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GIMME AN O! “Gimme an O,” three cheerleaders cried, fawning and pandering hard: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2010

History continues today/Chapter 2: Over at our companion site, we have posted Chapter 2 in our history book, How he got there. How did George Bush ever get to the White House? This chapter describes the most consequential month in Campaign 2000. It describes the events of March 1999, twenty months before we all voted.

To access the web site, just click this.
For Chapter 2, just click here.

This is by far the toughest part of this story to tell. In March 1999, the national press corps invented a liar—a liar named Candidate Gore. (As archived press releases make clear, they seemed to take their cues from the RNC all through this unfortunate month.) With remarkable speed and through flawless Group Conduct, the press corps invented a trio of lies, thereby creating a punishing narrative which would eventually drive the coverage of this entire campaign. This part of the story is hard to tell because so much consummate nonsense occurred all at once—and because the press corps’ group misconduct flies in the face of the way people think the world works.

(The way sane people think the world works.)

We’ll make a few tweaks to this chapter this week. If we get to finish this project, many appendices lie ahead; every part of this chapter could be fleshed out in greater detail. (We plan to do the chapters first). Eleven years later, the mainstream press corps’ conduct in March 1999 remains a gong-show and a disgrace—and truly, a thing to behold. And yes, this is how Bush reached the White House. We think this tale should be told.

If our nation ever regains its senses (we’re placing no bets), it will be through a fuller appreciation of foundational stories like this one.

We’ll say the following each time we post a chapter: We would appreciate any financial support you could give to this project. Years of work lie behind today’s companion post, as you can possibly tell.

The national press corps invented a liar. Even stripped down, this chapter is long. But then, so are the miseries handed down by the conduct this chapter describes.

For our desperately floundering nation, March 1999 was a real “month that was.” With apologies, we will say this: It’s quite hard to do this month justice.

Special report: Dumb like us!

PART 2—GIMME AN O (permalink): Let’s make sure we understand the foolishness of last Friday’s discussion—the discussion on Hardball concerning Obama’s Q-and-A with the House GOP.

Last night, cable hosts were still calling the session “historic.” Such excess of rhetoric is a mark of the medium. But Obama did respond to questions from House Republicans on a wide range of crucial domestic topics. To wit:

In the name of countering unemployment, Mike Pence asked if Obama would “consider supporting across-the-board tax relief, as President Kennedy did?”

Paul Ryan challenged certain aspects of the freeze in domestic discretionary spending Obama has proposed for next year. “I would simply submit that we could do more and start now,” Ryan said.

Shelley Capito cited “cap and trade, an aggressive EPA, and the looming prospect of higher taxes.” She asked if Obama “would be willing to re-look at some of these policies, with a high unemployment and the unsure economy that we have now.”

Jason Chaffetz told Obama, “I can look you in the eye and tell you we have not been obstructionists.” He said Obama had failed to honor various pledges—pledges concerning openness, lobbyists, earmarks, full consultation.

Marsha Blackburn asked if Obama was willing to “start anew” on health care reform, working more closely with Republicans.

Tom Price insisted the administration has been wrong in saying that the GOP has no ideas about health care. Peter Roskam said House Republicans have been stiff-armed by Speaker Pelosi on a number of issues.

Jeb Hensarling said Obama presented a budget last year “that would triple the national debt over the next 10 years.” He asked if Obama’s new budget would continue that trend. (The new budget was released yesterday.)

Obama spoke to all those issues—to many of the domestic issues which drive our current floundering politics. And a few hours later, on the cable show Hardball, Chris Matthews asked Politico’s Dan Vogel what the headline from the day’s session would be. In a stunning act of self-revelation, this is what Vogel said. In this statement, Vogel described the headline he would take from the historic session:

VOGEL (1/29/10): “Obama, GOP caucus—” Actually, “Obama, GOP conference trade barbs.” It was interesting that the House Republicans refer to themselves as a “conference.” Obama referred to them as a “caucus.” He also, whether purposefully or not, got the first name wrong of—the first name wrong of his final questioner, Jeb Hensarling, Republican from Texas. He called him “Jim” several times, even after Hensarling corrected him.

So, there was definitely an undercurrent of contentiousness, even as both sides sort of went into this with—billing it as a way to sort of produce a productive dialogue.

Mistakenly, Obama had called Jeb Hensarling “Jim.” And people, that wasn’t all! The president had referred to the GOP caucus. The Republicans call it a “conference.”

In that statement, you see the unvarnished, sub-human inanity which had been driving our public discourse at least since the Clinton/Gore years. For well over a decade, this kind of screaming inanity has been the reliable norm on Hardball. Quite often, Matthews himself provides the nonsense. (Why did Candidate Obama drink orange juice instead of beer?) In this case, a helpful guest did.

Obama had discussed almost every serious domestic issue which afflicts our failing nation. On Hardball, we were told that the headline would be the fact that he missed Jeb Hensarling’s name! We the people are just a bit dumb, a recent survey from Pew has just said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/1/10). But then again, check out our cable news leaders! Our leaders are dumb—just like us!

Back to Friday’s historic session: Friday evening, in a special two-hour program, MSNBC reviewed the things Obama had said. (The program aired in the normal time slots of Countdown and the Maddow Show.) During those two hours, Matthews joined Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow for a discussion of the day’s session.

