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29 February 2000

Our current howler (part III): What’s his favorite color?

Synopsis: We blush to see the topics discussed when the scribes ride around on that bus.

The Man Whose Life Is an Open Bus
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 2/14/00

What you see is what you get
Franklin Foer, U.S. News, 2/14/00

No One Like McCain
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 11/16/99

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

Bush Aide Says McCain Misled Public on Calls
David Barstow, The New York Times, 2/27/00

God bless Howard Kurtz for asking the scribes if there might be a problem with life on that bus—if they might be affected by all the hilarity and all the free doughnuts and fun (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/28/00). At about the time that he raised this question, Kurtz himself took a ride on the bus, checking up on CelebCorps' "hottest ticket." He described his ride in the Washington Post, coincidentally on Valentine's Day. At the end of his review, he offered Post readers a standard new observation:

KURTZ: [T]he traveling caravan more often resembles an endurance contest. Last Wednesday, as the bus rolled from Charleston [S.C.] to Columbia to Greenville, as the note pads and tapes filled up with candidate verbiage, the reporters, for the moment, had run out of questions.

It's become a standard part of the tale: reporters get so much access to McCain, they simply run out of questions. For example, Franklin Foer of U.S. News recently made the same point on Washington Journal (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/7/00). It's presented as a great boon to democracy—a hopeful answers so many questions, reporters run out of things to ask! Why shouldn't McCain get good coverage, scribes say, if he's willing to take all our queries?

Indeed, it is to Senator McCain's credit that he gives the scribes the chance to ask him tough questions. But we will say this—scribes seem to run out of questions a lot, based on their actual accounts of that bus. Scribes tend to sketch a Symposium-like setting, in which they sit admiringly at the Great Man's feet. So did Foer describe the scene in a U.S. News account:

FOER: This is the stuff journalists are not supposed to see—a strategy session on abortion, the mocking of opposing campaign staffs, the candidate stuffing Krispy Kremes into his mouth. But it's happening in plain sight, on John McCain's bus—the Straight Talk Express—as it barrels across the bogs of South Carolina. With reporters sitting cross-legged at his feet, the candidate returns a call from Jim Nicholson

It resembles a portrait of Socrates' admirers, except Plato never mentions any doughnuts.

Then—alas—Foer spoils it. He describes what is being discussed:

FOER: He's a man who no compunction about revealing himself—all of himself. On recent bus trips, he has admitted to owning a pellet gun from East Germany, hating his pet chicken, and taking melatonin to fall asleep...And when reporters run out of questions, he jokingly goads them: "Come on. One of you lowlifes must have a question for me. What's going on in the world?"

Foer isn't the only one describing discussions that can best be termed fatuous. Back in November, Richard Cohen had sketched out a blend of topics:

COHEN: The hero still does things his own way...Reporters sit with him in the back of his campaign bus and ask him anything they want. We talked about the Vietnam War and Kosovo, Chechnya and gun control, abortion, homosexuality, campaign finance, Marlon Brando movies, great books, flying off a carrier, reciting exciting movie plots to his fellow POWs, going over the wall at the Naval Academy lo those many years ago, and that dish from Rio, the fashion model he had such a crush on. For a while he wanted to find her but then someone told him, no—it's best to remember her as she was.

That "dish from Rio" seems to have provoked the most extended discussion. Should journalists be spending hours at a time, talking to a candidate about Rio fashion models? There's an obvious downside to such buddy-talk, but reporters routinely describe it. William Greider, back in the fall:

GREIDER: Back on the bus, en route to Laconia, [N.H.], the reporters divert him with a series of fanzine questions. What are you reading, Senator? "John Updike's Best American Short Stories of the Century." What was your favorite book as a child? "King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table." Favorite living hero? "Ted Williams: best pilot, best baseball player, best fisherman."

Greider openly describes the reporters as "fans," and says this earlier on in his piece:

GREIDER: If you're a reporter, accustomed to getting manipulated and boxed out by campaign handlers, you're bound to fall in love—and even feel a little protective toward this decent guy who is so incautious. McCain returns the affection.

Greider describes reporters "getting edgy," worrying that McCain will say something unguarded that causes him trouble. It's a strange account of the press-pol fandango. But at any rate, when Maureen Dowd got on board, the silly-stuff started again:

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!"

One more example, to drive home the point—David Von Drehle, in the Post:

VON DREHLE: McCain talks about tax policy, about doughnuts, about the night he and his wife slept in the secret villa that once belonged to North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. ("It just shows, if you live long enough...")

He talks about high school, about his wife's old boyfriends, about popular and higher-brow culture. He quotes from his favorite movie, "Viva Zapata," and from the cartoon series "Ren and Stimpy," and from his favorite book, "For Whom the Bell Tolls." He talks about his love for Hemingway—everything except "The Old Man and the Sea," a book that left him thinking: "Just catch the damn fish and kill the damn thing!"

Every word is on the record, from the story about seeing Donald Trump making out with his girlfriend in the Metropolitan Opera House lobby, to the story about the "pathetic" members of Congress who show up hours before the State of the Union address to get a seat on the aisle "so they can be on television for a split second."

