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SCRIPT NEVER DIES! Why has Saint McCain flipped on Medicare? Adam Nagourney won’t ask: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, DECEMBER 14, 2009

Tomorrow: We start a year-end series! We’ll work from David Leonhardt’s recent, far-reaching column.

Givhan gets it right—again: Every ten years, pretty much on the dot, Robin Givhan gets it right.

In November 1999, Givhan did what almost no one else did at the top of the mainstream press: She wrote a piece in the Washington Post about “the churlish scrutiny of Al Gore's personality.” “Gore has been cornered by a pack of taunting bullies,” she wrote; she puzzled about the disparate treatment being dished by her colleagues to Candidate Gore—and to Candidate Gore alone. Mistakenly, she accepted some of her colleagues’ bollixed facts; beyond that, she failed to identify the nature of the war which was unfolding in her own newspaper. But her overall instincts were right.

Ten years have gone by—and Robin Givhan has gotten it right once again.

In yesterday’s Post, Givhan took after the sexist, smirking-chimp attitudes on display in the Tiger Woods coverage. We wouldn’t agree with every judgment. Plainly, Givhan doesn’t understand why Elin Nordegren, Woods’ wife, has always been described as a “former model,” to cite one obvious example. But Givhan has a good ear for much of the simpering, puerile coverage—including the coverage she describes as sexist.

We especially appreciated Givhan’s piece after sitting through Friday night’s Countdown.

After all these years, what a treat it can be to have a progressive news program! The last half hour of Friday’s program was completely devoted to Woods’ affairs; this encompassed three full segments. In the second of these pointless segments, guest host Lawrence O’Donnell played the churlish boy, offering extended tape of an interview in which one of Woods’ alleged girl friends insists that she isn’t a prostitute. “We will leave it to the audience to decide which category the various women belong in,” O’Donnell chimpishly said. (At least he didn’t refer to his subjects as “those girls,” as he had done a bit earlier.)

In the third and final segment, we were treated to a long string of recent, late-night jokes about Woods. Then, the first eight minutes of the Maddow Show were turned over to the simpering Bill Woolf, who mused, quite pointlessly, about the same general subject. Progressives were thus allowed to spend forty straight minutes entertaining themselves with this utterly puerile dreck.

Yesterday, Howard Kurtz also embarrassed himself, letting a simpleton guest from ESPN entertain us with a running speculation about Woods perhaps f*cking a goat. Good times! But O’Donnell took the cake Friday night with his painful speculations about “which category” “those girls” may belong in. Is there anything these media stars won’t do, in their drive to stay one step ahead of the Salahis?

Yesterday, Givhan got it right. We recommend her piece.

SCRIPT NEVER DIES: Paul Krugman starts this morning’s column with an important lament. In 1998, when his New York Times tenure began, there was something he didn’t yet realize:

KRUGMAN (12/14/09): When I first began writing for The Times, I was naive about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs.

We know the feeling! Krugman goes on to discuss the refusal of powerful political players to revise their ideology in the face of our recent financial disasters. We thought of something he wrote long ago, when he cited one key part of our gruesome media culture:

KRUGMAN (8/3/04): A message to my fellow journalists: check out media watch sites like campaigndesk.org, mediamatters.org and dailyhowler.com. It's good to see ourselves as others see us. I've been finding The Daily Howler's concept of a media “script,” a story line that shapes coverage, often in the teeth of the evidence, particularly helpful in understanding cable news.

Understanding cable news? In fact, those media scripts had long been driving news at the New York Times too! At any rate, this isn’t quite the same syndrome which Krugman discusses in today’s column. But sadly, within our low-IQ journalistic culture, we reached a point, many years ago, in which Script Never Dies.

Script Never Dies! We thought we saw this point reinforced in this morning’s New York Times—specifically, in Adam Nagourney’s report about John McCain’s new role in Washington politics.

Nagourney devotes an entire article to McCain’s current role as aggressive GOP partisan. The piece consumes 1100 words; it contains some 22 paragraphs. Why does McCain seem more partisan these days—seem like less of a maverick? Nagourney pulls his whiskers as he interviews savants on this perplexing question. But alas! In just one small paragraph, midway through, he fleetingly mentions a major matter—John McCain’s flip about Medicare:

NAGOURNEY (12/14/09): [McCain hagiographer Mark] Salter said: ''I think he's doing what anybody who knew him knew he would do. He deals with loss, he deals with adversity, he deals with everything by being active when it's over. Whether he won or lost. He wasn't going to go back and stare out the window or anything.''

But Mr. McCain has also distanced himself from some long-held positions: he once backed measures to deal with climate change, which made his criticism of Mr. Graham's bill so striking. He denounced efforts to curb Medicare costs by Congressional Democrats a year after he said such cuts were critical.

