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28 April 2000

Our current howler (part II): Passover

Synopsis: Two hopefuls had the very same stand. But only one hopeful had pandered.

Commentary by Wolf Blitzer, Tucker Carlson
Late Edition, CNN, 4/16/00

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Michael Barone, Carl Bernstein
Hardball, MSNBC, 4/25/00

Commentary by Chris Matthews, Chuck Lane
Hardball, MSNBC, 4/26/00

Was Bush sincere in his new stand on gays? We don't have the foggiest notion. Here at THE HOWLER, we don't employ sooth-sayers, mind-readers, psychics or oracles, or even priests who can read the flight of birds. Only the big news orgs do that. But we couldn't help noticing, in the wake of Bush's meeting, that many pundits were impressed with his outlook. On Late Edition the following Sunday, Wolf Blitzer brought up the topic:

BLITZER: Steve [Roberts], this past week George W. Bush did what he said he earlier was not going to do. He met with a group of gay Republicans, office holders, activists, and after the meeting he came out and sounded pretty compassionate in terms of conservatism. Listen to what he said.

Blitzer then played tape of Bush saying he was "a better person for the meeting."

We note that Blitzer explicitly said it: Bush did something he'd once said he wouldn't. At THE HOWLER, we're glad that Bush held this meeting; we think it was the right thing to do. But a press corps that can be extremely cynical on flip-flops didn't say "Boo" about Bush's new stand. Steve Roberts said Bush has "a real problem [with the religious right], but I think he handled it well this week." There wasn't a naughty word on sincerity or motive until Tucker Carlson said this:

CARLSON: I do think the question of how exactly he's a better man after meeting with gay Republicans is an interesting one. What does that mean? What a weird thing to say.

Carlson may have been suggesting a bit of a pander. But Blitzer wasn't thinking that way. "He obviously learned something," Blitzer said, and then moved on to the next topic.

He did? He obviously learned something? Why was it "obvious" that Bush had learned something, and wasn't just saying he had? What could have made this "obvious?" As our readers know, we prefer not to speculate about the motives of pols, and we most certainly do not assert that Bush was insincere. But Blitzer's conclusion wasn't "obvious" at all—and it made quite a contrast to the frenzy going on about Gore's "obvious" insincerity about Elian.

Indeed, it is virtually impossible to find cynical thoughts about Bush's new, improved outlook. At the Times, Alison Mitchell even went out of her way to say that Bush hadn't changed any positions. This was, at best, a severe stretch (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/27/00). Jonathan Rauch wrote a stinging op-ed, accusing The Dub of bad motives and flip-flops. But even as the press corps routinely assured us that Gore had gruesome motives on Elian, no one else really said a word to question the governor's "move to the center."

Why was that? What follows here is pure speculation, but one answer might go as follows. The celebrity press corps is generally sympathetic to the interests of gays and lesbians (as we think is completely appropriate). And we've noticed before that, in the wonderful world of motive-ascription, our pundits tend to say folks have bad motives when they disagree with the pol on the merits. Who has defended Gore's motives on Elian? The occasional conservative scribe. There was Fred Barnes, just Wednesday night, defending the veep on Special Report; and there was Michael Barone, no lefty he, playing some Hardball one night earlier. A talker recited a dog-eared premise. You've heard it a thousand times before:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Al Gore is going through a period where he has displayed his particular talent for being a constituency politician. In this case, he was working one constituency—Cuban-Americans. Did he gain or lose through this affair?

Most pundits have showcased their inordinate skill at reciting the Official, Approved Answer. But this night, Barone took a walk:

BARONE: Well the numbers say he lost, Chris, but I take real issue with the notion that he was just playing constituency politics. His position on this, contrary to what many people have said, has been consistent all along, and it's been consistent with beliefs and values he's taken over a long time.

Such statements have been few and far between. The script has been perfectly clear on this matter; Al Gore has pandered on Elian. As we'll see next Tuesday, pundits have shown a numbing ability to go on TV and recite the party line. Could Castro's minions be more slavish than these nmemnists in our celebrity press corps? But this night, rebellion filled the air. Carl Bernstein went a step too far, following up on what Barone said:

BERNSTEIN: But there's a whole issue here of pandering. Which one of these is pandering most?

Heresy! It almost sounded like Bernstein might be saying that Bush could be pandering too! The talker quickly switched the subject to more acceptable fields of inquiry. Soon, he was back to scripts that would please his viewers. "Does Al Gore ever do anything just because it's the right thing to do?" he asked.

