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13 March 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Dreamers

Synopsis: Pundits drew a pleasing inference from McCain’s Hanoi years. They should have just checked out the facts.

Mr. Right Becomes Mr. Rectitude
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 3/8/00

McCain Picks Up the Mo in Motown
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 2/23/00

Nuts or Guts?
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 11/21/99

For McCain, No Place Like Home For Controversy
David Broder, The Washington Post, 11/28/99

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

Commentary by Elizabeth Arnold
Washington Week in Review, PBS, 2/10/00

A 'Year of Mavericks' Ends Swiftly, and Takes The Excitement With It
Peter Marks, The New York Times, 3/10/00


It didn't take long for Maureen Dowd to give up her seat on the Straight Talk Express. On Cut-and-Run Wednesday, the feckless scribe responded to McCain's Super Tuesday defeats. Dowd complained about the hopeful's "righteousness;" it had "slowly morphed into a kind of narcissism:"

DOWD (3/8): He was a crusader, and crusaders are easily outplayed. The Bush strategy was to gaslight the volatile senator. They always knew that when they turned up the heat, Mr. McCain would become inflamed. Sure enough, his campaign began to seem like a huge inflammation.

See that? "They always knew." The Bush campaign had known all along; they'd always known that McCain gets emotional. And it wasn't just the Bush campaign; we all knew this all along, Dowd had said. Two weeks earlier, Dowd had reviewed McCain's missteps down in South Carolina:

DOWD (2/23): Mr. McCain, who spent his life getting in trouble for his impulsiveness and thin skin, let his emotions get away with him in the last couple of weeks...McCain responded viscerally rather than cerebrally...People said from the start that it was too easy to get under Mr. McCain's skin, and that his judgment was questionable at moments of maximum pressure...So far, we've learned that one candidate [Bush] drifts and the other gets wound up. So now we know what we already knew.

We "already knew," the savvy sage said, that McCain had a temperament problem.

There was only one problem with this know-it-all pose—it represented a complete, total flip-flop. Back in the fall, an army of associates had said that McCain did, in fact, have a temperament problem—that "his judgment is questionable at moments of pressure," to use this pundit's own words. But what had Dowd done when this issue was raised? You remember—she had joined a parade of pundits in dismissing this claim as a "smear." McCain's temperament had been questioned by various agents—by the Republican governor of his state; by the state's leading newspaper; by a number of senators (anonymously, of course). But to swooning pundits, it was wrong, all so wrong—an assault on their sainted contender. Dowd wrote a column from her seat on the bus that showed us how engaging and charming McCain was. She rolled her eyes at the mob which pursued him:

DOWD (11/21): With Mr. McCain zooming in New Hampshire polls come whispered insinuations from Republicans, including some George W. Bush supporters, that his years in Vietcong dungeons, which included two suicide attempts, drove him cuckoo. There have also been rumors that some G.O.P. rivals are trying to dig up his medical records.

What a helper! Dowd repeated rumors about McCain's rivals to show us how sleazy they'd been! And she quoted McCain about Vietnam, to show he had no temperament problem. "When you spend years in solitary," the solon told her, "you get to know yourself very well."

DOWD (11/21, continuing directly): And what do you learn? "Narcissism," he says drily. "I do have a confidence in myself. You talk about trying to become an alpha male. I never heard of such a thing. I know my strengths and failings. I'm very well prepared for whatever difficulties the rest of my life brings.

"And being crazy," he concluded, "ain't one of them."

So had Dowd concluded her column. McCain wasn't likely to have a problem because of what he'd learned about himself in Vietnam.

It made a wonderful, heart-warming tale, straight from the "Boy's Life" school of biography the press corps, in its swoon, just adored. There was only one problem with the stirring tale—it's quite clear that the tale was just wrong. For all his obvious achievements and virtues, McCain does have a problem with temper; he wrote frankly about it in his best-selling book, and discussed it openly on Hardball last fall. (McCain told tabloid talker Chris Matthews that he works to keep his temper in check every day.) McCain's emotional reactions to the South Carolina campaign—which harmed him, Dowd herself now freely states—is part and parcel of the temperament problem which the press corps called a "smear" just last autumn.

And why did the press corps take this approach? In part, because they worked from biography. They loved McCain's inspiring life story, and kept trying to draw lessons from it. Would they examine the record of McCain's adult life to see if he did have a temperament problem? No! Instead, they read the tea leaves of events long past, and decided he couldn't be afflicted. No one on earth reaches judgments this way—drawing inferences from the distant past, while ignoring real evidence from the recent past and the present. In fact, the western world hasn't reasoned this way since Galileo decided to look and see what actually transpires in the heavens. But there they were, the last brave scholastics, saying McCain couldn't have the alleged problem—and refusing to do the work of their craft, the reporting that would let readers know.

