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A TALE OF TWO QUESTIONS! NBC ran both debates. So why were the sessions so different? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 8, 2007

KICKS DOWN, KISSES UP: The analysts stood crying at the foot of our bed, complaining about Gene Robinson’s column. We’ll highlight the part of this passage which had them so upset:
ROBINSON (5/8/07): Of the three front-runners, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney had the best evening, in my estimation. Looking back at my notes, I find that he didn't actually say much—he promised "leadership," he admired Ronald Reagan's sunny optimism, he labeled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Hillary Clinton as the “Gang of Three.”
Yep! “Looking back at my notes” was the part of this passage that had our young aides so upset.

Perfect, isn’t it? Wondering if Romney had said something special, Robinson decided to “look at his notes!” By last Friday, of course, transcripts of this debate were available; we’d made our young analysts comb through the rubble all weekend long, trying to see what had actually happened. But not Robinson! For him, a review of his notes was the one perfect test! Which may explain why, in best pundit style, he gives us a rather shaky analysis of the evening’s proceedings.

We worked this morning on a longer lament about Robinson’s column—and about his work as an MSNBC contributor. (He was part of the post-debate panel which reviewed each of the two debates.) But we decided to relent, even erasing our complaints about the following passage—the kind of passage that sometimes convinces voters that libs are too glib for their taste:
ROBINSON: Lined up on stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last Thursday, each of the 10 presidential hopefuls struggled to distinguish himself from the crowd. Even if you knew Tommy Thompson from Jim Gilmore from Mike Huckabee, it was hard to keep them straight. "Diverse" certainly wasn't a word that came to mind when you looked at the field. I admit that my first thought was "country club."
Already having reviewed his notes, Robinson admitted to his “first thought.” It was glib—and completely predictable.

We’ll withhold our fuller musings. But we’ll add this: It would be easy to distinguish Huckabee from Thompson if Robinson deigned to read that transcript. We know, we know—that’s bad form for pundits. But one of these guys was amazingly bad. The other guy pretty much wasn’t.

WE’VE ALSO WITHHELD: Our comments about this New York Times “news report,” written by (Oh. Our. God.) Katherine Seelye. Up to old tricks, Seelye misstates what Giuliani has said in the past about abortion. If she’s back on the trail—and dogging Giuliani—that’s great news for McCain and Romney. For Times readers? Sorry—not great.

Special report: Let’s play nut-ball!

PART 2—A TALE OF TWO QUESTIONS: Let’s be fair—at least Matthews asked a good first question. Before he finished the debate, he would gambol and play; he’d ask an “enjoyable down-the-line” question, in which each candidate got to say what new taxes he’d like to cut (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/7/07). And he invited the hopefuls to have good solid fun, picturing Bill Clinton back in the White House, wondering if that was good for the country. He even asked a group question about Darling Arnold, the ludicrous question we’ll look at below. But at least his opening question was fair. Here it was, sent straight to Rudy:
MATTHEWS (5/3/07): In the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, just 22 percent believe this country is on the right track. Mayor Giuliani, how would you restore the nation’s sense that things are actually on the right track?
Yes, that question could have been “tougher.” But with a Republican in the White House, it offered a fairly good start to the evening. It wasn’t “tough”—but it didn’t pander. And that should be our first, clear sign that this isn’t the question Matthews asked.

Are you kidding? This event was held at the Reagan Library (for transcript, click here). As the candidates answered, Air Force One hung over their heads; any time the session got dull, NBC’s cameras swept along its lines, lovingly, showing us this symbol of leadership—and then, the Republican candidates. And the “Reagan Library” logo appeared behind them on the backdrop all evening long. Presumably, it wasn’t NBC’s choice to stage this event on such a friendly home court. By contrast, the Democrats had debated at a small state college—an historically significant place few people ever had heard of.

Presumably, the choice of location wasn’t NBC’s fault—but Matthews clearly was feeling the spirit. This was his actual opening question—the pandering thrust which began this debate:
MATTHEWS, REAL FIRST QUESTION (5/3/07): In the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, just 22 percent believe this country is on the right track. Mayor Giuliani, how do we get back to Ronald Reagan's “Morning in America?”
Good God! Nothing too “loaded” about that question! And no, we’re really aren’t making this up; in his first question at last Thursday’s forum, Matthews seemed to say that Reagan’s “Morning in America” was a time when the nation was on the right track. But then, Brian Williams had started the previous week’s Democratic debate with a “loaded” first question, too (for transcript, click here). Just so you can compare and contrast, here are the actual opening questions from these first two debates:
BRIAN WILLIAMS, OPENING QUESTION (4/26/07): Senator Clinton, your party's leader in the United States Senate, Harry Reid, recently said the war in Iraq is lost. A letter to today's USA Today calls his comments "treasonous" and says if General Patton were alive today, Patton would wipe his boots with Senator Reid. Do you agree with the position of your leader in the Senate?

