by McCain's odd "candor?" We have no way of knowing, but as we will see when our bus tour continues, scribes have typically skipped past parts of McCain's CV that might give their readers some pause.

Jake Tapper said McCain has been calling him "Tanya," after Patty Hearst's brainwashed alter ego (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/29/00). Evidence from Tucker Carlson's piece suggests that the fine scribe may now be Tanya II. Has a Stockholm Syndrome been at work, stripping the corps of its normal skills? We don't know how to answer that question, but if scribes weren't riding around on the bus playing "hopeful's best friend," the question would ne'er have arisen.


Tomorrow: We interrupt our tales of life on the bus! Taking their cues from McCain's campaign, the press corps constructs a brand new standard, aimed at one person only—George W.

Now he tells us (part II): Here's Edwin Chen, in yesterday's L.A. Times, in a profile of VP Gore:

CHEN: When he was growing up, the Gores lived in a hotel suite on Embassy Row...But he lived for the glorious summers on the 225-acre family farm, about 50 miles east of Nashville. His father invariably had a list of back-breaking farm chores for him...

He did? For three months last year, Gore was assailed as a liar for the statement that Chen makes here. Donald Lambro called Gore "deeply dishonest" in the Washington Times; Michael Medved, in USA Today, called the veep "delusional." The Weekly Standard said Gore's account of these chores was a "preposterous" story. As we stated at the time, the press corps was full of scribes whom knew these charges were false—but they also knew enough not to speak up while the demagogic attack was transpiring. Where was the L.A. Times last year, when these slanders were being repeated? And where was Time's ace, Margaret Carlson? Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth:

MARGARET CARLSON: Friends say father and son did not chat baseball and girls but monetary policy. Gore Sr. sent Al away most summers to toughen him up. On the 250-acre family farm in Carthage, Al would rise at dawn to feed the cattle, slop the hogs and clear tree-filled fields by hand. [Mrs. Gore], no slouch herself, once chided her husband for pushing Al so hard...

For describing this part of his life in an interview, Gore was called a liar for three solid months. Half the corps took part in the attacks; the other half knew enough to stay silent. The three-month campaign was the press corps debacle of the past year—a study in deceit and hypocrisy.

Visit our incomparable archives: U.S. News also knew what was what. See "Now he tells us," THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/99.