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Daily Howler: On Tuesday's Hardball, a born-again talker worshiped a great new god--Context
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MATTHEWS TRANSFORMED! On Tuesday’s Hardball, a born-again talker worshiped a great new god–Context: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2006

FREAK SHOW DENIAL: We’ve more or less made this point before. But today, the point can be made very clearly—and the point is very important. Here it is: We’re giant fans of Kevin Drum—except when it comes to his basic instincts on essential matters like this:
DRUM (11/1/06): I'm sort of loathe to even blog about the whole John Kerry flap. It's not that I'm flatly unwilling to write about idiotic and transparently manufactured political issues, but a man's got to have his limits. This "controversy," along with the almost insane amount of play it's gotten in the mainstream press, is surely a sign of the end times.
Let’s employ that useful new lingo. When Kevin writes about those “idiotic and transparently manufactured political issues,” he is writing about the phenomenon Harris and Halperin have now dubbed the “Freak Show.” And, as Harris and Halperin semi-note, this “Freak Show” has been the decisive force in our electoral politics for the past fifteen years. When Kevin shies from discussing such topics, he is choosing not to discuss the most important element of our modern electoral politics. We can understand why he doesn’t want to spend his time on such transparent idiocy. But that transparent idiocy keeps changing our politics; it plainly sent Bush to the White House, for example. Yes, it’s idiocy, and it’s fairly transparent. But it’s been the major force in our lives.

But then, Dems and libs have generally reached Kevin’s judgment in the past fifteen years—sometimes explicitly, sometimes not. Gene Lyons began discussing Freak Show politics in 1996, in Fools for Scandal (subtitle: How the Media Invented Whitewater). Lyons and Joe Conason extended the discussion in the 2000 book, The Hunting of the President. Here at THE DAILY HOWLER, we began discussing the Freak Show attacks on Candidate Gore in March 1999, in the very week they began. But to this day, Dems and libs have refused to make this history a central part of the way we discuss our politics. The Freak Show has been able to prosper because we’ve refused to discuss it.

As we’ve said, we think the Harris/Halperin book offers us a superlative chance to explain these politics to the public—something we’ve refused to do in the past. Harris and Halperin have named this phenomenon; now we can go out and explain it. When “idiotic and transparently manufactured issues” are introduced into future campaigns, we have to be able to offer the public the greatest put-down in American politics; we have to be able to tell the public, “There they go again.” But the public won’t know what we’re talking about if we keep refusing to explain the Freak Show. The public will never see the pattern if we never lay it out.

We understand why intelligent people don’t want to waste their time on such matters. The issues on which the Freak Show has turned actually have been idiotic. But they’ve also transformed U.S. and world history. We’re giant fans of Kevin Drum—except for this take on this ongoing matter, on the idiotic “Show” which has sadly transformed all our lives.

MATTHEWS TRANSFORMED: Speaking of greatest stars of the Freak Show, our analysts couldn’t believe their ears when Chris Matthews explained the context of John Kerry’s bungled joke on Hardball this past Tuesday night.

Poor Chris! Even in the realms of “post-modern” academe, no one ever been such a slave to close, careful textual analysis. Here’s the way he opened up his 5 PM Eastern time hour:
MATTHEWS (10/31/06): Just to clarify what happened in context, yesterday at Pasadena College, John Kerry, the senator for Massachusetts and the former Democratic candidate for president, was talking about President Bush. He made a couple of shots.

Let me read you from the Associated Press at the time. Kerry opened his speech at Pasadena City College with several one liners, saying at one point that Bush had lived in Texas, but now, quote, "lives in a state of denial."

He then said, “You know, education—if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart and you can do well. If you don`t, you get stuck in Iraq." He was talking about the president, not about the people fighting our war in Iraq.

NBC`s Michelle Kosinski is with the president in Georgia—Michelle.
Matthews was all about clarification—and context. Soon, Bush was giving his appalling speech in Georgia (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/06)—and Hardball viewers were asked to watch most of it. But when the program came back to Chris, he re-explored the context of Kerry’s remark and assured us of what Kerry meant:
MATTHEWS: Well, you never know when a politician says something, whether he made that statement by error, or he made that on purpose, and in the case of what the president said, it’s possible that he doesn’t know the case [sic] in which John Kerry was speaking yesterday.

Just to remind you who are watching, this is the Associated Press’ account of what John Kerry said yesterday in Pasadena College. "Kerry opened his speech in Pasadena City College with several one liners saying at one point that President Bush had lived in Texas, but now, quote, “lives in a state of denial.” He then said, "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don`t, you get stuck in Iraq."

That, Kerry said, was a reference to the president, and if you listen to the transition of words there, it clearly looks like he was talking about President Bush being in a state of denial, not realizing when he took us into Iraq what he was going to face, because he didn`t study hard in school.
We don’t disagree with what Chris said—but man alive, did he ever keep saying it! Because we all have to get on with our lives, we won’t take you through every iteration of Matthews’ repeated contextual reading. But later in the hour, a GOP guest pushed the GOP line, and Chris turned to context again. It was his fifth time this hour, Matthews said:
MATTHEWS: Let me read you two points again. I’ve had to do this five times during this hour. I will do it just so when we when we walk away from this show, you have the facts, you can interpret them as you will.

This is the Associated Press story of what happened yesterday at Pasadena City College. "After Kerry delivered several one liners saying at one point that President Bush had lived in Texas, but now lives in a state of denial."

