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Daily Howler: To their credit, the candidates laughed at Chris Matthews' sad, stupid question
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LET’S PLAY NUTBALL (PART 1)! To their credit, the candidates laughed at Chris Matthews’ sad, stupid question: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MAY 7, 2007

BON MOTS FROM OUR OWN MODERN ROYALS: In Sunday’s Post, Marc Fisher began his column with a rant about the way Americans are bowing and scraping before Queen Elizabeth. (Headline: “Shameful Bowing Before the Crown.”) We puzzled at the point behind his piece. And then, of course! We reached it:
FISHER (5/6/07): Today, as we enter the eighth consecutive presidential campaign involving a Clinton or a Bush on the ticket—a span of 28 years—it is sad to see Americans bowing and curtsying to a monarch, a descendant of the very king against whom we fought a revolution.
That pointed paragraph stood all by itself in this otherwise puzzling piece. Readers: Please! Don’t vote for Clinton!

This morning, Nicholas Kristof devotes his entire New York Times column to this same heartfelt sentiment. In doing so, Kristof displays a basic skill of our monarchical modern press corps: Its flawless skill at generating reasons to reject all Dem White House contenders.

Kristof, a major globe-trotter, rarely writes about domestic politics. According to the Nexis archives, this is just the second time he has mentioned Clinton in the past six months. And he hasn’t mentioned McCain at all; ditto Giuliani, Edwards and Romney. (On March 6, he wrote a flattering profile of Obama.) By inference, then, today’s column seems to represent a deeply-held view about our current election. In the following passage, we see that deeply-held view expressed. It’s the same view expressed by Fisher:
KRISTOF (5/7/07): If Mrs. Clinton were elected and served two terms, then for seven consecutive presidential terms the White House would have been in the hands of just two families. That's just not the kind of equal-opportunity democracy we aspire to. Maybe we can't make America as egalitarian and fluid as we would like, but we can at least push back against the concentration of power. We can do that in our tax policy, in our education policy—and in our voting decisions.
Poor Kristof! How he frets about our traditions! “Particularly after George W. Bush rose to the White House partly because he inherited a name and rolodexes of donors from a previous president, we should take a deep breath before replacing one dynasty with another,” he fervently writes.

Again, this seems to be one of Kristof’s most deeply-held views about our ongoing election. And what a surprise! It’s another in a long line of reasons to vote against a Big Dem! But then, our mainstream pundits generates narratives of this type as easily as other folk breathe. And they’re very weak—very weak indeed—when it comes to inventing such critical narratives about those saintly Big Republican men.

Consider the deathless work of Fisher and Kristof during Campaign 2000.

This morning, Kristof says we shouldn’t vote for Clinton—because, in 2000, we voted for Bush. “If we really want a presidential dynasty, then that's fine,” he generously says. “But we shouldn't back into it without discussion—for the second time in eight years.” But did Kristof discuss these dynastic complaints eight years back, when they would have cut against Bush? If he did, he stood in a lonely minority. In those days, the mainstream press corps was busy inventing far-fetched reasons to vote against Gore—and Fisher and Kristof were willing players in this disastrous job action.

In November 1999, for example, Fisher wrote a Post magazine column about Gore’s troubling clothes that pushed the bounds of sanity. According to Fisher, Gore had recently worn “a brown suit of a sort that is alien to virtually every American.” (Despite this offense against American values, Gore won every Democratic primary, starting with New Hampshire two months later. He then won the popular vote against Bush.) And not only that: Because Gore had “hired an oddball like Naomi Wolf,” Fisher said we had “two choices: We can say Gore’s a good man who’s been duped by over-eager aides, or we can say this is a man who does not know himself, a man who is unknowable, unreadable and therefore not fit to be president.” (Two of Wolf’s “oddball” books had been New York Times “Notable Books of the Year.”) Al Gore doesn’t know who he is! Eight years ago, this was standard Gore-hating bullshit, and Fisher ran to type it on up—in the stupidest way he could think of.

So how do you like your f*cking war now, you great lover of democratic traditions?

Kristof, meanwhile, wrote a set of biographical profiles of Bush for the Times—and somehow kept citing the various narratives which had been invented to slime and trash Gore! Weirdly, he never mentioned the problems that had already surfaced concerning Bush’s National Guard service, but he managed to voice a suggestion that Gore had “embellished his Vietnam role for his political career” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/26/03). But then, standard jibes against Gore kept popping up—in Kristof’s profiles of Candidate Bush! But then, in the past decade, the propagation of reasons to vote against Dems has been a major mainstream press specialty. And now, Kristof has one main thought about Campaign 08. And here it is: Don’t vote for Clinton!