CHRIS MATTHEWS, OPENING QUESTION (5/3/07): In the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, just 22 percent believe this country is on the right track. Mayor Giuliani, how do we get back to Ronald Reagan's morning in America?
In our view, Williams’ first question was simply astounding; Matthews’ wasn’t quite as bad, but it was heavily loaded too. And it’s perfectly clear how these two questions tilted; Williams tilted his question against the Dems, Matthews tilted his in favor of the Reps. At the Democratic debate, you heard Harry Reid linked to treason—you were told that Patton would wipe his boots with him. At the Republican debate, you heard about “Morning in America.” And things went downhill from there.

Indeed, Matthews’ first question was hardly the end of his Gipper-worship this evening. Later, he returned to the well, asking Saint John McCain this:
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Senator McCain. We’re in the house of Ronald Reagan. Every cab driver in America knew what Ronald Reagan stood for: defeat communism abroad; reduce big government at home. Can you, Senator McCain, restore that kind of unity of purpose?
No, that doesn’t exactly make sense; even if “every cabbie” knew what Reagan stood for, that doesn’t mean they agreed with his values. But Matthews simply loved the premise—loved the warm, soft feeling it gave. How much did he like this premise? Two questions later, he went there again:
MATTHEWS: Governor Huckabee, the question is: How do you unify the country the way Reagan did, a good portion of the country?
In short, three separate times throughout the evening, Matthews vouched for Reagan as the Great Unifier. Nothing like that had been said about any Dem hero the week before. Apparently, it didn’t occur to Williams to load up a question like this:
WILLIAMS, IMAGINARY QUESTION: Let me go to Senator Obama. We’re at South Carolina State, an historically black college. Every poor or working-class kid in America knew what Bill Clinton stood for: a government which helps the average person if he or she works hard and plays by the rules. Can you, Senator Obama, restore the sense that the government works for all of our people?
That would have been a laughably loaded question. One week later, Matthews kept asking it.

But then, Matthews and Williams ran very different debates, although they come from the same news org. In each debate, the moderator spent the first chunk of time (16-18 minutes) asking questions about Iraq (and related topics). But what came after those first groups of questions? As with those awful opening questions, the difference was once again striking.

Return to Williams at the Dem debate. After his opening round on Iraq, he announced a new, odd round of questions. Here’s the way the handsome anchor explained what would be coming next:
WILLIAMS (4/26/07): We enter now the second phase of tonight’s conversation. The in-house title for these questions was “Elephants in the Room,” according to our political staff—what may be uncomfortable questions about issues or beliefs attached, for whatever reason, to all of you—“perception” issues, for lack of a better word.

Senator Obama, you go first...
Huh! Williams proceeded to ask “uncomfortable questions” of all eight Democratic hopefuls—“gotcha” questions, for lack of a better word. Less than twenty minutes into the evening, Williams dredged up the most embarrassing thing he could ask about each one of the candidates. He asked Edwards about his troubling bouffant; he asked Obama why he’s such a big crook. Citing a fact that isn’t in evidence, he asked Clinton why Republicans “are looking forward to running against you with so much zeal.” Along the way, he even asked Biden why he can’t shut the fuck up.

Like us, you may have found this a tough approach, so early in the year’s first debate. But surely, you felt you knew one thing. Since NBC News would also host the Republican debate, you knew they’d give the GOP hopefuls absolutely equal treatment! The Republicans would get an early round of those “uncomfortable questions” too!

And of course, if you thought that, you haven’t been alive on this planet over the past fifteen years.

One week later, at the Republican debate, Matthews never asked a round of those “uncomfortable” questions. (Perhaps he couldn’t come up with one for Rudy.) Matthews took a different approach—and again, he showcased the strange love affair he has conducted, for many years, with Big Famous Republican Males. And no, we’re really not making this up: Once his round on Iraq was finished, this is the question this blatant nut-case made all the candidates answer:
MATTHEWS (5/3/07): OK. Let me ask you a question regarding immigration.

One of our prized guests here today, Governor Schwarzenegger. Looking this man in the eye, answer this question. I'm going to go down the line, starting with Governor Romney. Should we change our Constitution, which we believe is divinely inspired, to allow men like Mel Martinez, the chairman of your party, born in Cuba, great patriot, the senator from Florida, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to stand here some night?

Governor Romney?
One again, no—we aren’t making that up! Apparently believing he was asking “a question regarding immigration,” Matthews directed the candidates to look Schwarzenegger in the eye—he was sitting in the front row—then say if they’d amend the Constitution to let him run for the White House. (Along with RNC chairman Martinez [!], described by Matthews as a “great patriot” and therefore promoted to White House contender.) This may have been one of the kookiest questions ever asked at a White House debate. So let’s take a separate graf or two to explain why this big nut-ball asked it.

