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MANY PEOPLE’S PARENTS! Darryl Fears and Katherine Seelye flesh out key advice from Obama: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 13, 2008

OLD YELLER: Good news! Restorative processes have made Chris Matthews a glorious bottle blonde once again. Enjoy our subject-line’s word-play, then ask yourself this: Does Chris Matthews know who he is?

Rachel Maddow replies: Chris Matthews has always been wonderfully generous in sharing his tips about hair care.

RULES NEVER DIE: In this morning’s Post, Richard Cohen presents a thoughtful column about John McCain and Hamas—and Obama. (Headline: “McCain in the Mud.”) It would be a good thing if cable yellers built a discussion or two out of Cohen’s frameworks. What exactly does McCain mean when he says he would be the scourge of Hamas? What exactly would McCain do? Granted, these questions aren’t as consuming as those concerning bowling scores, flag pins or orange juice intake. But our public discussion might advance if our talkers lingered there for a while.

But alas! In the process, Cohen shows us that rules never change. Here’s the way his column begins. Note: In this column, Cohen is principally going to batter McCain for getting down into the mud:

COHEN (5/13/08, first paragraph): In 2000 [sic], I boarded John McCain's campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, and, in a metaphorical sense, never got off. Here, truly, was something new under the political sun—a politician who bristled with integrity and seemed to have nothing to hide. I continue to admire McCain for those and other reasons, but the bus I once rode has gone wobbly. Recently, it veered into the mud.

McCain has been throwing mud at Obama, Cohen says in the column. But we think you know the rules of this game; even when you discuss McCain’s lack of integrity, you have to praise his integrity first! “I continue to admire McCain for” this quality, Cohen says as he starts. And then, after discussing the ways McCain has thrown mud at Obama, Cohen closes like this:

COHEN (5/13/08, last paragraph): The most admirable of McCain's qualities—his life story, his integrity—make him particularly well suited to accomplish the next president's primary task, restoring the American people's trust in their government. But ideas matter, and on the Middle East, McCain not only has little to say that is interesting but, in his swipe at Obama, a distinctly ugly way of saying it.

McCain has behaved in a “distinctly ugly” way, Cohen says. But even so, the pundit goes out of his way to praise his “integrity” once again.

We’ve discussed this Hard Pundit Law before, sometimes with reference to columns by Cohen. For what it’s worth, the pundit explains this odd conduct at the start of this morning’s piece. Let’s cut-and-paste him again: “In 2000, I boarded John McCain's campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, and, in a metaphorical sense, never got off.” Actually, Cohen boarded the bus in the fall of 1999, along with the rest of his small, puzzling mafia. And when he did, he accepted a Hard Pundit Law: When you discuss McCain’s lack of integrity, you’re required to praise him—for his integrity.

THE BIRTH OF AN INTERPRETIVE STANDARD: McCain has integrity—even when he doesn’t! This basic Pundit Interpretive Rule was best expressed by Jonathan Alter back in the fall of 1999, when Cohen first got on that bus. Note how McCain just can’t go wrong by these interpretive standards:

ALTER (11/15/99): The animating principle of McCain's life is honor. It kept him in a Vietnamese prison for five and a half years instead of going home early, as his captors offered. It's at the root of his passionate efforts to clean up politics and redeem what he sees as his own connection to a corrupt system. It's why he bonded a few years ago with a onetime antiwar protester, David Ifshin, who was dying of cancer, and why he repeatedly visited former Arizona representative Morris Udall (a Democrat suffering for years from Parkinson's disease) in the hospital when everyone else seemed to have forgotten about him. Their honor mattered to him, too.

Honor is almost a quaint notion now, associated with a different time. McCain gives it a charming twinkle, and the hope of living on as something more than a platitude. He keeps faith with it, even while sometimes falling short of the standard himself. Like many other POWs, McCain broke under torture and signed a confession. On returning to the United States, he cheated on his first wife, Carol, who had been seriously injured in a car accident when he was in Vietnam. Later, he was too wrapped up in work to notice that his second wife, Cindy, was addicted to prescription drugs (box). He let himself get too close to savings and loan executive Charles Keating, who turned out to be a crook. He can be sarcastic and belittling, when he knows better.

