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Daily Howler: Lizza profiled life on the bus. Amazingly little has changed
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RYAN’S RERUN (PART 1)! Lizza profiled life on the bus. Amazingly little has changed: // link // print // previous // next //

WORST DISSEMBLERS IN THE WORLD: Wow! When it comes to open demagoguery—or, less probably, to world-class cluelessness—the Post’s Gene Robinson takes the cake at the start of this morning’s column. Shorter Robinson: Hey, you big dumb rubes! This is pure deception:

ROBINSON (4/1/08): Quite a "defining moment" in Iraq, wasn't it? At this rate, John McCain is going to be proved right: The war will last a century.

That is indeed what McCain meant, by the way, no matter how his apologists try to spin it. Those who claim that by "a hundred years" McCain was talking about a long-term peacetime deployment like the U.S. military presence in South Korea are being disingenuous or obtuse. In and around Seoul, citizens aren't shooting at American soldiers or trying to blow them up with roadside bombs—and U.S. combat forces aren't taking sides in bloody internecine battles over power and wealth.

That’s stunning. At this point, though, it’s hardly surprising to see Robinson do that. We’ll admit that we are a bit surprised to see the Post put this in print.

What’s wrong with Robinson’s presentation? He starts by claiming that John McCain said the war in Iraq “will last a century.” Of course, that plainly isn’t what McCain said—and Robinson seems to know that people
have said so. But so what? He quickly tags such people as “apologists” who are trying to “spin” what McCain really said. (Sorry—what McCain really “meant.” Oh, that most useful of words!) He says that these apologists are being “disingenuous or obtuse.” Because we’re looking at journalistic disintegration on a cosmic scale, let’s look again at Robinson’s key sentence:

ROBINSON: Those who claim that by "a hundred years" McCain was talking about a long-term peacetime deployment like the U.S. military presence in South Korea are being disingenuous or obtuse.

Wow! So said Robinson, in his accustomed role as dissembler and deceiver—and scourge of political culture.

What is wrong with Robinson’s sentence? Duh! No one has to claim that McCain “was talking about a long-term peacetime deployment like the U.S. military presence in South Korea.” No one has to make such a “claim,” because that’s what McCain explicitly said. (He was answering a question at a town hall meeting.) Here is the actual statement Robinson reinvents. As he does so, he offers this sub-text: Hey, you big dumb rubes!

QUESTION (1/3/08): President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years—

MCCAIN: Maybe a hundred. We've been in South Korea. We've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That'd be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. Then it's fine with me.

Do people “claim” that McCain “was talking about a long-term peacetime deployment like the U.S. military presence in South Korea?” Sorry—no one has to claim such a thing; quite plainly, that is what McCain “was talking about.” But readers of today’s Washington Post won’t be granted the basic dignity of knowing that elementary fact. In the manner of fixers through the annals of time, Robinson denies those readers the basic facts. In their place, he hands them instant name-calling—and reinvented non-facts.

At this point, this sort of thing is hardly surprising, coming from Robinson. But let’s make sure we’re all quite clear on what he does in this passage.

It may well be Robinson’s opinion that what McCain envisions will never occur. Robinson is hardly a foreign policy expert—and even experts lack crystal balls. But if Robinson thinks McCain is dreaming when he pictures an outcome like this, he is of course free to say so—and to explain his view.

But Robinson does something quite different here; he simply deceives his readers about what McCain really said. Of course, it’s hardly surprising to see this from Robinson, if you’ve been watching his work.

In the past six months, you see, Robinson has become the smiling face of MSNBC—perhaps the most relentlessly propagandized prime-time “news network” in cable’s short history. He goes on the air and smiles and smiles—and hands you his network’s propaganda. You might call it “the banality of banality.” Robinson comes on the air and smiles as he and his colleagues deceive you.

This morning, Robinson takes this framework from Jack Welch’s network and carries it into the Post.

It would be hard to deceive a reader more baldly than Robinson does in that opening passage. But this has become SOP at MSNBC—and we think the network’s gruesome MO points the way to a troubling future. For the past six months, corporate-hired multimillionaires have relentlessly played you in this manner. Tomorrow, we’ll look at Olbermann’s latest high dudgeon—and we’ll consider the troubling future this cable net’s conduct may portend.

By the way, one final point: Nine years ago, Robinson’s egregious bad judgment was being aimed at a White House hopeful named Gore. Along with the rest of his clan at the Post, Robinson worked very hard to slander Gore in 1999. You see, Robinson is the type of smiling fellow who very much likes to run with the herd—and Gore, of course, is the type of fellow who now holds the Nobel Peace Prize. That said, how did Robinson’s “fixing” work out for you then? That question should be in every pseudo-liberal mind as this smiling corporate dissembler tries to “fix” things for us again.

