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3 March 2000

Smile-a-while: New ideas

Synopsis: The press corps invented a brand new standard when The Dub went to visit Bob Jones. (Postscript: David Barstow breaks the rules on the bus.)

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Gov. Paul Cellucci (R-MA)
Hardball, MSNBC, 2/23/00

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Hardball, MSNBC, 2/24/00

Bush—The Letter to the Cardinal
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 2/29/00

Why Certain Political Symbols Stick
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 2/27/00

Commentary by Howard Fineman
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 2/28/00

Commentary by Cokie Roberts, Sen. John McCain
This Week, ABC, 2/27/00

The celebrity press corps was thinking fast, keeping up with a changing campaign. Governor Bush had gone to Bob Jones, and Senator McCain was now slamming him for it. The problem: every major Republican hopeful had gone to the school in the past twenty years. And McCain's leading supporter in the state—Congressman Cornpone, Lindsey Graham—had proudly taken an honorary degree at the "unusual" school just this year!

Omigod! What to do? It didn't quite make total sense, but McCain's official message was clear—The Dub had committed vile acts. And then, of course! The scribes had it at last! They'd simply invent a new standard! A tabloid talker kicked things off, the night after Caroline voted:

GOV. PAUL CELLUCCI: Well lookit, [Bush] went there to deliver his message. And I find it interesting that Senator McCain is saying, "I'm the Reagan Republican." Why isn't he criticizing Ronald Reagan? Ronald Reagan did the same thing George W. Bush did—

Not to a tabloid talker he didn't:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Twenty years ago!

CELLUCCI: —but you don't hear John McCain criticizing him—

MATTHEWS: Twenty years ago! But twenty years ago!

CELLUCCI: But why is it OK for Reagan and it's not all right for Bush? It's a double standard. It's your typical Washington politician.

And your typical Washington press corps. The very next night, the talker explained why it was OK when Lindsey Graham went to Jones:

MITCH MCCONNELL: Bob Jones is a controversial school. But Lindsey Graham went there last year, John McCain's campaign manager, and got an honorary degree. The Democratic governor of South Carolina, a Gore supporter, has been there.

MATTHEWS: But those are constituents of those fellows. They're playing to their constituencies.

So, of course, is a White House hopeful—South Carolina is part of this country! At any rate, soon McCain's argument was all over town, with creative accounts of why Bush was just different. There he was, that man again—Richard Cohen, 'splaining hard in the Post:

COHEN: The Bush camp is perplexed. Why was it no big deal when Ronald Reagan or Bob Dole spoke at Bob Jones? The question is a good one. It says something about how times have changed, but also about how Bush is blind to the effect of his very public—and very specific—religiosity. Neither Reagan nor, in particular, Dole, did anything like cite Jesus Christ as a favorite philosopher.

There's a second paragraph to that explanation, but it doesn't make any sense either. And besides, Richard Berke had already given a better explanation for the universally respected Bob Dole:

BERKE: The Bob Jones visit took on an outsized importance because Mr. Bush has still been a relatively blank slate ideologically...When Mr. Dole visited the university he had a more centrist history, so people who objected to the school's policies were willing to give him a pass, saying that his trip was something that he had to do.

See? It was OK because Dole had to do it! Of course! Eventually, Bush apologized for failing to speak out against Jones policies while at the school. He wrote a letter to Cardinal O'Connor. And that was no goddamn good, either:

COHEN: In the first place, one might question why Bush wrote O'Connor and not also New York's black clergy. Could it be that blacks play almost no role in the upcoming New York Republican primary, but Catholics do?

Naw! That wasn't the problem. Howard Fineman 'splained it all to Brian Williams:

FINEMAN: And by writing a letter only to New York, and only to the Cardinal in New York, and not writing the letter to every bishop and every Catholic lay leader in the country, I think he missed another opportunity to show where he thinks his heart really is.

He should have just written to everyone! At any rate, there was one man who could clear it all up—who could say why sauce for The Dub wasn't sauce for The Gipper. That man was Bush's critic, McCain. And what did the hopeful finally say, when asked about the apparent double standard? What did he say when asked about Lindsey Graham? Why was George Bush doing wrong, when everyone else had done the same thing? What sort of context did he put it all in when the scribes on the bus popped the question?

The answer is, he didn't say much, because the question wasn't asked a whole lot. Cokie Roberts did ask, on This Week:

ROBERTS: One of your great supporters, though, Lindsey Graham, has an honorary degree from there. You don't condemn him.

We'll skip ahead to the part of McCain's answer that is relevant:

MCCAIN: Lindsey Graham's not running for president of the United States.

It's OK if you don't run for president! Dole and Reagan were running, of course. No follow-up questions about them.

Couldn't this question get some more airing? But it's one more question that has slipped the gang's mind as they ride around in that "rolling bull session." The scribes love to say that they get so much access they simply run out of questions to ask. Here was one more query that fell through the cracks as they debated Marie, the Flame Thrower.

Is there something wrong with what Bush did? It's fine with us if folks say yes—but we do like to see common standards. We've noticed that scribes will create brand new rules for hopefuls whom the press corps disfavors. Why is Bush being held to new standards? Could someone put down the doughnuts and ask?


Barstow spoils the fun: David Barstow has been on the bus just a couple of weeks, but the New York Times kill-joy is spoiling the fun. On Friday, February 25, he actually asked McCain about those Michigan phone calls, and he ended up reporting the fact that McCain had pre-approved the scripts. More experienced reporters had seemed not to ask; Barstow's story led on to big trouble. And then, this Wednesday, in a page one report, Barstow committed another faux pas; he said that McCain had used the word "evil" in describing Revs. Falwell and Robertson (four times). No one else reported these comments, although Barstow said they took place on the bus. And soon William Bennett was complaining, out loud, about McCain's careless tongue (in the Journal).

Why did no one else report what was said? We don't know, but we do have a question. Scribes have written, more than once, that they simply don't tell us when McCain says weird things. (See, for example, THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/15/99.) Did David Barstow, new kid on the bus, simply break the bus brigade's strictures? And how do the scribes plan to keep rockin' on if David Barstow kills the fun by reporting?