In fairness, that is a question “regarding immigration”—although it ranks very far down the list of current political concerns. Some people have suggested amending the Constitution to let foreign-born citizens (like Schwarzenegger) run for the White House. But this question ranks roughly ten millionth among questions driving this White House campaign; typically, people discuss this tangential matter when the bar is closing and they’re good and drunk. But so what? Arnold was sitting in the front row, and his muscles were most likely rippling. And Matthews has long had a man-crush on the man, a fact he made little effort to hide during the “governator’s” two runs for the State House. Result: Nineteen minutes into this first debate, Matthews called a halt to the real proceedings to ask this utterly silly question, as a tribute to his muscular friend. Incredibly, he made all ten of the candidates answer. Here was Romney, first in line, wondering why God had so cursed him:
MATTHEWS: Governor Romney?

ROMNEY: Never given that a lot of thought, but with Arnold sitting there, I'll give it some thought. But probably not.


“Never given that a lot of thought,” Romney muttered, wondering why everyone’s time was being wasted so strangely. But as Hector said of Paris, Strange man! If he’d just looked over at Arnold’s large arms, his question would have been quickly answered.

At any rate, let’s consider the dueling debates authored by these NBC hosts. As we do so, let’s think of them, not as Williams and Matthews, but by new names: Goofus and Gallant:

Goofus started the Democratic debate with a nasty question raising the question of “treasonous conduct” by Reid. Gallant started with a pandering question praising the wonderful Gipper.

After discussing Iraq, Goofus authored a round of “gotcha” questions, raising the most embarrassing question he could manage for each of the Dems. Gallant never asked a round of such questions. After he did his segment on Iraq, he fawned to the world’s strongest man.

Goofus closed the Democratic debate with a weird question in which he imagined the “modern-day extinction of the Democratic Party.” As Gallant neared the end of the Republican debate, he invited each of the candidates to enjoy a good solid laugh about “Big Bill,” President Clinton. And for the record, Goofus and his co-host, David Stanton, simply littered the Dem debate with weirdly loaded questions. It’s hartd tro quantify matters like this. But few such discouraging questions were ever heard when Gallant showed up at The Reagan.

Is it time to talk about NBC’s pro-Republican bias? Years ago, Jack Welch assembled a tribe of lost boys; he paid them well and let them stay in his fabulous presence. And yes—his famous Lost Boys of the Siasconset have been kicking the shit out of Major Dems from that day right to the present. Matthews has a “hero tale” for every leading Republican male. In 2004, Williams gushed to Brian Lamb about how much he loves Rush.

It’s hard to quantify matters like this. But if you wonder how Welch’s Lost Boys tilted things at these first two debates, we’ll suggest that you think of those opening questions. At the Democratic debate, General Patton was wiping his boots with the remains of poor weakling Reid. One week later, in Republican heaven, Matthews was evoking “Morning in America” as NBC’s cameras explored Air Force One. Matthews let them “enjoy” the fun of big tax cuts; at the end of the evening, he tried to let them bash “Big Bill” Clinton. But in one way, he was just like Williams. The program he ran last Thursday night was almost breath-takingly dumb.

TOMORROW—PART 3: “Stupid questions,” Kristol complained. This time, Kristol was right.

WHY DO YOU ASK: Why did Matthews ask the hopefuls that ridiculous question about “Big Bill” Clinton? Finally, MSNBC got its links to workin’ on Monday. Here’s how Matthews explained it when Olbermann asked:
OLBERMANN (5/3/07): Let’s bring in our panel. From the Chicago Tribune, Jill Zuckman, and of course Newsweek’s Howard Fineman and the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, who was—is in Washington. Again, of course, Chris Matthew is here with me.

Boy, did you sense that that room...when you mentioned Hillary Clinton’s name, were people listening to the microphone?

MATTHEWS: It was pin-the-tail on the donkey. My reason for raising it was, I have a sense—remember I had the question, “What would unify the Republican Party?” That was the same question. I think in the end they’re going to run against, if she’s the nominee, the possibility of her being president will be their campaign message: If we lose, she wins. I think it will be a negative campaign.

OLBERMANN: Of course that question was phrased as Bill Clinton’s return, and it was rather quickly turned to—

MATTHEWS: Turned it around! I’m surprised they didn’t have some fun, because almost all those guys voted to impeach him.

OLBERMANN: As Dr. [Ron] Paul pointed out.

MATTHEWS: He said he wanted to be consistent. That was a funny one.
Good boy! Matthews asked the question about “Big Bill” because he thought it would “unify the party,” and because he thought the candidates would “have some fun” in answering it. (He was surprised when they acted more dignified.)

Of course, Matthews lives on the Planet Zarkon when it comes to the hated Bill Clinton. Gently, Howard Fineman had to explain why the candidates didn’t take turns making big fun of Big Bill:
FINEMAN: But also, I think it might be significant that they didn’t bother trying to attack Bill Clinton. It shows you the relative standing of the current and previous president. They don’t want to waste their time making fun of Bill Clinton, who actually has high approval numbers now as people look at him compared with George W. Bush. I thought that was also interesting.
To Matthews, of course, that’s spoken in Sanskrit. To him, it’s always 1998, and he’s always thinking of Monica. Clinton’s vile sex life still tortures his dreams. It sends him in search of blessed release—and drives him to ask kooky questions.