He then said, "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you work hard, you study hard, you do your homework, you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don`t, you get stuck in Iraq."

The context is he’s trashing Bush for not having studied the region of the Middle East, not being prepared for what we’d face over there, the Sunnis and the Shias and everybody else fighting with each other, being stuck in that quicksand. That was his point.
Again, we agree with Chris’ reading. But we were shocked to see how careful he was to examine the context of Kerry’s remarks. Reason? We could remember how Bush reached the White House! More precisely, we could remember the nasty and “idiotic” role Matthews played in that history-changing process.

How did George Bush get to the White House? Easy! Starting in March 1999, the Republican Party began wrenching innocuous comments by Gore out of context and pretending they showed his deep character problems. And no one on cable played the game the way Chris Matthews did. (Bill O’Reilly was fair to Gore. Matthews was a twenty-month horror.) At the time, Chris was deeply troubled by Clinton’s ten blow jobs and—like the rest of his crackpot cohort—he had decided that someone would have to pay for the commander’s indiscretions. That person, of course, would be Gore. And so, for the next twenty months, Matthews aggressively took remarks out of context. Our archives are bursting with the examples. Chris Matthews played the fool—took a dive.

Today, Matthews doesn’t care for the war his hand-picked commander in chief led us into. Result? He insists on examining the context of every remark the White House goes after in their “idiotic” fashion. On Tuesday, he did it again and again. “I’ve had to do this five times during this hour,” he lamented in the passage above. And omigod! Five wasn’t enough! When his Republican guest still refused to relent, he read the AP copy again! (“Let me read it for the third time,” he said.) Once again, he bowed and prayed to his new greatest god, Context:
MATTHEWS: You have the perfect right to have an interpretation. I had that interpretation when I first heard it.

DAVIS: Right.

MATTHEWS: Then I read the context. I saw what he was doing. He`s getting into a fit of political rhetoric and he`s blasting Bush, trying to tell jokes about him, finally saying this is what happens when you don`t study in school, you end up taking the troops into Iraq.
Soon, Matthews was comparing the Republicans attacking Kerry to a famous chorus line. “You wouldn’t believe the number of press conferences [sic] coming into this studio from the top Republicans, all of them, in a grand bit of choreography. Not since the June Taylor Dancers has there been so much.”

But that’s what happened to Gore beginning in March ’99—and no one kicked quite as high as Chris Matthews. Matthews worked like a scrap-fed dog to put George Bush where he is today. Today, he’s a born-again reader of texts, in thrall to the greatest god, Context.

As our analysts watched Tuesday night, they turned to us, threw back their heads and just roared. They remembered an earlier whoring fellow—a talker before he was found.

DITTO MILBANK: So too with the brilliant Milbank, who emoted on Tuesday’s Countdown about the “manufactured” scandal. You know Milbank! He could see right through this “made-for-Fox” idiocy! He understood that Bush’s take was an “odd interpretation” of what Kerry said:
OLBERMANN (10/31/06): Is there any question that the White House is not just enjoying a windfall here, but actually manufacturing a windfall?

MILBANK: Well, of course it’s manufactured. It’s sort of this made- for-Fox News Halloween thriller. It only runs in even years, but Karl Rove casts some spell. John Kerry turns into the Grim Reaper, and the Democrats all look as if they`ve seen a ghost. Now, the fact that it’s manufactured, the fact that John Kerry isn’t on the ballot, the fact that it’s sort of an odd interpretation of what he said doesn’t really matter, because here everybody is talking about it today. So it has succeeded in reducing the Democrats’ momentum...
“Of course it’s manufactured,” Milbank exclaimed—an “odd interpretation” of what Kerry said. But our analysts simply smiled. They remembered the words of the young Master Milbank, when the grasping young gentleman was at TNR, longing to get to the Post:
MILBANK (5/10/99): The following is an exclusive report, as the tabloids would say, on the vice president's trip up to New Hampshire last weekend. This particular exclusive, admittedly, was not the result of any great initiative by your correspondent. I was simply the only journalist who showed up at Andrews Air Force Base for Al Gore's flight.

OK, so there were a few local reporters waiting when we landed. Still, the light coverage is a sign of the times for Gore, who has hit a rough patch in his presidential campaign...What press Gore gets has been about his miscues: how Senator Gore invented the Internet, how as a child denizen of Washington's Fairfax Hotel he was actually a farmhand, and how he opposes the use of ground troops in Kosovo supposedly to protect his own ambitions.
First the snark—and then the spin! Al Gore said he invented the Internet! And: Al Gore said he grew up as a farmhand! And no—Milbank never challenged these iconic scripts as he continued his typing this day. In those days, the RNC was faxing out an endless string of “odd interpretations.” And like the rest of his laughable cohort, young Master Milbank was right on hand, willing to type every one.

By the way, here’s something else Milbank wrote in that piece: “That same day, as Gore traveled to New Hampshire for the fourth time this year, a fresh poll by Pew Research Center found his favorability rating plunging to 47 percent from 58 percent last year.” And, as field hands like Milbank and Matthews kept working, the numbers for Gore just kept getting worse. These are the “idiotic and transparently manufactured issues” our side has refused to discuss to this day. This was the way Bush reached the White House—the way our soldiers ended up in Iraq, in the war Chris Matthews abhors.

Today, these idiocies are “made-for-Fox.” Seven years ago, alas, they were just right for Matthews and Milbank.