We do feel obliged to cite one exception—David Broder, of the Washington Post. In November, when folks said McCain had a temperament problem, Broder took a novel approach. Get this—he actually went to Arizona and made an attempt to find out! On November 28, he published a lengthy piece in the Post, in which he described the hopeful's "penchant for personal tongue-lashing" and "the hardball tactics of his controversial political aides." Broder interviewed a string of Arizona political figures who complained about McCain's temper and conduct:

BRODER: One of [Barbara] Barrett's key supporters in 1994, the elected Maricopa County (Phoenix) superintendent of schools, Sandra Dowling, had what eyewitnesses describe as a very angry confrontation with McCain, complete with curses and threats, in public view on the floor of the Republican state convention that year...McCain said that in their public altercation, "I am sure I said some things I shouldn't have, and I regret that."

Broder described a series of such events, with McCain's repeated apologies for any misconduct.

Did Broder's article mean that McCain wasn't qualified for office? No—it meant that Broder was doing his job! Rather than sitting around making up dreamy tales to support a hopeful who gives him free doughnuts, the scribe was passing on information that could guide voters in making their judgments. But many others took a different approach, dismissing complaints about McCain as a "smear"—and telling us that the charges just couldn't be true because of what had happened to McCain back in Nam.

Scribes made many silly uses of McCain's striking bio in the past year. But this episode plainly showed us the dangers involved when scribes make themselves out to be psycho-biographers. In doing so, they take themselves far beyond their ability level, and enter a world of dreamy subjectivity. Hopefuls should be judged by their verifiable public records—not by tales we can dream from their past.

And the ability to dream is strong in the press, as Dowd made all too clear just last week. She dreamed a truly remarkable dream: We had seen McCain's problem all along. Our analysts uttered their low, mordant chuckles, and recalled something Dowd had said only last month. The day after New Hampshire, Dowd was still off in Nam, constructing homilies about McCain's temperament:

DOWD (2/2): Everyone assumes the Bush machine will try to tear John McCain apart limb from limb. But then, John McCain already survived that fate far away and long ago. So he's pretty fearless.

Three weeks later—after the "Bush machine" had made McCain mad—Dowd was saying that we "already knew" that McCain had a tendency to get overwrought.

From November through New Hampshire, Dowd said, “No way.” Three weeks later, she'd known all along. Dowd showed again what she shows us so often—you can get away with saying whatever you like when you're a part of the celebrity press corps.

 

Tomorrow: Good-bye to all that! (One day only.) Amused and bemused, we take a last look at a doughnut brigade double standard. (Wednesday: Hsi Lai Temple.)

The story they like: For a perfect recitation of official cant, you can't top Elizabeth Arnold's performance last Friday on Washington Week in Review. Speaking to the usual assembly of fascinated pundits, Arnold reviewed the primary season—and you could recite her scripted tale in your sleep. At the outset, Bradley came off "as someone authentic" because "he was comfortable in his own skin." McCain "just wouldn't compromise." Gore and Bush "were willing to bend a little bit along the way, something that their rivals couldn't or wouldn't do." McCain and Bradley? They were "the rebels, the insurgents, the mavericks, the guys who took the chances and said what they felt." Gore "reinvented himself" (so did Bush), which produced an interesting reaction: "We all laughed, but the voters bought it." Those idiots! Arnold expressed contempt for the idiot voters throughout, and repeatedly told us how the press corps had laughed at Bush and Gore. But what can you do with those idiot voters? They got taken for a ride by Bush, too:

ARNOLD: When he did change, he changed and we all laughed. But when—after New Hampshire, McCain trounced him, he stole a page from McCain's book and promptly reinvented himself and became the real reformer. We all laughed but the people are telling us in the exit polls that they believe he's the real reformer.

What can you do with those idiot voters? If it weren't for the voters, Arnold seemed to be saying, we could have some really great elections around here.

But it wasn't just Arnold's arrogance and cant that brought us right out of our chairs. She also recited a new piece of history that is quickly becoming standard issue:

ARNOLD: You know, in the end, these two men [McCain and Bradley]—they really captured the imagination of the voters, and us, I would say. But on voting day, I think a lot of voters who are very comfortable in their lives, they looked at these two gentlemen who were talking about radical change in one form or the other, and decided that they didn't want to take these kinds of risks.

Arnold expressed a less aggressive form of the view that Mary McGrory had expressed before (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/10/00). That view? The voters had somehow changed their minds, retreating from an initial fascination with McCain and Bradley. But there was no such fascination to retreat from. At Bradley's high point in last fall's polling, for example, he was ahead in New Hampshire and even in New York. But there was never a time when Bradley was even close to Gore in nationwide polling. Nor did McCain ever approach Bush in the nationwide polls. The vote that occurred on Super Tuesday did not represent some puzzling departure from an initial fascination with the pair of straight-shooters. Had McCain and Bradley "really captured the imagination of the voters," as Arnold said? Right or wrong, they had quite clearly not been able to do so nationwide.

But don't worry, folks—they're all going to say it. Peter Marks, in the Times:

MARKS: In mirror-image speeches barely an hour apart, [McCain and Bradley] abandoned the presidential race, leaving the country to puzzle over the demise of a pair of candidates that had once so captured the fancy of the American press and public.

Press? You bet. Public? No. But, stuffed with doughnuts and angry again that those idiot voters won't do what they're told, pundits are building betrayal myths about how the fickle public backed out on a bargain.