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THE LAND THAT NEEDS HEROES! Why did they tell their childish tales? Early on, David Grann said: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2008

DAN BALZ DISAPPEARS: Nothing creates predictable narrative quite like the advent of debate season. Pundits run as fast as they can to recite a familiar, scripted tale—a story they could type in their sleep. Here’s our question, though: Which part of this important issue has Dan Balz disappeared?

BALZ (9/26/08): Can debates decide an election?

There are plenty of examples showing that debates can have a powerfully negative impact on a candidate. Gerald R. Ford's errant liberation of Poland in 1976 clearly hurt him against Jimmy Carter. Michael Dukakis's failure to show real passion when asked a hypothetical question about his wife being raped and murdered cost him points, if not necessarily the election, in 1988.

Sometimes it's not what candidates say but how they look. Richard M. Nixon's decision not to shave before his 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy hurt him badly. George H. W. Bush's ill-timed glance at his watch in a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton conveyed a politician out of touch. Al Gore's audible sighs in his 2000 debate against George W. Bush certainly didn't make him any more likable.

Truly, that is pitiful stuff. And yes, this gang can type that familiar script in their sleep. But which part of this important issue did Balz absent-mindedly fail to include? Of course! He absent-mindedly disappeared the role of the press corps itself!

People, let’s get serious: Does anyone think that Bush’s “glance at his watch” would have meant a farking thing—if the press corps, as a group, hadn’t seized upon the gesture as a symbol of his disturbing disinterest? Does anyone think Dukakis’ answer would have sunk him low, absent the press corps’ group reaction? We know of no reason to think such things. And yet, here’s the way Mark Fabiani just described the Duke’s powerful gaffe:

FABIANI (9/25/08): The moderator can have a huge impact sometimes. Sometimes they're neutral, but Bernard Shaw in 1988 asked Michael Dukakis, the very first question, "What would you do if your wife was raped, what would your feeling be about the death penalty?" That ended the Dukakis campaign for all intents and purposes right then and there with one question.

At least Fabiani was willing to hint that Shaw may have played an inappropriate role. But doe anyone think that Dukakis’ answer, to the evening’s “very first question,” would have “ended the Dukakis campaign...right then and there” if Shaw’s colleagues hadn’t decided, as a group, to make it their post-debate focus?

Let’s get serious: Everyone knows what actually happens in these famous incidents. In these incidents, the gang we still describe as a “press corps” seizes on some trivial matter—a trivial matter which can be used to promote their own view of the race. Everyone knows that this is happens. And journalists know this can’t be discussed when they type this familiar old tale.

Yes, it’s true: “Al Gore's audible sighs in his 2000 debate against George W. Bush certainly didn't make him any more likable.” But to all intents and purposes, those sighs became “audible” when the press corps put them on a tape, jacked up the volume, and played them over and over, for days. As we’ve noted many times, only a handful of those sighs are “audible” on our tape of that evening’s NBC broadcast—and only if you struggle and strain, and listen quite carefully, to the full ninety minutes. There is no reason to think that those meager sighs would have helped “decide an election”—if the press corps hadn’t decided to make them a focus of its post-debate tripe. The same is true of Bush’s glance at his watch. And of Dukakis’ deeply disturbing “failure to show real passion.”

Would voters have cared about those events, absent the press corps’s childish group conduct? Sadly, we’ll never get to find out. And yes: The press corps’ reaction to Gore’s troubling sighs played a huge role in that campaign’s outcome. The press corps changed the shape of world history when they decided to jack up the volume on those insufficiently-audible sighs.

Dan Balz’s cohort did that to you. This morning, Balz doesn’t tattle.

About JFK’s first debate: Is it true? Did Nixon's “decision not to shave” really “hurt him badly?” It makes a wonderful story, of course—far too good a story to drop. And pundits have always repeated the tale about those famous polls. Radio viewers thought Nixon had won! And TV viewers said just the opposite! But readers, how many people listened on radio—and just how well could they have been polled? Earlier this year, in U.S. News, David LaGesse kill-joyed thusly:

LAGESSE (1/17/08): There has been a perception that radio listeners thought Nixon won on substance while TV viewers preferred Kennedy because of his more handsome appearance. But superficial influences also sway radio audiences, notes Michael Schudson, a communications professor at the University of California-San Diego. "Nixon was famous for his winningly deep, resonant voice, and Kennedy was famous for an accent that to most Americans was pretty strange." And only one poll was taken, of uncertain reliability.

Does that mean only one radio poll? We can’t be sure from what LaGesse wrote. We can be sure of one thing, though. Four years from now, Balz and his colleague will type that old chestnut again.

