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Caveat lector


17 January 2000

The Howler review: Churls in charge?

Synopsis: It brings us no pleasure to report what we found when we reviewed the January 6 hopeful forum.

Commentary by Tim Russert, Jenny Attiyeh, Alison King, John Stasio
GOP Presidential Forum, MSNBC, 1/6/00


It brings us no pleasure to report what we found when our analysts reviewed the 1/6 GOP forum. Following the event, the Manchester Union-Leader, one of its sponsors, apologized for the conduct of the debate, and we finally went and reviewed our tape of the event this past weekend.

In truth, the work of the moderators might have been scripted by writers from Saturday Night Live. It gives us no pleasure to report the judgments our review has forced us to make. But the work was so striking that our incomparable mission requires us to say what occurred:

Fairness. The Union-Leader complained that moderator Tim Russert gave favored treatment to McCain and Bush. NBC said, in response to the criticism, that time allotments to the hopefuls turned out to be fairly even.

The statement is impossible to justify. The debate began with a (roughly) 35-minute segment in which four moderators questioned the hopefuls. This is the part of the program over which the moderators had direct control.

In the course of this segment, Russert repeatedly asked Bush and McCain to comment on other candidates' answers. As a result, this is the breakdown of speaking time that we were able to record:

McCain: 9:45 (minutes:seconds)
Bush: 8:15
Bauer 5:30
Keyes: 4:05
Hatch: 4:05
Forbes: 2:50

Some of the difference in speaking time reflected the hopefuls' aggressiveness. Most of the difference in speaking time reflected Russert's questioning.

Questions to Forbes and Hatch: The Union-Leader has endorsed Steve Forbes, and any Forbes supporter would have been upset by the lack of questions directed to him. But even more striking was the type of questions directed at Forbes and Hatch. In the first round of questioning, all six hopefuls were given a three-minute segment, in which they fielded a series of questions on some single topic. As noted above, Russert frequently augmented these segments, asking McCain and Bush to comment on things that other candidates said.

Twelve and a half minutes into the hour-long forum, only three hopefuls had spoken at all-Bush, McCain and Bauer. Finally it was time for Forbes' first (and only) question. Reporter John Stasio asked this:

STASIO: Mr. Forbes, you're a wealthy man with a tax cut plan. Your social policies have shifted some to the right in the past four years. You've been known in the state for four years, spent millions, still remain at 10 or 11 percent in the polls. Please, without a campaign speech, open up a little bit, it's getting late—tell us why you're not yet connecting, or not connecting, with a large segment of New Hampshire voters. Is it that some view you as aloof and out of touch, while others may say that you're just not the genuine article?

And no, we don't make this stuff up. Stasio's condescension is apparent throughout; he doesn't shy from telling Forbes not to give a campaign speech. (This season, moderators have frequently lectured candidates on how they should answer the questions.) But look at the subject of the question. After asking Bush and McCain serious policy questions, the panel asks Forbes a question about polls, riddled throughout with open attempts to define him for the viewers. Incredibly, this was the only question directed at Forbes in the 34 minutes controlled by the moderators. Meanwhile, when Orrin Hatch got his one question (right after Forbes), he too was asked about the polls! The moderators' work here was simply incredible—a segment from an SNL spoof that would likely be cut as overdone.

Moderator incomprehension: Hopeless imbalance; repeat questions on polling—hold on, folks, we're just getting started. Also striking was the panel's inability to comprehend simple responses. We've already discussed Jenny Attiyeh's response when McCain answered her question about FCC letters (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/7/00). After McCain gave a direct, responsive answer to her question, she snidely accused him of not being "forthcoming." This forced McCain to waste everyone's time, restating the basic points of his answer. But Attiyeh also seemed overmatched when she asked Alan Keyes' his one question:

ATTIYEH: Mr. Keyes, I have a short question for you. What does the term "separation of church and state" mean to you?

Perfectly predictably, Keyes pointed out that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution; he argued that it is the government's duty to protect the right to practice religion in all areas of life. As we've noted, the answer was completely predictable from a Christian conservative perspective; there are any number of policy areas in which one might direct a cogent follow-up. But Attiyeh seemed puzzled by what Keyes had said. Here was her follow-up question:

ATTIYEH: Can you just interpret that for me? Are you for or against the separation of church and state? Are you willing to abide by it?

Keyes has just said that, in his view, "separation of church and state" is not a constitutional principle. In response, Attiyeh wants to know if he's fur-'r-agin it. It's hard to believe that this is the best we can do in selecting a president.

Let's make some news: Not much better was Russert's attempt to nail Bush down on taxes. Responding to Stasio, Bush said he would provide a $483 billion tax cut. This pledge—from a Republican running at a time of big surpluses—is about as surprising as snowfall in Nome. Any Republican running this year would pledge to cut federal taxes. But Bush's father once broke a tax pledge (in very different economic circumstances), so journalists have recently had Big Fun pretending that Bush has rekindled Big Questions. Here was Russert's labored attempt to make Bush's statement more "clear:"

RUSSERT: Governor, so we're clear, even in the case of a prolonged world war, with the United States involved, would you not consider raising taxes?

Even Bush had to laugh out loud at the kindergarten-caliber question:

BUSH (laughing): If you're talking about the extremest of the extreme hypotheticals—which you sometimes have the tendency to do—

RUSSERT: Which sometimes happen—

Which sometimes happen! It "sometimes happens" that asteroids hit cities, and if that happens in Washington this Sunday, Meet the Press might not air on time. But that doesn't mean that Meet the Press doesn't have a regular schedule, or that NBC ought to "make things clear" by explaining this fact in TV Guide. There were obvious questions—obvious questions—to ask Gov. Bush about his tax plan. Specifically: Does he plan to stick to the 1997 spending caps on which the projected non-SS surplus is based? But this obvious question—never asked; never asked—was passed over for Russert's pointless query. Do you mind if we make an impolitic statement? When a candidate frequently scolded as dumb is asked a question as silly as this, a striking fact is put on display—the intellectual superiority of the two parties' candidates when compared to the Washington press corps.

