AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER! They Man They Loved was often cluelessabout his own proposals: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2008
CHRONOLOGICALLY CHALLENGED: This morning, the New York Times struggles and strains to preview Friday nights debate. Previewing John McCains debate style, Katherine Kit Seelye novelizes instantly; she says McCain heads into Fridays session with the instincts of a fighter pilot. But we were more struck by John Broders chronologically bungled attempt to preview Obamas style.
At the very top of the pile, can our journalists ever get anything right? Broder writes only 1100 words. But he finds room for this howler:
As always with Times reporters, Broder is able to say how Obama seemed. But he cant get his simple chronology right. In the high-profile exchange to which Broder refers, Obamas cutting remark about Wal-Mart preceded Clintons cutting remark about Rezko. But then, just a few paragraphs earlier, Broder seemed to reverse the chronology of an earlier high-profile exchange:
From that, youd likely think that Clinton answered first. In fact, Obama answered this question first; Clinton had the benefit of going third, after both Obama and Edwards. (For the record, Obamas rambling reply was 206 words long. Edwards response comprised 245 words, Clintons 157.)
Do these errors/apparent errors matter? Not much. But they do reflect the requisite bumbling found at our biggest newspapers. Later in his piece, Broder devotes four paragraphs to an Obama debate from the year 2000a debate he clearly hasnt seen (he sources his account to David Mendells book on Obama). Meanwhile, has Broder watched tape of Obamas 2004 debate with Alan Keyesa debate to which he devotes five paragraphs? Theres no reason to assume that he has. Broder cites two exchanges from that debate. One was cited three days ago in this AP debate preview. The other was featured by James Fallows in his Atlantic piece.
Broder has published lightly in the past month; presumably, he had plenty of time to assemble this preview. But his work is hackneyed, and it features chronological bungling. Did we mention the fact that this lazy work appears in the great New York Times?
THE HUNDRED-MILLION VIEWER MAN: Meanwhile, Chris Matthews has been feeling the excitement about Friday nights debate! Last night, he repeated a prediction he has excitedly made in the past few weeks:
As noted, Matthews has been making this excited prediction for the past several weeks. (September 8: Maybe 100 million people are going to watch that first debate in Ole Miss at the end of this month.) But then, Matthews and the NBC gang made excited predictions about audience size before the first Bush-Gore debate, too. Here he was, at 5 PM Eastern, four hours before that encounter:
That was exciting. But about ten minutes later, Matthews bumped his number up, questioning Campbell Brown:
Brian Williams hosted MSNBCs 8 PM hour. As the moment of truth drew near, he went with the larger number:
When Bri-Bri threw to Matthews, the excitable fellow cited his third different estimate:
Of course, most Americans didnt tune in. After all the excitement had subsided, the actual audience was estimated at 45 million. But so what? Excitement was running very high, and so were this silly gangs estimates.
How many people will watch Friday night? Like Hardballs highly excitable host, we have no earthly idea.
The hundred-million viewer woman: As Bri-Bris gang continued to vent, Peggy Noonan made it official. It was roughly 8:15. She used the magic number:
As weve long noted, the impression Noonan later reported was that Gore had kicked Bushs keister.
Today, we learn that The Man They Loved was often remarkably clueless:
PART 2THE MAN THEY LOVED WAS FREQUENTLY CLUELESS: The Man They Loved dispensed straight talkexcept, of course, when he didnt. Frequently, he would descend from his famous bus and play New Hampshire voters for foolssavaging that Republican tax bill, the one for which he had voted (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/22/08). In a profile in U.S. News, Roger Simon described The Man They Loved doing that in September 1999. But when William Greider profiled McCain for Rolling Stone, he noticedand seemed to excusethis same peculiar conduct. His profile was posted in late October, five weeks after Simon described this conduct. In this passage, The Man They Loved is addressing New Hampshire voters:
Because they loved this man so much, this odd approach was dismissed as a quirk. (To Simon, it showed that he sometimes avoided candor.) As a result, McCain kept telling voters how outrageous that tax bill wasthe tax bill for which he had voted.
But the press corps overlooked other problems during this long love affair. For example, The Man They Loved was frequently cluelessabout his own proposals! Love is blind, so they didnt much care. But consider what happened when The Man They Loved discussed his own tax plan with Jonathan Chait. Chaits piece, in The New Republic, was dated January 31, 2000. New Hampshire voters went to the polls on February 1 of that year:
>The Man They Loved was clueless about his own tax plan: The Man They Loved had produced an inspiring planif you let The Man They Loved tell it. Indeed, he had been telling New Hampshire voters that his inspiring budget plan was designed to help the have-nots. But McCains proposalhe wanted to expand the lowest tax bracket upwardwould only have affected the top 25 percent of earners, as Chait explained to McCain during a long, quiet moment he shared with McCain on his famous bus. How did McCain respond to this news, which anyone with a passing knowledge of the tax code would have understood without coaching?
According to Chait, McCain was at first undaunted when the contradiction was noted; the affected people are in that [top 25 percent] bracket, but their boats are not rising, the famous straight-talker said. (For fuller text of Chaits piece, see below.) Theyre a group of have-nots. Theyre in the have-not group. But soon, McCain turned apologetic. Maybe Im not paying enough attention to the poorest of Americans, he told Chait. Maybe my priorities are not correct. Please note: At the time he spoke, The Man They Loved was a seventeen-year veteran of Congressa man who was running for the White House. But when he spoke with Chait, it became quite clear: The Man They Loved didnt understand how his own tax plan worked.