About Bernie Shaw’s ugly question: Within days, Dukakis’ troubling lack of passion had become the official press flavor. But to their credit, a number of journalists criticized Shaw on the morning after. We discussed this when the primary debates began last year; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/25/07.

The end of an era: Patrick “Kit” Healy simpers today about—what else?—body language. Apparently, Dowd wasn’t quite dumb enough for the Times. So they went out and bought themselves this:

HEALY (9/26/08): However forceful and passionate Mr. Obama can be, his speeches and public appearances this week have underscored how he is sometimes out of sync with the visceral anger of Americans who are losing their jobs and homes. He often talks about growing up on food stamps and about having paid off his student loans only recently, yet his tone and volume, body language, facial expressions and words convey a certain distance from the ache that many voters feel.

See there? Obama’s facial expressions “convey a certain distance from the ache that many voters feel.” He is “sometimes out of sync” with their visceral anger. Where does Healy obtain such feathered distinctions? They come to him in silly dreams!

Magnanimously, we might have skipped Healy’s blather today. Except for his very next graf, which announces the end of an era:

HEALY (continuing directly): “People want presidents who lead and relate to them—they don’t want presidents who analyze and seem above it all,” said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “Obama still comes across as dispassionate to the point of coolness. He is so comfortable in his own skin, he can be hard to connect with for people who are struggling.”

He may be too comfortable in his own skin! Truly, the end of an era!

During Campaign 2000, the question of who was more “comfortable in his own skin” became a press corps obsession. Fairly clearly, this language began with the Bush campaign (as “authenticity” came from Bill Bradley); within weeks of Bush’s debut on the stump, every pundit knew to say how wonderfully comfortable he was. Indeed, a few week after Bush debuted, Gloria Borger wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece for U.S. News. She summarized what everyone in the press corps had been saying:

BORGER (7/19/99): George W. Bush will win the presidency; Al Gore still insists on running. It is agreed that Bush, having been observed closely for weeks now, is "comfortable in his own skin" and has, sad to say, "charisma" (77 mentions this summer). Gore, having been watched for years, is still "wooden" (414 times, but that's not counting synonyms like "stiff" and "uncomfortable").

Everyone knew it: George Bush was comfortable in his own skin! But on that very same day, in Newsweek, Howard Fineman—a flat-out shill for Saint Bradley—stole the phrase for his main man:

FINEMAN (7/19/99): Backstage at The Tonight Show, munching a carrot in the green room, Bill Bradley shrugged when asked how he'd just done onstage chatting with Jay Leno. Oh, fine, he said. You do what you can do to be yourself...Bradley seemed genuinely unconcerned about a gig that would have put most politicians in a swivet. He came off on TV as a relaxed public man unusually comfortable in his own skin.

That September, Fineman even called Bradley “Whitmanesque,” meaning Walt. One other person had called Bradley “Whitmanesque” that year. That person was Bill Bradley’s wife.

At any rate, “comfortable in his own skin” came to dominate the press corps’ evaluations. Everyone knew that Bradley and Bush were “comfortable in their own skins”—and that Vile Gore wasn’t. At the end of the year, Walter Shapiro even chose “comfortable with himself” and “authenticity” as two of the year’s top buzzwords. (The others: “alpha male” and “compassionate conservative.” One was a mocking term aimed at Gore, the other a term of praise for Bush.) By now, though, these terms were mainly being applied to the press corps’ anointed, twin favorites. “The phrases are so cliche-ridden and inauthentic it's difficult to figure out who first applied them to the dynamic duo of Bradley and McCain,” Shapiro wrote.

Today, though, Barack Obama may be too comfortable in his own skin! Truly, an era has come to an end. But let’s be fair—that’s what happens when a candidate’s tone and volume convey a certain distance from the ache that many voters feel.

Special report: An affair to remember!

BE SURE TO READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Your press corps staged a long, damaging love affair. For previous installments in this tale, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/25/08.

Today, in part 4, we ask ourselves why these childish children needed a hero so much:

PART 4—THE LAND THAT NEEDS HEROES: The press corps avoided a great many things about The Man They Loved. They had met the most wonderful man—and they had invented a set of childish tales about his exceptional character. To maintain their childish tales, they had to avoid many things:

They pretended they didn’t notice his misstatements about Bush’s budget plan. They looked away when he said he planned to beat Gore like a drum (while complaining about the campaign’s negativity). They didn’t notice when he lied in their faces about those phone calls up in Michigan. They didn’t notice the race men who were running his Carolina campaign—and they didn’t notice the salaries The Man They Loved paid them. They looked away from his ludicrous statements about those fliers he kept distributing (while avoiding the negativity, of course). In their minds, his many flip-flops seemed like an “intellectual odyssey.” They ignored his endless bungles on policy matters, praising him for the way he was willing to take their advice. When he kept attacking a tax bill for which he had voted, they said it was just a “quirk”—a sign that even The Man They Loved sometimes “avoided candor.”

