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25 February 2000

Our current howler (part I): They’ll have fun fun fun

Synopsis: Pundits “laugh and laugh” on John McCain’s bus. But one scribe said he wouldn’t go near it.

Hillary—No Happy Warrior
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 2/8/00

John McCain: Happy Warrior
William Greider, Rolling Stone, 10/28/99

Rebel With a Cause
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 2/2/00

McCain Seeks Favor as Happy Warrior
David Von Drehle, The Washington Post, 1/31/00

Commentary by Lars-Erik Nelson
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 2/14/00

Flawed Hero
Joe Klein, The New Yorker, 1/17/00

Confidence Restored, McCain Trumpets His Conservatism and Reaches Out
David Barstow, The New York Times, 2/24/00

Richard Cohen finally took the ride that all of CelebCorps was talking about. Later, still excited from all the straight talk, the pundit described his experience:

COHEN: Oddly enough, in all the analysis I've read of McCain's unanticipated success, the word "fun" is never mentioned. But the man is having fun. A trip on his bus is, well, a trip. You laugh and laugh—at least I do—and when, once, I asked him why in the world he would talk to the press hour after hour, totally on-the-record, he said it was "fun." He was having fun.

Welcome to the Fantasy Camp of Election 2000 press coverage. Middle-aged pundits clamber on McCain's bus, and he rides them around, with free doughnuts. He even says how much fun it is to be able to talk with all of the scribes. Sometimes, he takes the flattery further. We reported this back in December (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/15/99):

WILLIAM GREIDER: [C]andidate McCain's greatest asset is the friendly press...McCain returns the affection. He likes to be around reporters as much as other conservatives loathe them. "Most reporters are smart people," he explains. "I enjoy the exchanges."

Most reporters are smart people? When we first read that, we knew right away—this guy will say anything to win!

At any rate, we were surprised to learn from Cohen's piece that he hadn't seen anyone mention the fun. In fact, almost every profile of the Straight Talk Express explains how much fun it all is. Back in October, there was Greider: "In other words, [McCain]'s having fun." More recently, Maureen Dowd went on the tour, and came back with a joke to retell:

DOWD: He reminisced about an exotic dancer he had once dated. "Marie, the Flame Thrower of Florida," he said. Asked what she was like, he replied, "She was pretty volatile," and then slapped his knee and laughed, "Har, har, har!"

Maybe you just had to be there.

Anyway, how "odd" was it that Cohen didn't know that other profiles had stressed all the fun? Pretty odd, because David Von Drehle had profiled the fun one week earlier, right in Cohen's own paper. We'll have to admit, we cringed a bit as Von Drehle described the "bull session:"

VON DREHLE: Now a Happy Warrior is plying the roads of New Hampshire in a big white bus that rings with laughter...The rolling bull session has become the must-see show of the presidential campaign. In recent days, senior brass from the Wall Street Journal, ABC News and the New York Times have all scored tickets for the primo seat: an easy chair beside McCain.

Should major journalists be "scoring tickets" for the right to engage in a rollicking "bull session" with a hopeful? For us, Von Drehle's profile begins to strike a wrong note. At any rate, getting back to the fun, Von Drehle's article was called "McCain Seeks Favor as Happy Warrior;" Greider's piece, in Rolling Stone, had been called "John McCain: Happy Warrior." Cohen's piece, in the Post, was titled "Hillary—No Happy Warrior" (McCain was a "happy warrior," Cohen said). Not that Cohen had seen the other profiles, of course. He said he hadn't seen anyone discussing the fun, and you know how he loves that straight talk.

No, we don't know where Richard Cohen has been, but all over the media we've seen a parade of tales about fun on the bus. Reporters were getting to hear some good jokes, and they were getting to eat lots of doughnuts. Indeed, our hard-working analysts, chained to their carrels, often dreamed of life on the fabled Express. So you can imagine their feelings—right on Valentine's morning!—when Lars-Erik Nelson, playing the kill-joy, turned to Brian Lamb and said this:

BRIAN LAMB: Have you been on the "Straight Talk Express?"

NELSON: I have not yet. He invited me to go on, I couldn't do it. I'm not sure I would at this point. I like McCain, and I think what he's doing is really in a way excellent. But I really have misgivings about the press being on that bus all the time and becoming kind of a sounding-board and a chorus and a laugh track for his jokes...You always end up being kind of a kitchen cabinet, which is not our role. He shouldn't be able to try out his lines with us or try out his jokes or make friends—that's not what we're there for. We're there to report on what he'd do as a candidate and as a president, and I think—it's fun and I'm sure the people doing it are having the time of their lives. He's having the time of his life, clearly. But I think the role of the press as being sort of the cheerleaders there, which is what they turn out to be, I think that's wrong. I think we ought to keep our distance.

