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3 March 2000

Our current howler: Lack-of-prep school

Synopsis: Chris Matthews asked McCain about those Michigan calls. We’re not really sure why he bothered.

Commentary by Chris Matthews, John McCain
Hardball, MSNBC, 3/1/00

On Campaign Trail, Gore Is the Stealth Candidate
Katharine Seelye, The New York Times, 3/2/00

No one made him raise the topic. He could have asked about something else. But on Hardball's Wednesday night "College tour," Chris Matthews brought up those "Catholic Alert" phone calls which the McCain campaign made in Michigan. Matthews wanted to know why Senator McCain—who pre-approved the script of the calls—had seemed to say otherwise on the Today show (on 2/23). For the record, here is the start of the Today show exchange between McCain and his interviewer, David Gregory:

GREGORY (on Today show): Let's talk about negative advertising. In Michigan, there was a new round of exchanges between you and Governor Bush about negative advertising. You complained about allies in the Christian Coalition bad-mouthing you to Michigan voters. The response from the Bush campaign is that you have given as good as you've gotten.

McCain said he would let observers make their own judgments; he felt that Bush had run a "nasty" and "dirty" campaign. That produced the following exchange, which Matthews would allude to on Hardball:

GREGORY: He had allies criticizing you. You had allies—

MCCAIN: Not so.

GREGORY: —criticizing him.

MCCAIN: No, that's not so. The fact is that he had Pat Robertson making calls—making calls saying that a good and decent man, Warren Rudman, was a bigot. That—that is transcendent. 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 [sic], that is anti-Catholic. It's clear...

That is the text of the Today show exchange which Matthews and McCain discussed on Hardball.

Before we look at the Hardball exchange, let's examine what McCain said to Gregory. McCain said there were phone calls made that he "had something to do with." He said he didn't know who paid for the calls. And he said the calls he was involved in were accurate in what they stated.

The oddest part of what McCain said to Gregory was his statement about who paid for the calls. It turned out that these calls were generated by his campaign, so it would seem obvious that he had paid for them. But that point never came up on Wednesday's Hardball. Matthews played tape of McCain on Today and This Week, and McCain, continuing directly, said this:

MCCAIN (on Hardball): The question was, Are you responsible for calls that portray him as anti-Catholic or anti-bigot [sic]? I said, No they are not. And I did not pay for them, I have not paid for them, I will not pay for them and I will never pay for them...

McCain was clearly referring to the Gregory interview, and he clearly misstated what Gregory had asked. Gregory had not asked if he was responsible for calls painting Bush as a bigot (see text above). The conversation with Matthews moved along, and moments later Matthews asked this:

MATTHEWS: But at the time when you did the interview, you were asked by David Gregory if you had approved the calls, you knew that you had approved some of them—

MCCAIN: He asked me if I had approved calls which portrayed Governor Bush as anti-Catholic or as a bigot.

Again, that account is inaccurate. Matthews suggested that McCain had been "Clintonian"—had deliberately told Gregory less than he knew. McCain replied to that:

MCCAIN: Look—I think this is the fifth time. I did not authorize any calls that portrayed him as anti-Catholic or as a bigot. Now that is a drastic difference from what I did call. It's not Clintonian. It's a huge difference. The question asked me was did I authorize those calls and I didn't, I won't and I haven't.

Moments later, McCain again said that Gregory had specifically asked about calls portraying Bush as a bigot.

Four times, McCain had excused himself by saying that Gregory had asked about calls portraying Bush as a bigot. Gregory had asked no such question. So, what did we learn when Matthews showed McCain what Gregory had actually asked him? We didn't learn anything, because Matthews, of course, never cited Gregory's actual question. Like Roberts and Donaldson on the 2/27 This Week, Matthews either wasn't prepared, or simply didn't want to embarrass McCain any more than he already had.

Again, no one made Matthews raise this topic; he could have asked about something else. But once he actually raised the question, one would assume he'd be fully prepared. What would Senator McCain have said, if Matthews had performed in a competent manner? We will never have any idea, because Matthews was either completely unprepared or he was simply pretending. (Perhaps McCain would have had a good answer.)

Hundreds of students sat in the room, thinking they were learning about a key hopeful. What they really were exposed to, though they likely didn't know it, was the endless incompetence of our millionaire pundits, and the weakness of our odd public discourse.


New adventures of Spinner One: Some in the press corps love to mention one key phrase when they write about VP Gore. That phrase? "No controlling legal authority." The phrase pops up in every context. It's become a slick way for scribes to remind that the veep is just no goddamn good.

Thursday morning—where else, in the Times—Spinner One set a new, absurd standard. We've never seen anyone shoehorn this phrase to quite so absurd an extent. The spinner-scribe was explaining that Gore is rarely available to questions from the press. And no folks, we don't make this stuff up. This is what she actually said, describing an exchange with Naughty Gore:

SEELYE: Another question came. When would it ber time for him to start unifying the Demovcratic Party?

At this point, Gore aides started trying to remove reporters from the room. Mr. Gore answered, "I, I am not taking a single vote for granted."

Much cross-talk ensued as the aides continued trying to hustle reporters out and Mr. Gore asserted, with the same rote-like repetition with which he famously said that there was "no controlling legal authority" over his fund-raising techniques, that he was not taking a single vote for granted.

It's why we call her "Spinner One." No one ever has crammed this phrase into so completely irrelevant a context. This is how a scribe like One punishes a hopeful for not giving access. Other forms of abuse pop up, too. In Thursday's piece, this passage immediately precedes the one we have just quoted:

SEELYE: [Gore] then was asked what message he had for Mr. Bradley.

"Uh, well, I don't, uh, have any, uh, message, uh, for, uh, for Senator Bradley," he responded slowly. "Uh, I, I, my message is for the, the voters of the country. Uh, I ask for their support. I'm not taking a single vote for, for granted."

Seriously—did we mention we don't make this stuff up? Have misquoted Gore on Love Canal, Spinner is taking no further chances, recording every glottal stop as Gore responds to her pointless questions.

It is perfectly appropriate for scribes to report that hopefuls aren't answering questions from the press. But Spinner One moves well past that, to punishment, and foot-stamping tantrums. This is writing as bad as it gets—a gruesome example of hubristic reporting. It shows again why we say that the Times is by light-years the worst paper we cover.