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Daily Howler: It's still good being John McCain, as two stirring narratives show us
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A TALE OF TWO STORIES! It’s still good being John McCain, as two stirring narratives show us: // link // print // previous // next //

OBAMA GETS IT RIGHT: In our view, Obama did a good job this week, batting aside that “childish” tire gauge stuff and turning the foolishness back on McCain. Getting people to inflate their tires isn’t Obama’s energy plan—but the McCain campaign had been pushing such notions. Though Dowd and Collins were puzzled by this, it was classic GOP politics—the politics of clownish ridicule. In response, Obama employed some ridicule of his own—and made some accurate statements:

OBAMA (8/5/08): So now the Republicans are going around—this is the kind of thing they do. I don't understand it. They’re going around, they're sending like little tire gauges, making fun of this idea as if this is “Barack Obama's energy plan.”

Now, two points. One, they know they're lying about what my energy plan is. But the other thing is they're making fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption by 3 to 4 percent. It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant.

You know, they think it is funny that they are making fun of something that is actually true. They need to do their homework. Because this is serious business. Instead of running ads about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, they should go talk to some energy experts and actually make a difference.

It’s dangerous for Obama to make claims about “lying.” (Under current rules of the game, Republicans are permitted to make that claim; Democrats not so much.) But this is very much like the approach we suggested when it came to the Spears/Hilton ad. Silly claims should be batted away—except to the extent that they are used to tag McCain for his frivolous conduct. When we made this suggestion about the Spears ad, it produced confusion on the web (just click here)—but this is what we were talking about. Just think how much more effective this approach would be if Dems and libs had laid more groundwork over the past dozen years.

“It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant,” Obama said. “This is the kind of thing they do.” And indeed: That’s what they did in Campaign 2000 with their scripted clowning about Earth in the Balance. It’s what they’ve done for the past quarter century with their ludicrous claims about taxes. (If we lower tax rates, we get higher revenues!) And, of course, they’ve endlessly made a joke of our discourse with their framing of ludicrous “character” issues. (John Kerry looks French—and he wind-surfs! Why won’t Obama eat ice cream?) For the most part, Democratic and liberal elites have failed to go to the public, saying the things Obama said. Let’s repeat a very basic message:

OBAMA: You know, they think it is funny that they are making fun of something that is actually true. They need to do their homework. Because this is serious business.

Yes, this is very serious business—as it was during Campaign 2000, as it was during Campaign 04. But in those campaigns, the press corps endlessly clowned around, often at the express direction of the RNC.

Al Gore’s polo shirts don’t always look right! Brian Williams said that, again and again. He now anchors NBC Nightly News. Why did we ever accept this?

We have tried, for years, to urge this message on career liberals: They’re making fun of something that’s true. But this is serious business. (Or: They’re talking about things that are utterly stupid. But this is serious business.) Through the endless clowning of the RNC—clowning that’s pimped by the mainstream press—average voters get treated like fools. It’s high time that Dems and libs told them.

We think Obama’s statement points the way to a long-overdue era of Dem Party messaging. But it can’t be done by the candidate himself, in August of an election year. It has to be done by other entities, year after year after year.

It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant! Obama was talking about his Republican foes; more often, we’ve spoken that way about the press corps. Either way, the message is central. This leads us to Paul Krugman’s column:

THE CULTURE OF STUPID: This morning, Krugman is speaking about Republicans, not about the press corps. But he offers a primal assessment, one we’d extend to the press:

KRUGMAN (8/8/08): So the G.O.P. has found its issue for the 2008 election. For the next three months the party plans to keep chanting: “Drill here! Drill now! Drill here! Drill now! Four legs good, two legs bad!” O.K., I added that last part.

And the debate on energy policy has helped me find the words for something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Republicans, once hailed as the “party of ideas,” have become the party of stupid.

