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JUDGING CORDELIA! All last year, the Post’s noble eds were troubled by Clinton’s vile stand: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JUNE 24, 2008

WE’VE FLIPPED: We’ve changed our minds about this week’s menu. We will plan this: On Friday, we’ll plan to give you a taste of what was transpiring at NBC’s cable arm—in early December 1999. This involves some material we recently reviewed—material even we found remarkable.

By their own repeated admission, the lads who run that cable net are unusually devoted to their great love, the truth. After all, the nuns and the Jesuits raised them that way; they swore to this point all last week. Just to add sanity into the stew, we’ll plan to show you some actual work from the day when Russert loomed over that network. Despite your press corps’ propaganda, we think that you deserve to get an occasional glimpse of the truth.

FUNNY HE SHOULD ASK: On cable, everyone got to blow a gasket over Charlie Black’s vile statement. We’ll let others mind-read Black; there’s no shortage of cable mind-readers, after all. For ourselves, we’ll take a somewhat different approach to the latest one-night flap. Why does a journalist—in this case, Fortune’s David Whitford —raise such a pointless question during a supposedly serious interview? In Whitford’s account of Black’s vile remarks, note the key highlighted phrase:

WHITFORD (6/23/08): On national security McCain wins. We saw how that might play out early in the campaign, when one good scare, one timely reminder of the chaos lurking in the world, probably saved McCain in New Hampshire, a state he had to win to save his candidacy—this according to McCain's chief strategist, Charlie Black. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an "unfortunate event," says Black. "But his knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who's ready to be Commander-in-Chief. And it helped us." As would, Black concedes with startling candor after we raise the issue, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. "Certainly it would be a big advantage to him," says Black.

Last night, everyone was mind-reading Black. Here at THE HOWLER, we wondered about Whitford. Why would a journalist “raise the [vastly hypothetical] issue” of who would gain from a terrorist attack? There’s no real way to answer the question—and presumably, such an attack won’t occur. What exactly is the reason for “raising the issue,” then?

A cynic, of course, could mind-read an answer, having seen a bunch of similar movies. Basic plot: A journalist asks a pointless question—and other journalists get to kill time, or spill with rage, when the person being interviewed answers. Needless to say, we have no idea why Whitford “raised the issue” of future attacks. But for the record, we’re left with one other question: Who first raised the issue of Bhutto’s death? Did Whitford “raise that” too?

Who would be helped by a terrorist attack? There’s no way to know, and it’s pointless to ask. Meanwhile, Black does seem to have broken a basic rule when he displayed his startling candor; according to Well-Known Pundit Law, a person must first say the words “god forbid” when discussing such hypotheticals. That’s what journalists do when they ponder this question—which they do fairly often, of course.

But then, you can hardly blame your cable journalists for focusing on this matter. You can only waste the public’s time guessing about VP nominations so long. After that, you have to find other ways to slog your way to the end of your hour. Unless you plan to discuss serious topics—and Clear Cable Law forbids that.

Final point: We don’t know who raised the Bhutto matter during Fortune’s session with Black. But back in December, journalists openly discussed the effect Bhutto’s death might have on the Granite State primary. On December 29, for example, Patrick Healy began a Times news report with this: “For the presidential candidates, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto has emerged as a ghoulish sort of test: a chance to project leadership and competence—or not—on a fast-moving and nuanced foreign policy issue.” Of course, no one does ghoulish better than Healy; the scribe devoted his entire piece to the way different hopefuls had prospered or floundered as they discussed Bhutto’s death.

In short, Black was reciting pundit conventional wisdom with his first vile comment to Whitford. But then, as we know from previous episodes: Journalists are allowed to speak freely. Campaign aides? Even when asked? Whoa, boy! Not so fast!

JUDGING CORDELIA: Did Obama reverse his previous stand when it comes to public financing of the general election? In our view, it’s hard to argue that he didn’t. (On Sunday, we thought people looked fairly silly when they said he hadn’t reversed.) You have to slice the meat mighty fine to find escape hatches in Obama’s statements about this matter during 2007. We don’t think his change in stance is the end of the world. But for ourselves, we wouldn’t claim that he didn’t reverse on this matter.

In today’s column in the Post, E. J. Dionne states a similar view. (“Obama’s choice has been criticized by reformers such as Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), and even by normally sympathetic editorialists, because his new position contradicts his old one, which was that he would accept public funds...”) But Dionne also says that Obama made “the right call” last week when he eschewed public money. As a general matter, we agree with that too. But we disagree with Dionne’s use of the word “opportunistic:”

DIONNE (6/24/08): Two things are true about Obama's decision to be the first presidential candidate since Watergate to reject public financing for the general election. It is, whatever Obama may say, an opportunistic move. But in political terms—this is hard for reformers to take—Obama almost certainly made the right call.

