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16 December 1999

Our current howler (part III): When pundits don’t attack

Synopsis: Scribes have experienced a “swoon” for McCain. In the process, some standards may have suffered.

The McCain Rage
Andrew Ferguson, The Weekly Standard, 11/15/99

John McCain, happy warrior
William Greider, Rolling Stone, 10/28/99

Those Whispers About McCain
Elizabeth Drew, The Washington Post, 11/19/99

Nothing Succeeds Like Access
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 12/8/99

Bradley Limits Release of Medical History
Mike Allen, The Washington Post, 12/14/99

What We Need to Know
David Broder, The Washington Post, 12/15/99

A photo accompanying a Newsweek profile happens to show The Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson; he's riding in a minivan somewhere in New Hampshire with White House contender John McCain. The hopeful is sporting his "Senator Blues Brother" glasses; he clearly is sharing a colorful story. Ferguson seems to be having the time of his life. In his own profile of McCain, we learn why:

FERGUSON: The attention he lavishes on reporters is unprecedented for a Washington poobah. When I traveled with him last week he took to introducing me to his audiences—identifying me variously as a prisoner from a work-release camp, a card-carrying member of the Communist party, and a freelance reporter for Hustler magazine.

We already know, from the Standard's Fred Barnes, that pundits love hopefuls who give them a nickname (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/14/99). But just listen to how far McCain takes it:

GREIDER: In addition to old veterans, candidate McCain's greatest asset is the friendly press...McCain returns the affection..."Most reporters are smart people," he explains. "I enjoy the exchanges."

Apparently there's nothing McCain won't say, to judge from this report by Bill Greider.

But seriously though, folks. Andrew Ferguson is an excellent writer, who penned an instructive profile. And we know of no reason why Senator McCain shouldn't be the next president. But recent profiles have made McCain's campaign read like a male boomer fantasy camp. Middle-aged pundits ride around with a hero who tells them how bright they all turned out to be. They hear tales of McCain showing up drunk on dates and crashing through the screen doors of his girl friends.

Have reporters lost perspective due to their "swoon?" Some have openly worried about it. Reporters have clearly fallen in love with The Story—the remarkable story of McCain's Vietnam service. Accounts of McCain's suffering—and of his unique sense of humor—dominate most of the profiles.

But The Story—the one the press corps loves—is the story of McCain's early life. At times it has crowded out basic facts about his life as an adult. When questions arose about McCain's temperament, for example, almost no one really checked them out. One exception: David Broder went to Arizona and interviewed McCain's home-state detractors. Citizens with an interest in McCain's adult life could imaginably have learned from the article. But others alleged a "smear" campaign that no one really seemed able to document, and Elizabeth Drew wrote a piece in the Post that was striking for its slippery indirection. Seeming to commit every sin she despised, she managed to smear various people herself, in passages reading like this:

DREW (paragraph 1): A smear campaign of the ugliest sort is now coursing through the contest for the presidency in 2000. Using the code word "temper," a group of Senate Republicans, and at least some outriders of the George W. Bush campaign, are spreading the word that John McCain is unstable. The subtext also suggested in this whispering campaign is that he returned from 5_ years as a POW in North Vietnam with a loose screw. And it is bruited about that he shouldn't be trusted with nuclear weapons.

Later on, Drew named four senators who had allegedly "participated in this whispering campaign." But what exactly were they alleged to have done, based on this slippery paragraph? Clearly, someone had said that McCain was "unstable" and had a "temper"—Drew states that in sentence two. But the ugly part—the part about Vietnam—is a "subtext" that has been "suggested" in some manner. What has actually been said to "suggest" this? We're never told at any point in her piece. We do read this, about a rival campaign, but there's a bit of a smear in this also:

DREW (4): The Bush campaign has told reporters that it has heard that McCain's temper is a real problem, and that they're trying to find out more, and may use the issue. That is hardly a hands-off approach.

It's also hardly a "smear" about Vietnam, though Drew lumps all sinners together. In fact, Drew never once, in her entire piece, quotes a single thing a named person has said. We're told that things have been "bruited about," but we're never told what has actually been said. A piece that decries an alleged whispering campaign is composed of strange whispers itself.