And of course, they avoided something else; as Jonathan Alter (and others) explained, they avoided discussing his record. As the love affair began gathering steam in the fall of 1999, Alter wrote a short piece in Newsweek explaining why (to quote from the headline) “the press corps loves John McCain.” In part, Alter said this, apparently speaking for everyone:

ALTER (11/8/99): What we all like about McCain is that he might actually govern on principle, and what a strange sight that would be, says Bruce Morton of CNN. Even if he loses, McCain could have an important impact on the Republicans. It's been 75 years since the GOP boasted any major figure who described himself as a reformer.

That reformist impulse, however atrophied from the original muckrakers of a century ago, also animates many journalists, thus further explaining their affinity for McCain. Liberal reporters may disagree with him on abortion, guns and opposition to the test-ban treaty (stands that he softens when talking to them). They know that his voting record would probably appall them if they looked too closely. But they are increasingly comfortable with his hawkish foreign policy and almost unanimously supportive of his core issue, campaign-finance reform.

“What we all like about McCain is that he might actually govern on principle,” Alter said. (They ignored the way he “softened his stands” on issues when it suited him.) This was a slightly odd statement, of course, since it was made at a time when Alter’s colleagues were walking away from all basic principles of journalism, their own profession. In a rational world, it would be odd to see a major reporter explaining what “we [reporters] all like” about some candidate they were all covering. But these love-sick children had become a vast pack. They invented their demon tales about Gore in a pack, and they fawned about Bradley and McCain the same way. And oh yes: As Alter implies—as others said—they knew they pretty much had to avoid thinking too much about McCain’s record. It “would probably appall them if they looked too closely,” Alter said. So they rarely did.

Another scribe had described this conduct roughly six months earlier. Coverage of McCain’s campaign had barely started in May 1999, when David Grann profiled the press corps’ love for The Man They Loved in The New Republic. Apostasy was still allowed, back before the free bus rides started. In a superlative piece called “The Hero Myth,” Grann focused on the press corps’ problem swith McCain’s voting record. Grann cited many parts of that record. We will highlight two:

GRANN (5/24/99): McCain is in fact more conservative than the man whom he succeeded in the Senate and whom the press once vilified for his extreme beliefs: Barry Goldwater. Rather than a libertarian, McCain is a quiet social conservative who received a zero rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and voted with his party 93 percent of the time in 1996. He voted to convict Bill Clinton on all impeachment counts. He endorsed every item in the Contract with America, including term limits. He voted for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and another one to prohibit flag burning. In the past, he has opposed federal funding for abortions and supported a constitutional amendment to ban them. He fought against legislation barring job discrimination against homosexuals, and he was the keynote speaker at a fund-raiser for the Oregon Citizens Alliance, an anti-homosexual lobby. "He's a thousand percent anti-gay," says Barney Frank, the Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, who is himself gay. "He's not even on the moderate side on abortion. The only difference between him and other conservatives is that he bashes with his votes rather than his rhetoric.”

A politician's secrets, it turns out, are not all buried in his past but exposed right there in his policies. McCain voted in the House against making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday and has recently opposed raising the minimum wage. He has lobbied vigorously for the death penalty and against myriad environmental regulations. In his first year in Congress, he received a zero rating from the national League of Conservation Voters and in the last Congress received nearly the same rating as the poster child of the anti-environmental movement, House Republican leader Tom DeLay. In addition, he voted against even modest gun controls, including the 1994 assault-weapons ban and the 1993 Brady Bill. "He's somebody we've always had a good relationship with," says Bill Powers, director of public affairs at the National Rifle Association.

“For a conservative, of course, there is nothing particularly striking about any of these stands,” Grann continued. “What is striking is how few reporters and liberals who support him even know or care.” Grann then quoted a couple of people who didn’t seem to understand the shape of McCain’s record:

GRANN: "I can't believe he's anti-gay," says one Washington political reporter. " He's so nice." Even many on the right are unaware of his positions. "I had no idea that he was pro-life," says David Boaz, the executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute.

In that passage, Grann quoted an unnamed reporter making a fairly silly remark about McCain’s record on gay issues. But in November, when McCain’s bus was rocking with laughter, the Post’s Richard Cohen made a prophet of Grann:

COHEN (11/16/99): In a Vanity Fair profile by Carl Bernstein, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) calls McCain “a thousand percent anti-gay.” Yet when I raise the subject, he is hardly homophobic—not rigid, not zealous, and, seemingly, amenable to persuasion.