Nagourney quotes Salter, who waxes eloquent about the sainted McCain’s wondrous character. And then, in passing, without further comment, Nagourney seems to say that McCain has done a 180 on a very basic, central position he held during Campaign 08.

As readers may recall, McCain’s apparent flip on this Medicare matter was described in more detail in the December 3 Times. David Herszenhorn did the honors then—and McCain’s conduct didn’t sound pretty, even though Herszenhorn struggled a bit to give the great saint moral cover (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/3/09). In fact, if Herszenhorn’s account is accurate, McCain sounds like a groaning hypocrite. If McCain were Kerry, pundits might have phrased it like this, in accord with Hard Script: McCain was for those Medicare cuts before he was against them:

HERSZENHORN (12/3/09): Just 14 months ago, Senator Barack Obama accused his Republican rival in the presidential race, John McCain, of proposing “drastic cuts to Medicare.” The Obama campaign asserted that Mr. McCain’s health care plan posed a serious risk for Medicare beneficiaries, by proposing savings that would total $882 billion over 10 years and very likely require “cuts in benefits, eligibility or both.”

Now the tables are turned.

Senate Democrats have proposed reducing government spending on Medicare by nearly $500 billion over 10 years to help pay for their health care legislation. And it is President Obama and his aides who are insisting that benefits would not be pared—because, they say, the changes would focus on eliminating waste—while Mr. McCain is attacking the Democrats for seeking some of the very same reductions in Medicare that he endorsed during his presidential campaign.

Say what? According to Herszenhorn, McCain proposed $882 billion in Medicare cuts—and he now attacks the Democrats for proposing “for seeking some of the very same reductions,” although in much smaller amounts.

Today, Nagourney cites this same apparent flip. But why would Saint McCain do such a thing? As with Herszenhorn, there’s no sign that Nagourney ever asked anyone. Nagourney does say that the sanctified solon “did not respond to a request for an interview.” But what did Salter say about this? There’s no sign that Nagourney asked him. Did Nagourney ask McCain’s staff to explain? There is no sign that he did.

Herszenhorn seemed to describe a remarkable flip—a remarkable bit of dishonest behavior. In one vague sentence, Nagourney seems to describe the same conduct today. But even as Nagourney writes a full-length report about McCain’s revised political posture, he skips past this matter so quickly that a reader will barely notice. He makes no attempt to ask why McCain has done this odd thing.

As we’ve said: Script Never Dies.

The script on McCain was set in stone at least a decade ago. McCain was a man of unassailable character, the silly-bill pundits all sat down and typed. They said it, and said, it, and said it again, offering utterly silly proofs of this great man’s noble mien.

We think you know the pattern:

Having agreed that They Would All Say The Same Thing, they could only distinguish themselves by saying this One Silly Thing in ever-sillier fashion. For our money, Jonathan Alter took the cake in this particular sweepstakes. Here he is, in the pages of Newsweek, explaining McCain’s moral grandeur. Even his failures seem to deepen the character lines, Alter said:

ALTER (11/15/99): The animating principle of McCain's life is honor. It kept him in a Vietnamese prison for five and a half years instead of going home early, as his captors offered. It's at the root of his passionate efforts to clean up politics and redeem what he sees as his own connection to a corrupt system. It's why he bonded a few years ago with a onetime antiwar protester, David Ifshin, who was dying of cancer, and why he repeatedly visited former Arizona representative Morris Udall (a Democrat suffering for years from Parkinson's disease) in the hospital when everyone else seemed to have forgotten about him. Their honor mattered to him, too.

Honor is almost a quaint notion now, associated with a different time. McCain gives it a charming twinkle, and the hope of living on as something more than a platitude. He keeps faith with it, even while sometimes falling short of the standard himself. Like many other POWs, McCain broke under torture and signed a confession. On returning to the United States, he cheated on his first wife, Carol, who had been seriously injured in a car accident when he was in Vietnam. Later, he was too wrapped up in work to notice that his second wife, Cindy, was addicted to prescription drugs (box). He let himself get too close to savings and loan executive Charles Keating, who turned out to be a crook. He can be sarcastic and belittling, when he knows better.

But even his failures just seem to deepen the character lines. The life story works politically because McCain wears it lightly. It's part of his campaign advertising but not his basic stump speech.

Even his failures seemed to deepen the character lines! In all honesty, it’s hard to lose under ground rules like that! According to Alter, you can see McCain’s noble character on occasions when he does the right thing. But then again, you can see McCain’s noble character when he does the wrong thing too!

In short, a script has been in place for years about this great saint’s character. And alas! Inside this Potemkin “press corps,” Script pretty much Never Dies.

This morning, Nagourney does a full report about McCain’s revised post-election posture. But when it comes to Medicare, Nagourney seems to be rushing to catch a plane. Why has McCain done this very odd thing concerning this very important topic? Around here, people, Script Never Dies! There’s no sign Nagourney asked.