Chait also noted McCains explanation for the change in his long-held stance on fiscal matters. As a senator, McCain had always been a standard Republican supply-side tax-cutter; now, he had adopted a balanced-budget, fiscal caution that flew in the face of his previous stands. McCains explanation? In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't pay nearly the attention to those issues in the past," he confessed. "I was probably a 'supply-sider' based on the fact that I really didn't jump into the issue...I also hope that my thinking has changed as a result of the times. I am compelled by information that indicates that there's a growing gap between haves and have-nots in America. As Chait pointed out, this explanation didnt seem to make much sense. The gap between rich and poor began to widen in the late '70s, he noted, and it expanded most rapidly during the '80s, when McCain loyally supported Reaganomics. But this, of course, was The Man They Loved, and Chait was deeply caught up in the gushing. He explained, throughout his fawning piece, that McCain was slowly becoming a liberal. It didnt seem to occur to Chait that The Man They Loved had simply been clueless down through the yearsor that The Man They Loved may have been playing politics.
The Man They Loved was also clueless about prescription drugs: It seems strange to think that a major candidate could be so confused by his own budget plan. But several reporters had similar tales about McCains prowess in other areas. In a November 1999 profile, for example, The Weekly Standards Andrew Ferguson described the sketchy quality of McCains approach to many issues. (Ferguson was not in love.) McCain has prefabricated a brief response for most of the issues, he wrote. He then quoted McCain discussing the price of prescription drugs (we cant find a free link):
From anyone but The Man They Loved, might this have raised a question of character? Did it raise a question of character when an experienced senator, running for president, kick[ed] around an important issue for a couple of hours, coming up with a sweeping proposal which he hadnt yet costed out? If so, questions could be raised about John McCains character, because his fumbling with major issues was often baldly comical. Just consider The Man They Loveds understanding of health care:
The Man They Loved was clueless on health care: In a January 2000 New Yorker profile (no link), Joe Klein recorded an awkward exchange with McCain about several policy matters. When asked about the current state of welfare reform, he admitted that he hadnt given much thought to the hard-core unemployables who soon may be left without benefits, Klein wrote. Nor had he given much thought to the estimated thirty percent of teen-age pregnancies that, according to some studies, may be the result of statutory rapes. And McCain was boggled by health care, Klein wrote. Klein recalled the embarrassing scene when McCain had released his health plan in December 1999:
Decembers bungling was reported by several news orgsand then was rarely mentioned again. Instead, pundits returned to praising The Man They Loved and describing the fun on his bus.
But then, there seemed to be no policy area The Man They Loved really understood. Consider what happened when Jacob Weisberg discussed McCains plan to give vouchers to public school students. For the record, Weisberg admitted ithe was deeply in love:
The Man They Loved was clueless on vouchers: In a fawning profile in Slate (in October 1999), Weisberg shared a comical moment concerning McCains education proposal. Taking advantage of all the free access The Man They Loved was giving to scribes, Weisberg asked him about his plan to give public school students $2000 vouchers to attend private schools. According to his profile, Weisberg told McCain that the plan wouldnt give vouchers a fair test, because it doesnt fund the voucher at anywhere near the cost of most private schools. In response, McCain said, Im unembarrassed to tell you that one of my happiest days in recent years was when my daughter was accepted in Catholic school. The amusement began right after that, when The Man They Loved decided to fact-check Weisbergs objection:
Doh! McCain seemed surprised at how high it was, Weisberg wrote. And the next thing I knew, he was running with my criticism, trashing his own proposal. McCain turned against his own voucher planas he turned against his own tax plan when chatting with Chait three months later.
Such incidents plagued The Man They Loved when he talked about policy matters. In the New Yorker, Klein recorded McCains admission that he would have to bone up on a wide set of issues as he campaign continued. It occurred to me that such an admission would be disastrous for any candidate playing by the traditional rules of politics, Klein wrote, and particularly for McCains primary opponent, George W. Bush. But because this was The Man They Loved, he wasnt playing by traditional rules; time and again, reporters put a smiley face on his misadventures. Weisberg provided a striking example in The Case of the Puny Vouchers. You could say that McCain is to be faulted for not working out a better education proposal in the first place, he lovingly wrote. But in a way, being able to profit from valid criticism [Weisbergs own, of course] is more important than being a master of policy detail. You could fault The Man They Loved for not preparing a better proposal? You could fault him for offering a plan on a major topica plan he would be willing to dump at a moments notice? According to Klein, scribes would have faulted Candidate Bush for exhibiting such cluelessness. And even as they pandered to McCain, these same pundits were savaging Gore, pretending they had caught him lying about 1) Saint Bradleys health care plan and 2) his own past record on abortion and 3) any goddam moronic thing they could gimmick. Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! And: Al Gore introduced Willie Horton to the American people! Except that, nohe actually didnt. Except in the tales of the very same people who fawned to The Man They So Loved.
Was a double standard being applied? The term fails to do their misconduct justice. They were head over heels for The Man They Lovedand they were destroying this man whom they hated. The Man They Loved was frequently cluelessabout his own proposals, for instance. But so what? Love is blind, and they kept glancing awayor theyd praise him, as Weisberg did. As Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek: The animating principle of McCains life is honor [E]ven his failures just seem to deepen the character lines. Even his failures deepened the love they felt for The Man They Loved!
Many chapters remain to be told about this vast affair to remember. But tomorrow, lets take a brief interlude, stopping to note a remarkable fact. As we all know, journalists arent supposed to conduct love affairs with the men they cover. But this affair was conducted in public. They loved The Man They Loved so much that they routinely confessed to their vast affairthe love affair which may yet send this flawed man off to the White House. They hate him todaybut they loved him back then. And they loudly proclaimed it, as liberals and Democrats stared.
TOMORROW: Right out in the open.