Bernstein's comment could have taken us in an intriguing direction. Though one would have a hard time learning it on cable TV, Bush and Gore have identical positions on Elian; each one favors granting permanent legal residency so the case can go into family court. (Bush announced for legal residency in late January; Gore, who favored using family courts all along, announced for legal residency two months later.) But Gore is routinely denounced for "pandering;" the question is rarely asked about Bush. Is Bush's position sincerely held? Or are he and his party just after votes, too? Wednesday night, that incredible question was actually asked as Chuck Lane played some Hardball. A talker began with the standard script. You've heard it a thousand (and one) times before:

MATTHEWS: The guest on earlier [Ralph Reed] made the point—and see if you agree with this—that the loser so far is Gore, because Gore look like Bill Clinton looked at his worst in 92 when he was panderingBut this time it looks like Gore is just pandering to an ethnic group pure and simple, it still looks like that to a lot of people...

Snore! Note that the talker completely ignored what Barone had said one night earlier. He continued:

MATTHEWS (continuing directly): Is that the way you see it, Chuck? Gore loses because he looks like a weak candidate?

Lane made a foolish move. He was on Hardball. But he still tried to answer:

LANE: Yes, and not only that—

MATTHEWS [interrupting]: So you say "Yes!"

Have we ever mentioned that guests on this show don't get to give long-winded answers? Lane continued—we delete one further interruption by the host—and he brought up that point about Bush:

LANE: The irony is that Bush, who actually holds a position opposed by a majority of the American people, comes out the winner simply because he seems more consistent on this. Of course, I'm not sure George Bush isn't pandering in the position that he holds too because he's trying to secure Florida and the Cuban-American vote there as well.

Really! Imagine that! Well trained in the camps that the Thought Police runs, the talker knew just what to do with Lane's comment. He simply turned to a different guest, and asked if Gore's pander might work.

Bush and Gore hold identical positions. But Gore has been constantly slammed for a pander; with Bush, it rarely comes up. Part of the reason may involve what Barone told the talker on Tuesday. According to Barone, "many people" have misstated basic facts about Gore's stand on the Elian matter. And it's true: Many pundits don't seem to know the basic facts in this scripted debate. They know all about what the hopefuls think. They rarely seem to know what they've said.


Monday: Charlie and Stu knew the hopefuls' motives. They didn't seem to know what they've said.

Save the discourse: The analysts were roaring on Wednesday morning; they agreed with Michael Kelly! In his opening paragraph, Kelly noted that the Miami raid had actually "risked [Elian's] life." We too were struck by how dangerous the raid had been, given the fact that there was (in Kelly's words) "no excuse of imminent danger to Elian."

But soon, our new axis unraveled. Sure enough—Kelly adopted the strange construction we had singled out earlier in the week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/24/00):

KELLY: These facts point to only one logical explanation for the administration's decision to risk Elian's life: Fear of facing the May 11 court appearance, where Elian might be expected to stick with his request for an asylum hearing.

Say what? Elian might be expected to stick with his request? Elian—"plaintiff"—is six years old. As sane people all over the country will know, Elian couldn't have made such a request. And he can't "stick with it" (or renounce it), either.

Again we see the irrational air suffusing the Elian commentary. On Monday, Peggy Noonan took the cake—and in the process, she also explained it. You'll think that we're making this up:

NOONAN: And some of us, in our sadness, wonder what Ronald Reagan, our last great president, would have done...Mr. Reagan would not have dismissed the story of the dolphins [saving Elian at sea] as Christian kitsch, but seen it as possible evidence of the reasonable assumption that God's creatures had been commanded to protect one of God's children. And most important, the idea that he would fear Mr. Castro, that he would be afraid of a tired old tyrant in faded fatigues, would actually have made him laugh...

But then, he was a man. [End of article]

Noonan, of course, had not tried to show that anyone dismissed the dolphin story as "Christian kitsch." As with her recent appearance on Special Report, Noonan simply invented the facts her case needed. But in this passage, Noonan trashes a president in the most personal terms for not considering the possibility that a miracle had occurred, sending a signal on how he should act. Because Clinton presumably didn't make that calculation, Noonan says he isn't "a man."

Should a president actually consider such factors in making important decisions? Noonan doesn't just imply that he should; she trashes Clinton, quite personally, for not doing so. And so you see the source of the oddness—this turns out, again, to be All About Clinton. And in the eyes of a critic as upset as Noonan, the failure to consider the (reported; interpreted) actions of dolphins now shows us that Bill's not "a man."

Is Reno's decision open to question? Absolutely—we found it quite risky. But Noonan's comment is simply disturbed. It's dangerous for our discourse and our comity—it's actually dangerous for the health of our republic—when highly-placed people can somehow think that bizarre judgments like this one make sense.