The program didn’t reach the level of inanity offered by Vogel. But in its relentless cheerleading for Obama—and in its substantial technical bumbling—it sadly came pretty darn close. The cheerleading was the first thing that struck us. But the technical bungling came close.

Consider part of the trio’s reaction to the day’s first Q-and-A—the Q-and-A in which Pence recommended an across-the-board tax cut. After playing tape of Obama’s answer, Matthews went first, weirdly offering this review of the question Obama was asked:

MATTHEWS (1/29/10): Now there’s a profile in courage! The first thing you do is throw one of these medicine balls at the president and hit him at the stomach and say, “Let’s chat.” I mean, I think it wasn’t a fair exchange right up front.

I don’t think anybody thinks, with a $1.4 trillion deficit, right now, it’s time for a huge, across-the-board tax cut for the rich. I mean, that wouldn’t be reasonable or responsible. And I think Mike Pence knows it. I think he knows it.

In fact, the country is full of people who think it’s time for an across-the-board tax cut. Many of them are watching Fox, which has roughly three times as many viewers as MSNBC does. We have no idea if Pence is such a person, nor do we know why Matthews feels so certain he isn’t. But the true weirdness of Matthews’ response involves that silly “medicine ball” image. Pandering hard—as the network wanted?—Matthews suggested there was something unfair in asking Obama that opening question. It was like hitting him right in the gut!

We have no idea why Matthews would say that, unless network “suits” had told him to fawn. In fact, this must be the easiest softball question a major Dem could possibly get! Weirdly, Obama slightly muddied his answer. (Does the gentleman know what “across-the-board” means?) But KO and Rachel showed no sign of noticing any of this. “Gimme an O,” Keith exclaimed, marveling at the historical greatness laid out before him:

OLBERMANN (continuing directly): Rachel, there was still that policy of throwing the medicine ball, as Chris suggested, continued. It almost felt like watching the stories of John L. Sullivan, the 19th century boxer would volunteer to fight anybody and everybody in the house and knock them all out. I don’t mean to be too partisan on this, but whatever the strategy was in the Republicans in this event, it didn’t really work.

“I don’t mean to be too partisan,” the cheerleader said. He then said that Obama was like John L. Sullivan, licking every man in the House. And sure enough—the cheerleading continued in the pundits’ response to the day’s second Q-and-A. “Gimme a B,” the pundits cried, reviewing Obama’s second answer, the answer to Ryan’s query:

OLBERMANN: Rachel, you and I in October, and Chris more recently, have had this experience that I think people—certainly Republicans did today, and I think people watching are getting. This is what it is like to be in the room with the president of the United States. You pick your topic, and are left wondering whether or not you know as much about it as he does.

MADDOW: So much for the he always needs a teleprompter attack. This is unscripted, no notes, no teleprompter, no nothing. “You`ve brought a pet issue here, Congressman”—who is the ranking member of the Budget Committee. “Let me tell you 400,000 things about it, and invite you to continue the discussion with me later.” This is actually very Clintonian, I thought.

OLBERMANN: Chris, it begs the question, why does the president ever give a speech? Why doesn’t he just say maybe a minutes worth of opening remarks, and then say, “Any questions?” A lot of people can give good speeches, but this thing that we see on almost any topic you can throw at this man is singular, at least this year, or the last few years, I think.

MATTHEWS: Keith, Bill Clinton was awful good at this. Even when he ran in ’92, we`d watch him up in New Hampshire, in the round—theatrically in the round, even when he was being challenged on things like his draft letter, incredibly personal stuff. He was equally good at this.

I think this president’s sort of mix of charm, poetry and prose is pretty impressive, because he can be witty. I don`t think Bill Clinton was witty. So, he can be witty, smart, informed, poetic, and also very smart about the numbers at the same time.

“Gimme a B,” the pundits cried, fawning and pandering hard.

Did the suits at MSNBC order an evening of unvarnished cheers? In this time of discouraged liberals, did the suits perhaps think that this would be good for the channel’s bottom line? We have no idea, of course. But to our ear, this special two-hour session involved a striking change of tone, to a tone which was childish and silly. (When we think we hear such a change in tone, we wonder if somebody ordered it.) But the cheerleading in this last passage was especially striking, because Obama’s answer to Ryan was a bit murky and problematic—as was Ryan’s question itself.

Ryan’s question, and Obama’s answer, begged for clarification. Instead, we got this silly portrait, in which Obama had masterfully set poor Ryan down.

How problematic was Obama’s answer? This problematic: Even Matthews noticed a bit of confusion—confusion he mentioned as he continued, but only after he and the rest of the Bring It On gang had completed their tumbles, handstands, pyramids and flips. In fact, it wasn’t the cheering alone which made this an unfortunate evening. It was the inability of our progressive hosts to avoid making policy bungles—or to clarify the points on which we could use some instruction.

(“Pick me! Pick me!” Maddow said at one point, entering her patented I’m-just-an- adorable-third-grader mode. Instantly, she completely misstated something Hensarling said.)

We’ve watched Hannity lead cheers for years. We simply don’t think this childish approach will work real well for our side. And then, there were the technical blunders—the failure to make liberals smarter.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at Ryan’s murky question, and at Obama’s murky answer. (For ourselves, we don’t understand what either man said. Nether did KO or Rachel.) Even Matthews saw a problem with the answer Obama gave. But so what? “Gimme a B,” his colleagues were shouting.

We doubt that our side wins this way.

TOMORROW—PART 3: A murky question got a murky reply—and a round of cheers.