Are there dynastic problems surrounding our politics? Absent-mindedly, no one mentioned this troubling problem when it affected a Republican hopeful. Eight years later, it’s being discussed—as a reason to vote against a Big Dem! Kristof has written almost nothing about this election; this seems to be the first thing on his mind. But sadly, no—we can’t take him seriously; we’ve seen this weak, empty scribe type before. And we’ve seen the work of his own royal cohort as they’ve spun the past fifteen years of our politics. Dems should talk back against this new theme. Dems should talk back long and loud.

MOST LAUGHABLE POL OF ALL TIME: How skillful is the modern press corps at inventing reasons to vote against Dems? As we all know, John Edwards’ big house and fancy bouffant show what a big fake and phony he is. But has any pol ever offered a funnier narrative than Mr. Populist himself, Fred Thompson, who actually rented a red pick-up truck to ride around in when he ran for the Senate? Recently, Noam Scheiber described it:
SCHEIBER (4/27/07): By the time Fred Thompson decides whether or not to join the presidential fray, you will have heard the story of his red pickup truck at least a dozen times. The truck in question is a 1990 Chevy, which the famed statesman-thespian rented during his maiden Senate campaign in 1994. The idea was that Thompson would dress up in blue jeans and shabby boots and drive himself to campaign events around the state. Upon arriving, he'd mount the bed of the truck and launch into a homespun riff on the virtues of citizen-legislators and the perils of Washington insider-ism. For good measure, he'd refer to himself in the third person as "Ol' Fred" and the Chevy as "this ol' baby."
It’s the funniest thing of all time! In reality, Thompson was a wealthy lobbyist when he rented his little red anti-Corvette. But the funniest thing about Scheiber’s piece is his credulous opening sentence, the one we highlighted in the passage above. Here at THE HOWLER, we’ll take a wild guess—no, you won’t “hear the story of his red pickup truck at least a dozen times” in the coming weeks. That’s because of an obvious fact: As a general matter, the modern press corps recites these tales only when they cut against Dems.

It’s cute that Scheiber still doesn’t know this. But then, his TNR sandbox-mate, Michael Crowley, is unaware of the modern world too. In this post, he commented on Romney’s recent weird statement that his favorite novel is Battleship Earth (by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard). “[A]t a minimum I suspect he’s invited a new round of unwelcome questions,” Crowley said (even as he inaccurately wrote that Romney “apparently added right away that he’s no Scientology fan”). Readers, where do they find these bright-eyed young lads? In fact, you’ve heard next to nothing about this truly weird matter. And let’s face it: By the rules of the current game, you most likely never will. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/07, to see A. B. Stoddard bat this story away.)

You’d think Crowley would know how the modern game works. In April 2000, at the Boston Globe, he pretended that he didn’t know why Gore had once claimed seven years as a journalist—and he suggested this proved that Al Gore was a liar. (Duh. Gore had spent two years as an army journo, then five more years at the Nashville Tennessean. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/00.) In 2002, he became the first to say that Kerry seemed to have “character flaws” because he wind-surfs and plays the guitar. (Yes, he actually said it. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/02.) In short, Crowley seems to understand, all too well, the modern rules about who gets hit with dumb stories and sheer fabrications. But like other good boys who inhabit these mags, he keeps pretending that the press corps can’t wait to mash Big Republicans too.

That rented truck is too funny for words. But here’s a guess, because we’re alive in the world: Until liberals scream, shout, holler and yell, you’ll hear next to nothing about Fred’s non-Corvette. Instead, you’ll hear how “handsome,” “smart” and “charming” he is (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/07). You’ll hear how “he looks like a president.”

And oh, by the way—Don’t vote for Clinton! Just like with Al Gore’s funny suit!

FOR THE RECORD: Since it involves this general subject, we think Sally Quinn’s column this weekend gave Obama some very good advice. (We wouldn’t necessarily assume that he needed it.) We’ll discuss this by the end of the week. But she’s telling you exactly how Obama will be attacked if he wins the Dem nod. Liberal reaction has not been encouraging—but then, what else is new?

Special report: Let’s play nut-ball!