The GOP is “the party of stupid,” Krugman says. But alas! As we noted in yesterday’s post, stupidification has worked.

Indeed, both major parties currently function inside a culture of stupid. Consider the issue of off-shore drilling, the issue Krugman discusses today, as he did last Friday. Does anyone know any basic facts about the issue of drilling? We’d have to say that we really don’t. And we follow political coverage more closely than most other voters.

Why do we know so few basic facts? Consider a discussion of off-shore drilling on Monday night’s Race for the White House. As usual, the pundits began with a favorite, low-IQ framework: Has Obama done a “flip-flop” on drilling? (This lightweight framework largely defined the coverage of Campaign 04.) Soon, John Harwood offered an intelligent clarification: Obama has said that drilling would be on the table, not that he actually favors it.

But then, Rachel Maddow broke every known rule of Modern Pundit Discourse! (This is why we’re planning to make her host of Meet the Press.) Omigod! Rachel Maddow actually tried to put basic facts on the table! She even used a very strange word. She talked about “reality:”

MADDOW (8/4/08): It’s a political victory for the Republican Party, generally, for—specifically on this, that the whole idea of high gas prices has now become a debate about whether or not to drill. And drilling would really have no impact on gas prices for, I don’t know, a generation, if then. And so they have succeeded in turning the whole debate—about something that really affects Americans every day, and changes all of our lives—into something that has really no connection to it at all. And that`s brilliant politics. It just has no basis in reality.

Say what? “Drilling would really have no impact on gas prices for a generation?” The idea that drilling would lower gas prices “has no basis in reality?” In today’s column, Krugman once again cites a poll which suggests that voters think something quite different. Here’s how he put it last week, though he discusses the same point today: “[R]oughly half of voters say that increased offshore drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.”

Sorry—that’s bunkum, Krugman said in that column. Four days later, Maddow tried introducing the same idea. She tried discussing “reality.”

Sorry, Maddow! As we’ve long noted, “reality” plays an amazingly minor role in Modern Pundit Culture. Given the way the campaign has been moving, Maddow had made a remarkable statement: Offshore drilling won’t affect gas prices! Maddow had made a remarkable claim. But here’s what happened next:

HARWOOD (continuing directly from Maddow, above): David, let’s not forget, if we’re talking about a flip-flop, John McCain flip-flopped on this same issue. He just did it before Barack Obama did.


GREGORY: Pat, final comment.

BUCHANAN: David, I’ve got to step in here because Rachel has really finally nailed one cold. Look, we’ve got $4 a gallon gasoline, $150 a barrel oil, and the Republicans are blaming Barack Obama for it, and they are succeeding with the issue and forcing him to change. That is a winner. Astonishingly good politics, a rarity for the Republicans lately.

GREGORY: Yes. All right. We’re going to take a break here. Coming up, Paris Hilton’s mom is chastising John McCain for his new attack ad featuring her daughter. Plus, what McCain’s 96-year-old mother has to say about that celeb video.

Maddow placed “reality” on the table. Result? Harwood returned to the question of who is flip-flopping. Buchanan reiterated the political claim—this issue’s a winner for McCain. Gregory then previewed the upcoming segments. They would focus on Paris Hilton’s mom—and on John McCain’s mother as well.

We were very much struck by that exchange, in which “reality” was instantly kicked to the curb. In fact, you can watch dozens of pundit discussions of drilling without ever hearing a single word about the issue’s “realities.” Will off-shore drilling lower gas prices? Maddow tried to raise this essential question—and it was batted aside.

What are the facts about off-shore drilling? We’re not sure—we don’t really know—because of this startling culture of stupid. Today, Krugman goes after the GOP. But there’s a second “party of stupid” out there—the party of pundits and press. A suggestion: Why not adapt Obama’s remarks and extend them to this hoary party?

Special report: A tale of two stories!