Faces fell among the analysts, who had dreamed of the fun on the bus. But in our lavish executive quarters, we privately cheered the good Nelson. Finally—a journalist had managed to ask himself if life on the bus was good for his craft! And, hoping to advance the analysts' thinking, we gave them this profile by Joe Klein:

KLEIN: [McCain] is, quite obviously, the media's favorite candidate...The bus is called the Straight Talk Express but might just as easily be named the Stockholm Syndrome, candidate and press corps locked in a steamy, involuntary psychological symbiosis. The "I, too, have a weakness for John McCain" sentence has become a standard disclaimer in accounts of his candidacy.

Say what? Stockholm Syndrome? Klein suggested the corps had been brainwashed by all of their time on that bus! Klein goes on to offer a leavening view; he says the public's reaction to Senator McCain has been "far more significant than the media's crisis of the heart." But how do we know that isn't just what the scribe has been programmed to tell us?

In fact, Cohen's column was just the latest description of all the Big Fun on the bus. A stream of writers have offered accounts of the rollicking times that occur there. Nelson is clearly right in one way—it often sounds as if the scribes are "having the time of their lives" on the bus. But when we read their later coverage of McCain, we agree with Nelson in one other way—it's quite likely that they just shouldn't be there.


Monday: Bernie Kalb asked his panel an excellent question. Then, he quickly withdrew it.

Visit our incomparable archives: We first discussed the press corps' life-on-the-bus in December. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/99, 12/15/99, and 12/16/99.

So funny they forgot to ask: In recent profiles of life on the bus, one new element has begun to appear; writers frequently say that they talk and talk with McCain until they run out of questions (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/7/00). Apparently, that's what happened just this week in the wake of the Michigan primary. Right up through election day, the McCain campaign denied it was making those phone calls about Bush and Bob Jones University. And then, on Tuesday night, when voting was done, the campaign changed its straight-shooting story. Oh yes, it said, as a matter of fact, it had made the disputed Jones calls (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/24/00).

This was the second straight primary where such misstatements occurred, and you'd think the press corps would be wondering why. You'd especially think so because the press corps is constantly telling us how much it loves McCain's straight talk, directness, honesty and character, etc., and so forth and so on. The press corps has told us, again and again—the election is all about character this year. And we know from the press corps' analyses of Gore how much it hates any hints of dissembling.

Maybe Gore should just hand out free doughnuts. Because, judging from yesterday's mainstream reporting, no one bothered to ask McCain why he and his campaign had misstated the facts. Here is the account from the great New York Times:

BARSTOW: Mr. McCain left open the possibility that his campaign would continue to place phone calls telling Roman Catholic voters that Bob Jones has made a series of anti-Catholic remarks. On Tuesday, as voters cast ballots in Michigan, Mr. Bush complained bitterly that people were receiving such calls, but the McCain campaign denied any involvement.

Only late Tuesday night did the campaign acknowledge making such calls, a point that Mr. Bush made today. "They admitted they were making those calls," he said. "I don't accept that kind of campaign. And I don't appreciate it one bit."

Although Senator McCain has repeatedly promised not to run negative advertisements, he defended the phone calls today when he spoke to reporters on his campaign plane. "That was an accurate phone call," he said, jabbing the air for emphasis. "I didn't call anybody a bigot."

He was alluding to phone calls that [Pat] Robertson, a Bush supporter, made to voters in Michigan...

Although Barstow clearly had access to McCain, there is no sign that he, or anyone else, asked McCain why his campaign had falsely denied making the phone calls. Barstow had run out of questions! The Washington Post's coverage, by David Broder and Rene Sanchez, similarly failed to raise this point. In USA Today, there was no mention of the McCain camp's misstatements at all; the paper did publish a profile explaining how voters find McCain so straightforward and honest.

In a campaign that has stressed "straight talk" so much, this repeat failure-to-ask is all too striking. After all, McCain is a candidate who tells every crowd that "I will always tell you the truth." Maybe the scribes just "ran out of questions" because it was time for more jokes and fresh doughnuts.

One final note: the McCain phone call was inaccurate in saying that Bush "has remained silent" on the Bob Jones issues. In fact, Bush has frequently said he doesn't support various positions of Bob Jones III. By all appearances, the scribes also forgot to ask about that. So it goes when celebrity scribes swap their craft for a really fun bus ride.