PART 1—THE CANDIDATES LAUGHED: To their credit, the Republican candidates laughed. Their moderator, the tormented Chris Matthews, had struggled through eighty-one minutes of Thursday’s debate without raising the question which tortures his dreams. He’d asked a few questions about Iraq—and a ludicrous question about Darling Arnold (details tomorrow). At one point, he even asked an “enjoyable down-the-line” question, a question designed to let the hopefuls have fun. “I want each candidate to mention a tax you'd like to cut,” he said—“in addition to the Bush tax cuts, keeping them in effect.” As a result, each candidate was able to “enjoy” the good fun of handing tax-payers even more free money, thus building our annual deficits higher—without explaining how his new cuts would fit into an overall, sane budget plan. It was good solid Republican fun—and note how Matthews directed the hopefuls! They had to retain Bush’s tax cuts, he said. He didn’t ask for the candidates’ views. In the sprit of “down-the-line” fun, he told them—they just had to do it.

So yes, a lot of clowning had taken place as we neared the end of Thursday’s debate. (We’ll explore this in more detail tomorrow.). But uh-oh! As always, tortured thoughts of Bill Clinton’s sex life had been invading Chris Matthews’ troubled dreams. And he knew that time was running out—knew that he must finally act! And so, near the end of last Thursday’s debate, he blurted out the evening’s key question. Like Gurov, Chekhov’s aging roué, he “wanted to enjoy life so badly and it all seemed so simple and amusing” (fuller text below). “And so,” at the 81-minute mark, he impulsively blurted the thought that tormented his dreams. Yes, his question was utterly daft. But he told all ten pols they must answer:
MATTHEWS (5/3/07): I asked about raising taxes. It was almost like the Reagan round here. Everybody wanted to do that. I'm sure he [Reagan] was listening to that good thought.

But let me ask you about something else that might be a negative in the upcoming campaign. Seriously. Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?
“Seriously,” Matthews said, prophylactically. “Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?” And to their vast credit, the candidates laughed; they flat-out laughed, right in Matthews’ face! “You have got to be kidding,” Mitt Romney quickly said. “No, I’m not,” said his laughable moderator.

Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House again! As always, Matthews’ obsession with Bill Clinton’s sex life had powered its way to the surface again. But this was just one of many strange moments in last Thursday’s Republican forum—a forum which showed how hard it may be for Dems to return to the White House.

Why did the ten Republicans laugh? We’re not sure, but just think what Matthews had asked them! Taken literally, he’d asked a group of Republican candidates if it would be good for the country to have a Democrat (Hillary Clinton) elected to serve in the White House. Since they themselves were running for president, their answer to this question seemed fairly obvious; this may explain all the laughter. Sadly, about half the candidates took a cheap shot at one of the Clintons in their response to Matthews’ query. But to their credit, several had the personal dignity to answer as Sam Brownback did:
BROWNBACK: I think it'd be bad because it would mean that Hillary Clinton would be elected—not because of who she is, but because of the policies that she stands for, of raising taxes, of not standing up for life, for marriage. I mean, those are what would be bad for the country.
Huh! As it turns out, the Republicans don’t want a Democrat to be president! Matthews stole more than three minutes from this debate to make each hopeful admit this. (Total time wasted: 3:20.)

Why did Matthews ask this question, making the candidates laugh out loud? For anyone who has followed his broken-souled work, the answer to that is perfectly obvious. For the past decade, Matthews’ dreams have been tormented by visions of Bill Clinton’s troubling sex life. By 1999, it was already clear; he simply couldn’t stop thinking about it, and he couldn’t stop forcing his troubling dream into every conceivable context. (He insulted and lied about Gore for two years, just trying to force down his demons.) Last Thursday, Matthews wasted time in a precious debate, trying to exorcize these visitors once again. But then, many of his colleagues are equally daft—and these are the people who will run the debates which will help pave the road to the White House.

As noted, this pitiful question was only one part of King Christopher’s Madness last Thursday. In truth, it would be hard to imagine a dumber performance than that turned in by this forum’s three hosts—by Matthews and his hapless partners, Politico’s Harris and VandeHei. That penultimate question was laugh-out-loud funny—but other questions were actually dumber. That, and reactions of liberal observers, show us why it may be hard for Dems to take the White House again.

TOMORROW—PART 2: A tale of two (opening) questions

WHY HE ASKED: In MSNBC’s post-debate coverage, Matthews explained why he asked his penultimate question—the nut-ball query which came near the end. If MSNBC ever activates the relevant link on its web site, we’ll present the strange thing Matthews said.