This is all on the record, Von Drehle marvels. But what is the point of compiling such a record—of knowing McCain likes Rem and Stimpy, or once saw Donald and Melania making out? The "probative" value of these conversations is nil, but the "prejudicial" factor is plain as day. Greider isn't the only writer who has stated the obvious—that this "rolling bull session" can lead to bonding between the press and the hopeful. And by the way, would you want to be the miserable killjoy who ruined the fun by asking tough questions? We'd guess that, in this frat house setting, it would be no fun at all to ask McCain why he keeps distorting Bush's budget plan, or why he says such odd things about abortion, or what was up with that adviser, Richard Quinn. Indeed, here at THE HOWLER, we've been amazed by the questions that no one seems to be asking, and on a recent Reliable Sources, our suspicions were only confirmed. Howard Kurtz was asking a panel of scribes about the race between Bush and McCain. Why wasn't there more reporting of serious issues, Kurtz asked. The Post's Dana Milbank offered this:

MILBANK: It will probably be a nice thing if we could be looking at the issues now. I spent a week on McCain's bus up until earlier this week, and the reporter—I think it was from USA Today—actually apologized before asking a policy question, apologized to the other reporters. Everybody groaned, you know, in an exaggerated sense.

Jim Warren spoke up. He'd been there:

WARREN: Dana, if you want to see people groan, you should see them in back of the McCain bus when I start engaging him on the subject of U.S. policy toward Rwanda.

According to Milbank and Warren, there is even peer pressure in the "rolling bull session" not to ask questions about simple policy! Is it even harder to ask adversarial questions—questions that might kill everyone's fun? We don't know, but again, we've been struck by how many questions McCain doesn't get asked. Maybe reporters don't want to break in on the stories about that pet chicken.

Scribes seem to think we're supposed to marvel at these endless tales of endless access. In fact, here at THE HOWLER we're amazed to note how few editors think like Lars-Erik Nelson (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/00). Has open access worked for McCain? Just look at the titles of then stories we've excerpted. There they are, the list of panders, tribute to the pull of free doughnuts:

The man whose life is an open bus
What you see is what you get
No one like McCain
John McCain: happy warrior
Rebel with a cause
McCain seeks favor as happy warrior

Does "access" work? Just read those titles. No, dear friends, if we ran a paper, we'd be concerned about letting our scribes on that bus. Scribes aren't supposed to be pals with the hopefuls. It isn't the fault of Senator McCain, but on his bus, that rule died long ago.


Tomorrow: Joe Klein said the bus could be called "The Stockholm Syndrome." A number of scribes have said why.

Barstow gets it right: Last Friday, we criticized the New York Times' David Barstow; he'd failed to pop an obvious question while riding on McCain's campaign plane. Barstow had spoken to McCain on February 23, the day after McCain's primary victory in Michigan. But he failed to ask an obvious question; when McCain defended his campaign's "Catholic Voter Alert" phone calls, saying that the calls had been accurate, Barstow failed to ask why McCain had originally denied making the phone calls (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/25/00).

Friday night, back on the plane, Barstow moved the story forward. The scribe quite clearly popped key questions, which he reported in his Sunday Times piece:

BARSTOW: In an interview on Friday night on a flight from California to Ohio, where he campaigned [on Saturday], Mr. McCain said he had personally approved the calls, which aides said were inspired by an earlier ad hoc effort by volunteers.

The highlighted section of the statement was news. Barstow then cited interviews with McCain in which the hopeful had seemed to deny knowing about the calls. (Today show, NBC, 2/23; news conference on Fox, 2/23.)

Still no word about why McCain had made these apparently false statements. And on Sunday, who took on the challenging story but This Week's Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. Surely now we'd get the facts about these apparent contradictions. We'd find out why the straight-shooting authentic had seemed to be fudging the facts.

Ready? Here's the text of what McCain had said (to David Gregory) on the 2/23 Today show:

MCCAIN: The calls that were made that I—that I had anything to do with—although I didn't, I don't know who paid for them—had to do with pointing out that Governor Bush did go to an institution that prohibits racial dating, that is anti-Catholic.

The question: If McCain had "personally approved" the calls, why was he hemming and hawing like this on Wednesday? When Roberts asked him, McCain twice asserted that he had been asked about calls "that accused Governor Bush of being anti-Catholic." His phone calls had not made such a claim, he told her. Gregory couldn't be talking about him. That's why he'd said what he did.

There's only one problem—McCain's account to Roberts doesn't seem to be accurate. In the Today show interview which Roberts cited, David Gregory had merely said: "[Bush] had allies making calls criticizing you. You had allies criticizing him." At that point, McCain broke in and made the statement we have block-quoted above.

What did McCain say when asked about that? Nothing—Roberts and Donaldson didn't follow up. McCain had seemed to misstate what Gregory asked; but Donaldson moved on to another topic. Utter lack of preparation has become a trademark of the woeful ABC show. If we were a hopeful who maybe had fudged, that's the show that we'd want to do, also.

For another recent lack of follow-up, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/7/00.