Russert's final word: Most striking by far in this forum was Russert's treatment of Social Security. The topic arose 30 minutes along in a question to McCain. (This was McCain's third round of questions. Forbes, Hatch and Keyes received one.) Predictably, Russert asked Bush to critique McCain's answer, and Bauer forced his way in for a comment. But, though Keyes and Forbes were trying to speak, Russert held up his hand, talked over the top of them, and said this before starting the forum's next segment:

RUSSERT: We've all agreed the candidates will get a chance to question one another. Just for the record, Mr. Bauer, if nothing is done, benefits must be reduced by a third or the taxes doubled by the year 2035. More to come, more to come.

This is Russert's view of the facts, but it's surely not the view of several candidates. The idea that Russert should establish "the record" on this seminal issue provided the debate's most remarkable moment. Our analysts cheered when Keyes finally said, "I begin to wonder when Mr. Russert will declare his candidacy." But Russert's notion—that candidates should be silenced so journalists can speak—was all too expressive of moderator outlook in the dispiriting succession of performances by moderators we have seen since these forums began.

 

Seeming is believing: We were awakened Sunday morning in our sumptuous quarters by the unmistakable scream of sirens. Then we heard the squeal of tires; the Manners Police had arrived at our door! Melinda Henneberger leaped from the car, and began calling out through a large bull-horn:

HENNEBERGER (paragraph 1): Backstage before the recent Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, John McCain was yukking it up with his new friend Gary L. Bauer when George W. Bush finally showed up—late, as usual, and with a Texas-sized security detail...[T]he other candidates rolled their eyes.

(2) Contrary to his laid-back image, Governor Bush seemed nervous, wound a little bit tight, as he has before several of these events. In a snub that might have been inadvertent, he stepped in front of Mr. Bauer to have a word with Senator McCain—the only opponent he sees as a peer, according to one Bush adviser. Orrin G. Hatch, whose antipathy for his Senate colleague Mr. McCain is well known, was nonetheless greeting each of the candidates perfectly correctly.

Finally! Someone with manners! You'll recall a recent admission by ABC's Peter Jennings (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/10/00). What had he wanted to tell the audience when he hosted a Democratic debate? He'd wanted to describe the personal stuff he'd seen going on backstage! At the Times, Henneberger finally got the OK to give us this pointless information. Perhaps this pointless writing would seem less silly at a paper that was able to explain simple facts—simple facts, for example, about budget projections, or Bradley's health plan, or Bush's tax record. But the truth is, this sort of drivel is what really consumes the denizens of the celebrity press corps. Why won't the press corps report basic facts? To all appearances, they care about this.

Meanwhile, we marveled at Henneberger's sense of how one establishes information. Note above—she reports that Bush sees only McCain as a peer because one (unnamed) adviser has said so. One! It's amazing how stories just fall into place when this rule of evidence obtains:

HENNEBERGER (3): ...[F]inally, with just minutes until air, Alan Keyes—whom the others view mostly "as an entertainment dimension," according to another Republican adviser—arrived with his own security detail...

Henneberger now reports what five people think on the basis of one person's comment.

Nor does Henneberger make out better explaining why the hopefuls feel as they do. Gore doesn't take his spats with Bradley personally, she says. But it's different for Bradley. Here's why:

HENNEBERGER: But for Mr. Bradley, it does seem personal—in part, friends say, because of his experience as a tough athletic competitor...

Bradley takes it personally because he played in the NBA. This makes sense to people on Mars—and to editors at the Times. By the way, last fall, when Bradley seemed "above the fray," his athletic experience was widely cited as the explanation for that. To writers who like to write pointless stories, Bradley's athletic experience has been cited as the explanation for everything he does. (Note to press corps: McCain's supporters like to mention Vietnam. Bradley's supporters like to mention pro basketball. Some among you don't seem to have noticed.)

The saddest moment in this piece? It came in this troubling passage:

HENNEBERGER: [A]s the campaign has gone on, Senator McCain's attitude toward Governor Bush seems to have cooled. "McCain has real doubts that Bush is up to the job, and you can see that in the body language sometimes," said William Kristol, a friend of both Mr. Bauer and Mr. McCain who was Mr. Keyes's roommate at Harvard.

Kristol, the smartest guy on Sunday morning, had to be fired for that very reason. Weeks later, we see him reduced to consulting the Times on questions of McCain's body language.

Henneberger writes a long, pointless piece describing who likes who among hopefuls. The word "seems" is her crutch and her savior:

      HENNEBERGER:
  1. Issues and ideology seem irrelevant to the candidates in choosing their friends.
  2. Mr. Bauer seems almost poignantly open to a real, and not just to a political, friendship with [Bush].
  3. Mr. Bradley does not seem to have been able to bring himself to return [Gore's] compliments.
  4. The vice president does not seem to be taking it to heart.
  5. For Mr. Bradley, it does seem personal.
  6. Sen. McCain's attitude toward Governor Bush seems to have cooled.
  7. Mr. Bauer seems to feel hopeful that even in the craziness and intense pressure of a presidential race there is room for the unexpected, uncalculated wild card of human feeling.

Aaaawww! Peter Jennings gnashed his teeth when he couldn't discuss this pointless trivia. Waking us up with her big loud bull-horn, Henneberger finally does.