HUSKER NATION: Yesterday, we had the good fortune to visit with the students in Professor Ron Lees COMM 430 class at the University of Nebraska. We conducted the visit in person last year. Yesterday, we did it again through the magic of speaker phone.
Like last year, Ron had the troops well prepared. We hate to admit it, but the question that lingered most with us was a question (well have to paraphrase) about why there was so much emphasis on flag pin-type questions, as opposed to policy questions, at that recent Philadelphia debate.
It hurts to say it, but heres what we said (after noting that some people thought those questions were relevant):
As far as we know, the moderatorsGeorge Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibsonare perfectly decent people. Weve met George a few times, and he couldnt be nicer. Everything weve ever read about Gibson suggests that hes a good guy. But aaarrrgh! We told the students what we know about the salaries the two men receive. And we repeated an old HOWLER bromide: You really cant run a middle-class democracy with a multimillionaire press corps.
To all appearances, this press corps doesnt really care about health care! Why should they? They already have it! We were first struck by this problem in October 1999, in the disgracefully frivolous coverage of that first Gore-Bradley debate. Its just human nature, we told the young Huskers. After weve made our first ten million, we plan to be frivolous too.
We hate to deliver that message to sharp-minded Huskers. But well have to admit, that Q and A did linger a while in our minds.
By the way: Thanks again to Ron and his students. As we said, we were wearing our red-on-gray Huskers t-shirt the whole time.
CLINTON DOES IT AGAIN: Hillary Clinton has done it again, provoking yet another scandal. Yesterday, she was endorsed by North Carolina governor Mike Easley. In the process, Easley said this, at Clintons direction:
EASLEY (4/29/08): Theres nothing I love more than a strong, powerful woman. So, Ive been in hog heaven today. This lady right here makes Rocky Balboa look like a pansy.
Easley made his unfortunate comment because hed been told to by Clinton.
How do we know that Clinton told Easley to say what he did? We base our judgment on a well-known fact: In January, Clinton told billionaire Robert Johnson to make another unfortunate introduction, the one Johnson authored in South Carolina. Johnson made a foolish (apparent) reference to Obamas youthful drug use; he then compared Obama to Sidney Poitier in Guess Whos Coming to Dinner. Johnsons introduction was deeply foolish. But sooth-sayers widely informed us that it was part of the Clinton campaigns racial strategy. Translation: A person like Johnson never makes dumb remarksunless told to by The Man.
So too, we can only assume that Easley made his remark at Clintons direction. Aint life grand when you get to type the stories you very much like?
WHERE DO STORY-LINES COME FROM: We were struck by several parts of Joe Kleins current piece in Time. As we noted yesterday, we rolled our eyes as Klein played dumb about Bill Clintons recent statement:
KLEIN: Even as he spoke, the former President was in the midst of a tiny, self-inflicted absurdity, having claimed in a radio interview that the Obama campaign had played the "race card" against him. And that was the least of the damage.
Did the Obama campaign play a race card on Clinton? However one might answer that question, good mainstream journalists all knew to play dumb when Clinton made that comment. To see Ryan Lizza earning his guild card, click here. (David Greenberg rolls his eyes at Lizzas posturing in this TNR post.)
At any rate, that was in Kleins first paragraph. We were also struck by a Standard Familiar Point in his second graf:
KLEIN: Hillary Clinton won a convincing victory in Pennsylvania, but it came at a significant cost to the Clinton family's reputation and to the Democratic Party. She won by throwing the "kitchen sink" at Obama, as her campaign aides described it. Her campaign had been an assault on Obama's character flaws, real and imagined, rather than on matters of substance.
That kitchen sink statement has now become a standard way of trashing Clintons campaign. Its often attributed to Clintons staff, as Klein does here. Last week, even before reading Klein, wed become curious about where this familiar script-point began. Through the magic of Nexis, we traced it on back. For those who want to examine the Pleasing Group Novels theyre handed, this is where story-lines come from:
The current kitchen sink story-element dates back to a piece by Patrick Healy. We regard Healy as highly unreliable. But here it is, in his opening paragraph, back on February 26. His headline: Clinton Campaign Starts 5-Point Attack on Obama:
HEALY (2/26/08):After struggling for months to dent Senator Barack Obama's candidacy, the campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton is now unleashing what one Clinton aide called a ''kitchen sink'' fusillade against Mr. Obama, pursuing five lines of attack since Saturday in hopes of stopping his political momentum.