Background: Two recent profiles of John McCain recounted a famous old incident. It’s still pretty good to be John McCain, we thought as we read these accounts:

SAINT MCCAIN BATTLES THE FLAG: It’s still pretty good being John McCain, though it’s not quite as good as it once was. The press corps doesn’t sanctify him as lavishly they did in the past; some significant parts of the corps now may be rooting against him. But it’s hard to turn battleship narratives around—and that includes the battleship narrative about McCain’s vast honor.

The idea that McCain is a man of vast honor is one of the pundit corps’ battleship narratives; it has steamed ahead in a very straight line for a very long time. This brings us to Robert Kaiser’s ballyhooed profile of McCain in last Friday’s Washington Post. Kaiser writes from the top of the insider press corps; he’s a former Post managing editor. Within his high-level insider cohort, how entrenched is the notion of John McCain’s sterling character? We were struck by the way Kaiser told the old tale of John McCain and the confederate battle flag.

During Campaign 2000, a battle was raging in South Carolina about that dad-gummed flag. In his typical straight-talking way, McCain took roughly eighteen positions on the issue within a couple of weeks in the state. Then, he dramatically reversed himself again, shortly after George W. Bush clinched the GOP nomination.

To Kaiser, this is a story of McCain’s “high-mindedness”—“high-mindedness” which can lead to “devastating self-criticism.” Sorry—we had a different reaction as we read Kaiser’s piece.

To us, Kaiser’s rendition of this story makes McCain seem quite immature. The story begins in early 2000, with the Palmetto primary looming:

KAISER (8/1/08): That ambition [to be president] led McCain into a moral lapse that appalled him. It involved an ongoing dispute in South Carolina over the tradition of flying the Confederate battle flag atop the state capitol, in Columbia. In a television interview, McCain said the flag was "offensive," and he appeared sympathetic to its critics. His aides were alarmed, fearing the consequences in the upcoming South Carolina primary, and they wrote a damage-control statement that McCain read repeatedly before television cameras. “I understand both sides," McCain said. "Some view the flag as a symbol of slavery. Others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage."

But that, McCain wrote a year later, was "a lie." The flag symbolized both slavery and the South's secession from "the country I love," and "should be lowered forever from the staff atop South Carolina's capitol."

"I had promised to tell the truth no matter what," McCain wrote in the book [Worth the Fighting For]. "When I broke it, I had not just been dishonest, I had been a coward, and I had severed my own interests from my country's. That was what made the lie unforgivable."

To us, that’s a very odd story. To our ear, McCain’s prose evokes the turmoil of a tormented teen, not the considered, stable judgments of a (then) 64-year-old man. But under the well-known rules of the game, such incidents are always said to show McCain’s vast moral grandeur. In his telling of the story, Kaiser simply accepts, on faith, the assertion that McCain was “appalled” by his “lapse;” he fails to see any oddness in the overblown sturm und drang he describes. Again, here’s the framework Kaiser built around that tale of high moral torment: “[S]uch high-mindedness can be difficult to sustain, and when he fails to do so, McCain's self-criticism can be devastating.”

Of course, McCain could have been posturing in that book. But Kaiser avoids such thoughts.

Unfortunately, Kaiser’s tale is marked by the bungling of basic facts. (After all, this is the press corps.) In Kaiser’s story, McCain doesn’t reject his “lie” until a year later, in the book he “wrote.” (Earlier, Kaiser explains that Mark Salter really did all the writing.) In fact, as noted above, McCain returned to South Carolina in April 2000, shortly after Bush clinched nomination, to retract his statements about the flag. This Tuesday, Terry Neal included this basic fact in his own post about McCain, at The Root. But even Neal assumed McCain’s high character as he recounted the battle flag story.

In fact, Neal was writing a highly critical piece about the way McCain attacked Obama for “playing the race card” last week. But he too assumes McCain’s high character when it came to that dad-gummed flag. Neal was present to see McCain’s speech. According to Neal, the solon was bowing to conscience:

NEAL (8/5/08): One of the most fascinating political speeches I personally witnessed came April 18, 2000, when McCain returned to South Carolina to apologize for his failure to denounce the Confederate flag during his primary battle with George W. Bush months earlier.