Robinson fixed things so well during Campaign 2000 that his nation ended up in Iraq. But you know the rules of the corporate press corps! Those who were right get voted off the island. Those who were egregiously wrong get to smile, and deceive you, again.

TOMORROW: Should Keith be troubled by Fox?

Special report: Ryan’s rerun!

PART 1—STILL AT HIS FEET: In the February 25 New Yorker, Ryan Lizza reported the scene on John McCain’s bus. Here’s how the young “rising star in our business” started his report:

LIZZA (2/25/08): John McCain’s campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, has had many incarnations.

By our count, it took Lizza exactly five words to start repeating McCain’s slogans for him. For ourselves, if we were reporting on this campaign, we’d avoid repeating the name of that bus—unless we noted that the name is part of McCain’s decade-long “branding.” Yes, Virginia: You can report about life on that bus without instantly stating its “name.” McCain’s bus has a name for one reason. Lizza rushed to show the world how well McCain’s strategy works.

Of course, asking mainstream scribes to observe such distinctions is like asking gorillas to use a bidet (to borrow the old Bill Maher illustration). Some things pretty much never change; death and taxes would be two examples, and reports about John McCain’s bus is the third. In the past month, Lizza scored a fair amount of cable time due to his busman’s profile—even though he quickly described a scene as old as the hills:

LIZZA (2/25/08): McCain sits in the rear of the bus, at the center of a horseshoe-shaped gray leather couch—what is called the “circle lounge.” In one corner, a television is tuned to MSNBC—never Fox News. As many as ten reporters squeeze around the horseshoe, until they are wedged thigh to thigh on either side of the Senator.


That morning, he was talking on his cell phone to Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., of Utah, who made a surprise endorsement of McCain back in 2006, passing over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a fellow-Mormon. Huntsman has a warm relationship with McCain and has been mentioned as a possible running mate. Somewhat improbably, he was stumping for the Senator in Miami. “Thank you, my friend,” McCain bellowed. “I just had my interrogation on Russert”—Tim Russert, the moderator of “Meet the Press.” “It’s a good thing I had all that preparation in North Vietnam!

The picture seems to be straight outta Plato. The acolytes sit at the great man’s feet; he lets them listen as he tells jokes and praises himself for his Vietnam service. In fairness, there does seem to be one difference this year. Eight years ago, all reporters seemed to know that they had to say how much McCain hates discussing Vietnam—even as they reported the latest circumstance in which McCain forced the subject into some conversation. (Example below.) This year, it seems the boys on the bus have been given permission to skip the part about McCain’s reticence. When they quote the hopeful citing Nam, they no longer seem required to say how much he hates doing it.

In Lizza’s rerun, it’s simpler this year. First, you get the name of the bus. Then, you get Vietnam.

As we mentioned, Lizza scored some cable time from his portrait of life on the bus. This is somewhat strange, because, in large part, he typed a rerun; in many ways, his portrait seems like a copy of what was written eight years ago. In the following part of his profile, for example, we revisit several highly questionable aspects of the profiles that appeared during Campaign 2000:

LIZZA: The intimacy of the bus means that McCain’s family life is an open book. (Cindy is dismayed that their son Jack recently split up with his girlfriend; John has turned his daughter Meghan’s status as an unemployed art-history grad into a punch line.) The chumminess with the press usually spills into the evenings, and McCain’s senior advisers dine almost nightly with the people covering the candidate.

McCain’s open-access policy is partly strategic. After all, he is able to hammer talking points like any politician. (It’s not just his jokes that he repeats.) But, by engaging reporters in long, even substantive conversations, he also disarms them. The incentive to ask “gotcha” questions that feed the latest news cycle is greatly reduced, and the hours of exposure to McCain breed a relationship that inclines journalists to be more careful about describing the context of his statements. Mark Salter believes that McCain’s back-of-the-bus rambles rarely produce gaffes. “Ten per cent of the time, something like that is going to happen,” he said. “But ninety per cent of the time it works out fine. If you just make your case, and reporters are familiar with you and know how you talk and know what you mean when you’re bouncing around on a bus and you truncate your sentences or something, then they know what you’re driving at, and you’re going to be fine.”

All this access isn’t just a calculated risk; McCain has a near-clinical need to be around people. And his extended soliloquies are also a way for him to mock his reputation, well deserved, according to accounts of some of his Senate colleagues over the years, for having an explosive temper. “I do enjoy the company of some people that I’ve gotten to know who are professional journalists,” he says. “They’ll write things or report things that I don’t want to see, and I get mad as hell about it and enraged and lose my temper and want to punch them out. But the fact is, I think you can enjoy life.”