The effort underscores not only Mrs. Clinton's recognition that the next round of primariesin Ohio and Texas on March 4are must-win contests for her. It also reflects her advisers' belief that they can persuade many undecided voters to embrace her at the last minute by finally drawing sharply worded, attention-grabbing contrasts with Mr. Obama.
How reliable is Healy? Pathetically, this was part of this same report. Deeply, deeply pathetic:
HEALY: [T]he attack that received the most pop, on cable television and blogs, came after a photograph of Mr. Obama in ceremonial African garb appeared on the Drudge Report, and the item's author, Matt Drudge, claimed that the image was provided by a Clinton staff member.
Mr. Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, said that the Clinton campaign had ''engaged in the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we've seen from either party.'' It has not been independently verified that the photograph came from the Clinton campaign.
In fact, Drudgespeaking slicklydidnt quite make the claim that Healy described; Healy was playing the rubes just a tad. But so what? Soon, Tom Daschle was parading onto Charlie Rose, where he told us what Mister Drudge had insisted. (Deeply pathetic. Just inane.) By the way: Under the rules of the current campaignrules which all guild members knownonsense like that, if directed at Clinton, doesnt count as a negative attack. No kitchen sink is involved there.
At any rate, getting back to that kitchen sink: Healy, a less-than-reliable fellow, attributed the colorful phrase to one (unnamed) Clinton adviser. Of course, anyone who knows the ways of these baboon scribes knows how easily such unattributed, two-word quotations can be manufactured. But putting such musings to the side, this seems to by the original source for the claim that has become So Standard. Healys quote was widely repeated on cable that night, used to signify the grim negativity of the Clinton campaign. (Just look what Mister Drudge said!) The attribution became Standard Fare so quickly that Maureen Dowd didnt bother explaining when she typed the next day:
DOWD (2/27/08): Just as in the White House, when her cascading images and hairstyles became dizzying and unsettling, suggesting that the first lady woke up every day struggling to create a persona, now she seems to think there is a political solution to her problem. If she can only change this or that about her persona, or tear down this or that about Obama's. But the whirlwind of changes and charges gets wearing.
By threatening to throw the kitchen sink at Obama, the Clinton campaign simply confirmed the fact that they might be going down the drain.
By now, the Clinton campaign was said to have made this claim. By the way: BS about hairstyles isnt negative, according to rules of this guild.
By now, this reference has become Quite Standard. Klein improved on the tale a bit, pluralizing the number of aides who were said to have described the strategy. Just for the record: Before Kleins report, the kitchen sink quote had only been cited twice in Time. No one had cited a second aide who had supposedly said it. But pluralizing is Standard Journalistic Practice. Its a way to make weak stories better.
So this is where your stories come from, in your heavily novelized political culture. Healy cited Mister Drudgeand that one alleged Clinton aide, offering a two-word statement. By now, the alleged aides alleged comment has traveled the worldand he or she has become plural.
One last point: Why did this story-line become popular? Presumably, this is part of the story: In the days after Healys report, the Obama campaign began to cite the kitchen sink line, using it as a complaint against Clinton. When Klein repeats (and improves) this Standard Tale, he repeats an Obama narrative. But then, you could write a political history of the past dozen years just by tracing such transactions. Whose story-lines does the guild adopt? Its a very central question. Because yes: They do adopt campaign narratives, lock stock and barrel. In some cases, word for word.
DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC: The helpful anonymous quote is, of course, a modern press corps tradition. Do you believe this person exists? From Dowds brand newest column:
DOWD (4/30/08): For some, Obama didn't offer enough outrage. ''He talks about Reverend Wright violating his core beliefs as if he is detailing why he doesn't like cheesecake or cream cheese,'' said one Hillary Democrat. ''He's more passionate about basketball.''
Do you believe that person exists? Do you know why that persons anonymous?
Final note: Who would believe the type of person who reasons this way?
DOWD: Speaking to reporters in the heart of tobacco country in Winston-Salem, N.C., the poor guy looked as if he were dying for a smoke. ''When I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it,'' Obama said. ''It contradicts everything I am about and who I am.'' He said that the riffs of the man he prayed with before his announcement speech give ''comfort to those who prey on hate.''
Hiss! Hiss-spit! Hiss-spit! Mee-ow!! Dowds a sick oneand Healys with her. And yesthey invent your world.