Is this what happens when pundits swoon? Do standards of journalism suffer? There's one major thing that does occur: content goes right out the window. The scribes are eager to praise McCain's candor in sharing his tales about stripper ex-girl friends; in the excitement, they sometimes forget to take a look at things that may actually matter. For example, how many voters really understand the exchange that occurred in Iowa this week, in which Governor Bush and Senator Hatch criticized McCain's campaign finance proposal? Readers have been told, again and again, the text of McCain's joke about Alzheimer patients. But how much effort has been made to explain this hallmark of his campaign? To some extent, The Story has provided the latest excuse to avoid ever talking about substance.

Sorry, folks—we had planned to spend four days on McCain coverage. But we're going to return to the Gore-Bradley theater, where the action is really occurring. But we do want to reprise Mara Liasson's thoughts on why the press can withhold McCain's comments (see yesterday's DAILY HOWLER). They can place his comments in context, she said, because they've been able to spend beaucoups time with the hopeful. An obvious problem was described by Jacob Weisberg, quoted by Howard Kurtz:

KURTZ: "At one level, the press protects him," says Jacob Weisberg, political writer for Slate magazine. "He delivers these stupid lines all the time. The typical response from journalists is either not to report it or to congratulate him for being so blunt instead of treating it like a gaffe...If Bush had talked about 'gooks,' everyone would say how callow he is and how he's not up to running U.S. foreign policy." [Kurtz's deletion]

We suspect that may well be true, and it's the basic problem with Liasson's argument. Brit Hume and Fred Barnes both chided Liasson for promoting a "double standard" in coverage. But we will disagree with Weisberg's suggestion that the press should report McCain's "stupid lines" too. That there is a double standard in campaign coverage is obvious; pundits bury things McCain says, while desperately parsing Gore's statements for errors. (If the errors aren't there, they invent them.) But we'll suggest the casual coverage of McCain is the single standard the scribes should aspire to. Scribes, if you'd just make an effort to tell us the basics, and stop trying to "pounce on" revealing "gaffes," we real Americans, out here past the beltway, will move our democracy forward. We really don't need to have eager pundits trying to hand us big-gaffes-from-the-soul. And Mara—pundits don't need more excuses to use double standards. They do that quite well on their own.


When you're a Jet: Once the press has declared you authentic, you're clearly authentic for life. On Tuesday, the Post's astonishingly superior Mike Allen (translation: not-yet-a-part-of-the-gang) reported that Bradley had decided not to release his medical records. "He's the picture of health—that's the big story," said Ol' Authentic's press sec, Eric Hauser. But Allen reported that Bradley "does not plan to release any further information about his medical history:"

ALLEN: His campaign released a two-page letter from his doctor which says Bradley has no heart problems aside from the [recently disclosed irregular heartbeat], but gives no health history before 1996.

Allen wrote in some detail about Bradley's decision not to release his health records. According to Allen, Bradley has told the Post he will release his records only if he gets the Dem nomination.

But here's David Broder, the very next day:

BRODER: [T]he public has every right to know what, if any, health problems may affect a would-be president's capacity to do the job.

McCain and Bradley both acknowledged that fact—but only after it became necessary. The Arizona senator released about 1,500 pages of medical records, dating back to his release from a Vietnam POW camp...

Bradley released his health data after an irregular heartbeat forced him to cancel some campaign events...

Later, Broder says of Bradley, "He said he had planned to make his medical history public this week, but when the problem popped up last Thursday, his hand was forced." He also says, "On the available evidence, neither McCain nor Bradley has a medical problem that should cause any concern."

Perhaps Broder didn't read Allen's report. But any reader would think from Broder's column that Bradley had released his history. So might a reader of the New York Times. Last Sunday, James Dao reported that the campaign had released the letter from Bradley's doctor "to answer any questions about Mr. Bradley's health." But the Times has not reported that Bradley, who's authentic, won't give out his medical history.

We don't know if this actually matters. But we do know we're seeing a familiar old pattern. As usual, only Allen ain't playin'.