In the months before Super Tuesday, on February 5th, the essential elements of the McCain campaign were the Straight Talk and the town-hall meeting. In these forums, he won two crucial constituencies—the press and the voters. He succeeded not because of his ideology but, to some extent, in spite of it. He won over reporters because they took pleasure in his company as well as in his rebellious persona...

Much of that is familiar from eight years ago, though Lizza has sanded a few rough edges from the Campaign 2000 profiles. Lizza hit the following points as he painted a familiar old picture:

Friendship: Reporters are made to feel that “McCain’s family life is an open book”—at least for family friends like themselves.

Spill-overs: “The chumminess with the press usually spills into the evenings.”

Roll-overs: By virtue of McCain’s behavior toward reporters, he “disarms them.” In the process, their journalistic behavior changes.

Flattery: McCain is constantly telling reporters how much he enjoys their company.

In a slightly more rational world, these revelations would be cause for concern. But this is the world of the modern “mainstream press corps,” and so Lizza’s most troubling statement—the statement that McCain “won over reporters”—has produced little mention within the mainstream press, or anywhere else for that matter. On the New York Times op-ed page, the superlative Neal Gabler used parts of Lizza’s piece as a framework for discussing the press corps’ love affair with McCain. (Opening sentence: “It is certainly no secret that Senator John McCain is a darling of the press corps.”) For the record, we’ll guess that this is a secret for most voters, and even Gabler wrote an oddly high-fallutin’ piece about this inexcusable situation. Instead of anger about this love affair, we got airy speculation about the reasons for it. And when Lizza appeared on Hardball to discuss Gabler’s piece, Chris Matthews rushed to affirm the press corps’ inappropriate conduct. But then, what else is new? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/27/08.

So it goes in our modern political discourse, where “journalists” don’t even bother pretending that they play these things straight—where critics don’t even seem to care about such profiles by Lizza. But then, why should someone like Matthews pretend to care about what Lizza wrote? After all, the “Washington Generals” of the career liberal world have accepted this conduct for the past dozen years. Over this period, there was little outrage from your “liberal journals” about the way McCain was treated—even as Major Dems like the Clintons and Gore were getting eviscerated. Simply put, your “liberal journals” are part of the system which has produced such fawning coverage of McCain; their editors go on Hardball too, and they don’t seem eager to rock the boats that give them such commercial/career advantage. Indeed, as we saw in Harold Meyerson’s recent Post column: It’s virtually impossible to get these people to tell the truth about this system, let alone get angry about it. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/26/08.

And so little has changed on this candidate’s bus; Lizza’s profile was largely a rerun. In the past eight years, all good career liberals have learned to pretend that they are upset by Republican governance—by the war in Iraq, for example. But reading Lizza, we got to see how little has actually changed during this period. His profile sounded very much like the profiles which appeared during Campaign 2000. So, of course, did the cosmic yawning with which his profile was greeted.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Rerun! Mainstream reporters still “run out of questions,” just as they did in the past.

SKIN CRAWLS: During Campaign 2000, Vietnam was clearly the principal forum used to assess McCain’s character. Rather comically, the profiles of McCain made two things fairly clear. First, the hopeful was constantly telling reporters that he hated to talk about Nam. “I mean, Jesus, it can make your skin crawl,” he was quoted saying—in 1998, in 1999 and again in 2000. But something else is clear from the profiles; despite his routine protestations, McCain seemed to bring up Vietnam in every conceivable circumstance. For example: Early in his Rolling Stone profile (Title: “Happy Warrior”), William Greider mentioned the way McCain “always deflates the hero talk.” But the profile ended like this:

GREIDER (11/99): As the day ends, the bus heads toward the hotel in Concord. It’s dark, and the group is exhausted, but McCain is opening doors for further conversation.

"You know, people talk about how bad the POW camp was in Vietnam," he begins, "but really we had a lot of fun."

McCain starts making jokes about his role as the "movie teller" who entertained fellow prisoners by recounting plotlines from old movies. Some he'd never seen; some never existed.

"We had some good times," the happy warrior explains. The reporters get out their notebooks again.

The happy warrior, who just hated the hero talk, had selflessly raised the subject again—and reporters had pulled out their notebooks. But this sort of exchange was common; indeed, the profiles routinely describe McCain being the first one to mention Vietnam. There’s nothing “wrong” with that, of course. But it was comical to see these conversations juxtaposed with credulous claims about the way the straight-talking hopeful just hated discussing the subject. How did they know that he hated such talk? Because he had told them so!

We chuckled a bit at Lizza’s account of McCain’s very public phone call with Huntsman, in which he brings up Vietnam. Yes, this was an obvious rerun from the scene on the bus during Campaign 2000. We did note one improvement, however. Lizza didn’t feel he had to say how much the happy warrior hates making such remarks.