Cohen could tell that McCain wasn’t a thousand percent anti-gay because he didn’t act like he was! But in that actual profile by Bernstein, Frank had listed McCain’s specific votes—votes Cohen never mentioned. But then, the votes Grann listed were rarely discussed as the love affair grew. For example, McCain often associated himself with Teddy Roosevelt’s environmentalism, despite the rock-bottom rating Grann described. As Alter said, too much focus on McCain’s actual record “would probably appall” the children who loved him. And so, the children rode around on his bus without “looking too closely” at that.

Why did these love-sick pseudo-journalists care so little about McCain’s record? Four months before the free bus rides began, Grann explained the love affair in terms of insider reaction to the very bad President Clinton:

GRANN: John McCain has clearly become something more than just John McCain, long- shot presidential contender. Heroes have always served as a reflection of their times, a template of who we are and what we want to be. And, in the wake of Bill Clinton's misconduct, McCain has become a reflection of our times, the focus of our desperate search for "character" in a president to the exclusion of almost everything else—even actual political beliefs.

This was clearly on-target. Plainly, “a desperate search for character” was under way, although Grann never explained why these children were so desperate—why they had reacted so childishly to Clinton’s misconduct. But by the fall, it was quite clear; nothing mattered to many scribes except their “desperate search for character.” As if they were a gang of pre-schoolers, they invented silly demon tales about Gore—a man who now holds the Nobel Peace Prize. And they invented silly hero tales about McCain, whom they now despise. Children like Alter now lived for these tales. Four months before the free bus rides started, Grann limned the problem further:

GRANN: The trouble is that, in the wake of Clinton, character has become the only measure of a man. It has become a substitute for ideology, even though ideology and the programs that evolve from it may have farther-reaching implications and are certainly far easier to gauge. It is as if we decided to hire someone to deliver the mail based on the fact that he once saved a woman dying in the street, rather than on whether he ever delivered the mail on time.

For this reason, “it is after no digging at all that I discover what almost no one ever mentions about McCain: his voting record,” Grann wrote. But as Grann noted, no one really cared about that. They only cared about the tales they could tell about his vast character.

Grann was writing back in May, before the free bus rides started. Once they began, the bus “roared” and “rocked;” reporters tended to glance away when The Man They Loved descended its stairs and misled voters about that “obscene” tax bill—the tax bill he had supported. In that sense, the problem turned out to be worse than even Grann had said; they were so in love with their character tales that they were willing to pimp these tales in the face of contradictory evidence. They invented misstatements, then pretended Gore said them. At the same time, they ignored real misstatements from McCain—along with his voting record. Again, we’ll offer a small suggestion on motive; these childish children were too well-paid to worry about “ideology and the programs that evolve from it.” Did McCain make a horrible mess of his health plan? They themselves had very good health care—and they didn’t seem to give a fat fig if you and your neighbors did.

They were Villagers, after all; these people lived around the Palace. And they behaved much as such overpaid fops have behaved all through the annals of time. They were living the lives of fops and fools—and yes, they felt a bit queasy about it. But so what? The Man They Loved had let them sign up for his Vietnam Fantasy Camp. By their own admission, some of the children who loved The Man felt less than manly about the way they’d avoided Nam. It made them feel whole when The Man They Loved welcomed them into the fold.

Sometimes they felt very empty inside, as people living such empty lives would. How would you feel if you sat around while all those fake tales about Gore were peddled? Among many others, Alter knew those tales were bunk. And he knew he should keep very quiet.

But then, good boys were keeping quiet all around this press corps, as they rode around laughing on a bus, breaking every professional stricture. They needed someone to tell them how good they were—and then, along came The Man They Loved. He played them, saying he thought they were smart. Desperately, they believed him.

As he ended, Grann said this about their “desperate desire for heroes:”

GRANN: It is natural, of course, to wish that more of our leaders were great men. As Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, "All mythology opens with demigods." They define and elevate us. But there is also something unnatural about our desperate desire for heroes in politics. The political hero is not like the sports champion or matinee idol or daring inventor; like the war hero, he is born only of tragedy. "In order to be a hero in the classic sense , which I steadfastly object to being called," says McCain during our last interview, “there has to be...service and sacrifice not only from the one who is designated the hero but also from others. Otherwise, there would not be the conditions for the hero to emerge."

In the play Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, which McCain recalls, one of the characters says, "Unhappy the land that has no heroes."

"No," Galileo replies, "unhappy the land that needs heroes.”

Our land has been very unhappy since this group rode around on that bus, inventing hero tales about McCain and demon tales about Gore. Their misconduct gave Bush eight years in the White House. And uh-oh! The narratives they built on behalf of McCain may yet give him eight years more.

Today, Alter cries about the bad man The Man They Loved has now become. Sorry. It’s just the latest fake, desperate tale these grisly children all love.