“Opportunistic?” Why get so hot and bothered? But for the record: If something like “opportunism” was ever present during this long-running financing drama, it was present during 2007, not in this recent decision.

Presumably, Obama will gain an advantage over McCain by making this decision. But in current discussions of this matter, an earlier fact has rarely been noted; Obama gained an advantage over Clinton during the primaries by taking his previous stand. All during 2007, those “normally sympathetic editorialists” compared Obama favorably to Clinton because he was taking a high-minded stand—and because she wouldn’t follow. Let us stress: This wasn’t a giant part of the coverage, but we think it’s worth noting. For simplicity, we’ll stick with the work of the Washington Post, though similar invidious comparisons were being rattled elsewhere.

At the Post, the editors first noted Obama’s difference in February 2007. Public financing seemed to be dead for the primaries, they correctly noted. (Dionne sketches the history in today’s column.) But Obama had offered a novel and high-minded plan—a plan which might save public financing for the general election:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (2/20/07): The presidential public financing system is probably dead for the 2008 campaign. Certainly, the notion that candidates would limit their spending during the primary season in return for receiving federal matching funds has become quaint; the limits are so outdated and the amount of funds that can be raised so great that no serious candidate will take that bargain. And, for the first time, it looks as if the second part of the post-Watergate financing reform—providing each major-party nominee with full financing for the general election campaign—is about to become extinct as well.

Top-tier candidates of both parties, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former senator John Edwards, have already started raising money for a general election race. (They'll have to give it back if they don't win the nomination.) So has Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), but with a twist: [Obama] has asked the Federal Election Commission to rule on whether he could legally collect money for the general election campaign but ultimately decide to take public funding were he to win the nomination and his GOP opponent followed suit.

“As a matter of policy, [Obama’s plan] could salvage a failing system,” the editors judged. “The FEC should allow that, and Mr. Obama’s rivals in both parties should pledge, if they win the nomination, to help save the system, not destroy it.”

But alas! When the FEC ruled that Obama’s plan could proceed, some of his rivals wouldn’t get with the program! On March 2, the editors discussed the FEC’s ruling; their headline praised Obama and McCain, who had already signed on to the new plan. (“Saving the System/Barack Obama and John McCain agree to call off the fund-raising race. And the others?”) In the process, the editors offered their first invidious comparison. Granted, it was fairly mild:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (3/2/07): [T]he FEC's approval of Mr. Obama’s request would allow candidates to agree to call off the general election money race—provided that other candidates follow the example of Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain. The campaigns of John Edwards and Rudolph W. Giuliani did not respond to e-mail inquiries; Mitt Romney's campaign said it was focused on the primaries. "We'll definitely consider it," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign.

Candidates who believe in public financing need to do more than consider Mr. Obama’s challenge. They should just say yes and help save the system.

That was the first mild rebuke of Clinton, who wouldn’t take the Obama challenge. By August 22, board member Ruth Marcus went further in an op-ed column. She criticized Clinton throughout the piece—and referred to Obama’s “pledge:”

MARCUS (8/22/07): Perhaps most important, Obama has pledged to take public financing for the general election if he is the Democratic nominee and his Republican opponent will do the same.

Any Democratic candidate wanting to "get the money out of American politics" (Clinton) or demonstrate that "the Democratic Party is the party of the people" (Edwards) ought to leap at this chance. The candidates' silence on Obama’s public financing proposal—they'll "consider" it—has been more telling than anything they have actually said.

Six days later, the editors cleared their throats again. Now Edwards had taken the pledge, they explained—and that left Clinton standing alone. As the editors praised Obama and Edwards, they criticized Clinton’s “unfortunate” stance:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (8/28/07): The system has a chance of being saved, however. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D) has obtained approval from the Federal Election Commission to raise general election money but preserve the option of returning it, and taking public funding instead, if he is the nominee and his GOP opponent agrees to do the same. Until Mr. Edwards's statement, only Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) had signed on to Mr. Obama’s plan, back in March when the FEC first made its ruling. Now two of the three leading Democrats have agreed to the deal. The campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) has said only that she will "consider" public financing. "Position unchanged," the campaign told us when we mentioned Mr. Edwards's change of heart. That's unfortunate. It will be unfortunate, too, if more Republican candidates don't match Mr. McCain's stance.

Vile Clinton still wouldn’t take the pledge! It was unfortunate, the editors said.

No, this wasn’t a major part of the primary coverage. But the “Goneril and Regan” aspect of this episode was lightly echoed in other areas—in the press corps’ coverage of “no preconditions,” for example, or in the remarkably unbalanced treatment of the driver’s license issue. (Especially at MSNBC, whose working-class, lunch-bucket journalist heroes were devoted to unvarnished truth. By their own admission.)

Lear loved Goneril and Regan best, because they kept telling him things that weren’t true. Cordelia refused to follow suit. How would “editorialists” at the Post have treated Cordelia’s vile stand?