But even his failures just seem to deepen the character lines. The life story works politically because McCain wears it lightly...

In that middle paragraph, Alter ran through a parade of horribles. But so what? “[E]ven his failures just seem to deepen the character lines,” he then judged. Yes, you can defend Alter’s technical logic here. But you can also say something like this: By these Pundit Interpretive Rules, John McCain is honorable when he’s honorable—and even when he isn’t!

As Cohen helps us see this morning, some pundits never quite got off that bus. In a metaphorical sense.

MANY PEOPLE’S PARENTS: For good and for ill, race has played a fascinating role in the ongoing Dem nomination campaign. In our view, the Washington Post’s Darryl Fears has written two of the campaign’s most interesting news reports about this subject.

Shortly after South Carolina, Fears wrote a report intended to summarize the anger aimed at the Clinton campaign for allegedly playing the race card. Frankly, we thought he had to struggle a bit to work up a list of examples (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/28/08). On Saturday, Fears wrote an intriguing companion piece in the Post (“Black Community Is Increasingly Protective of Obama”). In it, he detailed the reaction to some prominent people when members of the black community felt that they weren’t supporting Obama enough, or being sufficiently respectful.

Once again, we felt that Fears had to struggle a bit to explain some complaints. Check, for example, the attempt to explain the problem with Bill Clinton’s “fairy tale” comment. For ourselves, we thought Clinton’s case was weak that day, but it wasn’t non-existent—and most of his (unwise) anger was directed at the press corps. We thought it was hard to make this a racial offense—and in last weekend’s report, Fears didn’t push his complaining witness to do so. Too bad: This would have been a more valuable piece if he’d made her explain in more detail.

But we thought Fears produced an important moment when he interviewed Indiana University’s Valerie Grim, who spoke about her parents. “I have parents who are still living,” she said. This is a nugget to dream on:

FEARS (5/10/08): “I have parents who are still living who are very enthusiastic about Obama," said Valerie Grim, the chair of Indiana University's Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. "They live in Mississippi. For a time, my parents couldn't vote, and when they could, their only choice was a white person.

“This means more than just saying there's a black person on the ticket. It represents the things they had been denied. It's being able to see the unbelievable, that the impossible might be possible. It represents for them a new day, a new opportunity to see that black people can contribute, on the ultimate level, to the social order."

For our money, Fears and Grim produced a memorable moment there. (Of course, it all comes back to the decency of Grim’s parents—and of so many like them.) As we noted a few months ago: Tim Russert’s Irish Catholic family stood in line, thrilled by the opportunity to vote for Dear Jack in 1960. (He described this deeply human episode in his book, Big Russ & Me.) Now, Grim’s parents are in that line too. Of course, African Americans have waited much longer, in much more difficult circumstances.

That was a darn good moment from Fears. That said, we also thought that Katherine Seelye captured a moment in yesterday’s Times. (We drop the nickname at moments like these.) Seelye watched Clinton in West Virginia—on Mother’s Day, no less. When we read this passage, we thought of what Fears had written just one day before. This is Clinton on the trail, campaigning with her daughter:

SEELYE (5/12/08): [Chelsea] Clinton and her mother embraced, perhaps more intensely and for a moment longer than usual, before Mrs. Clinton began a sweeping paean to women, from the suffragists and Harriet Tubman to Sally Ride.

Mrs. Clinton mentioned her own desire to be an astronaut, foiled because she was a girl. She admitted, however, that she probably would have been disqualified anyway for bad eyesight and her “very, very modest” athletic ability, an admission that brought a shared chuckle from the audience.

Her few references to her presidential campaign were mostly indirect, but the audience spotted them and cheered them wildly.

“I’ve come to believe that hard work, determination and resiliency are encoded in our DNA,” she said of women. “We know that we have the ‘worry’ gene. We know we have the ‘put your coat on because it’s cold outside’ gene. But we also have the ‘stand up and fight for what you believe in’ gene.” This brought thunderous applause.

We’re glad that Grim’s parents will get the chance to stand in that line and cast that vote. But we’re glad that those women got to cheer too. Obama has made a core suggestion—and we think it’s very good one. He has suggested that we should learn to see ourselves in others.

TOMORROW: In today’s Post, Kevin Merida writes a valuable piece about (some) voters and race.