THE FULL MONTY: Here’s the full text of this late-debate nonsense. To their credit, the Republican candidates laughed in his face—but note the way he made all ten answer. Also, note the way he referenced “Big Bill” as the embarrassing nonsense proceeded. Has anyone ever referred to a former president this way in a presidential debate? We’ll highlight the silly repetition as ten Republicans are forced to explain it—they don’t want a Dem in the White House:
MATTHEWS: I asked about raising taxes. It was almost like the Reagan round here. Everybody wanted to do that. I'm sure he [Reagan] was listening to that good thought.

But let me ask you about something else that might be a negative in the upcoming campaign. Seriously. Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?


ROMNEY: You have got to be kidding!

MATTHEWS: No, I'm not.


MATTHEWS: His wife’s running. Haven’t you heard?

ROMNEY: The only thing I can think of that'd be as bad as that would be to have the Gang of Three running the War on Terror: Pelosi, Reid and Hillary Clinton. So I have to be honest with you, I think it'd be an awful thing for a lot of reasons.

MATTHEWS: Senator Brownback?

BROWNBACK: I think it'd be bad because it would mean that Hillary Clinton would be elected—not because of who she is, but because of the policies that she stands for of raising taxes, of not standing up for life, for marriage. I mean, those are what would be bad for the country.

MATTHEWS: Governor, Bill Clinton back in the White House?

GILMORE: You know, no, because that would mean that Hillary Clinton would be president of the United States, and where you have been is where you're going to go. And Hillary Clinton tried to socialize medicine in this country—a very bad idea. You need to keep that in the private sector. And yet she said in this debate—

MATTHEWS: Well, we have a Razorback ready to talk to you, the Razorback from Arkansas. Should the Clintons come back to the White House, especially Big Bill?

HUCKABEE: No one on this stage probably knows Hillary Clinton better than I do—

(UNKNOWN): Oh, my!


HUCKABEE: —and I will tell you that it's probably not a good idea to put either of them back in the White House.

MATTHEWS: OK. Congressman—Bill Clinton back home?

HUNTER: You know, Bill Clinton cut the U.S. army by almost 50 percent. In this war against terror, he's the wrong guy to have in there. And incidentally, on the Schiavo case, you know, Ronald Reagan said, on the question of life, "When there's a question, err on the side of life." I think Congress did the right thing.

MATTHEWS: Governor, should Bill Clinton be back in the White House? Is it good for America? I mean, it is a possibility here.

THOMPSON: A bad possibility. No national I.D. And the Terri Schiavo case should be left up to the states. And Bill Clinton should not be in the White House. And we certainly should not elect any Democrat to the White House. One of us here should be the next president.

MATTHEWS: Good clean-up, good clean-up hitting there!



MCCAIN: No, because it obviously would mean that Senator Clinton is the president of the United States, and we don't want that. Most importantly, it would mean that the appointment of Supreme Court justices and other judges would be—take a very sharp turn to the left. One of our greatest problems in America today is justices that legislate from the bench, activist judges. I'm proud that we have Justice Alito and Roberts on the United States Supreme Court. I'm very proud to have played a very small role in making that happen.


PAUL: I am known for sticking to principle and not flip-flopping. I voted to impeach him, so—



MATTHEWS: Mayor Giuliani?

GIULIANI: It would mean that we were back on defense against terrorism, given Senator Clinton's recent positions. And the reality is, in the 1990s, we were on defense in dealing with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. When you had this debate last week and all the Democrats were up here, I never remember the words "Islamic fundamentalist terrorism" being spoken by any of them. And I heard it a lot tonight.

MATTHEWS: Mr. Tancredo, last thought?

TANCREDO: I know that he is presently measuring the drapes over in the Oval Office—


TANCREDO: —but, no, it's a lousy idea.

MATTHEWS: You really think he's measuring the drapes, huh?

Let me start with [another] question. In all seriousness, if you want to pass, please pass it. We don't have much time.
“We don’t have much time,” Matthews said. But then, he had just wasted more than three precious minutes trying to drive the own demons away—the vivid demons that torture his sleep, sending dreams of Bill Clinton’s vile conduct.

Once again, we thought of Gurov, from Chekhov’s glorious Lady with a Lapdog:

“There was a great deal of exaggeration in the stories about the laxity of morals among the Yalta visitors, and [Gurov] dismissed them with contempt, for he knew that such stories were mostly made up by people who would gladly have sinned themselves if they had any idea how to go about it...”

We think Penguin’s translator—Professor Magarshack—has gotten it just about right.