Standing before the conservative South Carolina Policy Council think tank, McCain said, "I should have done this earlier when an honest answer could have affected me personally. I did not do so for one reason alone. I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth."

I will never forget the looks of simmering rage on the faces of the nearly all-white crowd when he told them that his ancestors had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and then added, "They fought on the wrong side of American history. That, my friends, is how I personally feel about the Confederate battle flag."

It goes without saying that it would have been more courageous had he denounced the flag during the primary battle. Nonetheless, one could sense his failure to do so had weighed heavily upon his conscience. He didn't have to return to give that speech. But he did. A racist would not have done so.

Again, Kaiser didn’t seem to know about this part of the story.

How good is it to be John McCain? In his piece, Neal complains about the way McCain used race against Obama. But even he puts a positive cast on this eight-year-old battle flag tale. According to Neal, McCain headed south and gave that speech because he’d listened to his conscience. You could “sense” that, Neal now says. He seems to see this as a fact.

In fact, McCain got a ton of good publicity when he returned to South Carolina and delivered that self-flogging speech. Pundits praised him for his vast honesty—for being so honest about his own lie. (For one example, just click here; scroll down to 5/19/00.) Eight years later, Neal still praises McCain’s act of conscience—and he doesn’t consider the possibility that the speech could have been an act of self-interest. In February 2000, trying to win, McCain said one thing about the flag. Two months later, he said something else—and won back the praise of the press.

Why did McCain reverse himself on the flag? We don’t have the slightest idea. But Kaiser heaps praise on a 64-year-old man whose turmoil resembles a tortured teen-ager’s. And Neal asserts, despite recent events, that McCain simply bowed to his conscience. It’s possible that Neal is right, of course—but it’s hard to understand why he feels sure. It’s still pretty good to be John McCain. Battleships turn around slowly—and this ship’s been at sea a long time.

It was good being John McCain then: In real time, Neal reported the speech for the Post; his report bathed McCain in the highest praise (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/00). Could this explain why McCain gave the speech? We don’t know how to judge such things. But them again, we’re not sure why Neal and Kaiser seem to think they do.

Good God! John McCain was a saint:

NEAL (4/20/00): Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) returned to South Carolina today to declare that he had impugned his own integrity by failing to tell the American public during his presidential campaign that he believes the Confederate flag should be removed from atop the statehouse here.

In an extraordinary act of contrition, McCain said he was afraid at the time that he would lose the Feb. 19 South Carolina primary if he revealed his true feelings. So instead, he joined George W. Bush in saying that it was up to South Carolinians alone to decide whether to do away with the flag. He lost the state primary anyway.

"As I admitted, I should have done this earlier when an honest answer could have affected me personally," McCain said in his speech to the South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank. "I did not do so for one reason alone. I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth."

McCain's comments thrust what had been a prominent issue during the heated presidential primary season back to the forefront of national politics and marked an unusually blunt confession for a politician, even one who has tried to make candor a hallmark of his character.

There was even a bit of passive aggression from the saintly solon: “Asked about the purpose and timing of today's speech, McCain said he simply felt compelled to make a ‘personal statement’ and that he had not thought about whether it would put more pressure on Bush to take a stronger position.” Good God! What a high-minded man!

At any rate, McCain was praised for his candor again—for his candor about his lying! Eight years later, he’s still being praised—for that famed act of “conscience,” of course.

Disappearing Quinn: Most likely, you’ve never heard about the man who ran McCain’s Palmetto campaign. The press corps didn’t go there much; they were in the tank for McCain, and this was a man to avoid. For a taste of the action, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/10/03. Key words: “left of the Klan.”

For more on this topic, click here.