16 December 1999
Our current howler (part III): When pundits dont 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 audiencesidentifying me variously
as a prisoner from a work-release camp, a card-carrying member
of the Communist party, and a freelance reporter for Hustler
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
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 Storythe remarkable story of McCain's Vietnam
service. Accounts of McCain's sufferingand of his unique sense
of humordominate most of the profiles.
But The Storythe one the press corps lovesis 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
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 partthe part about Vietnamis 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
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
Sorry, folkswe 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
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 Marapundits 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 healththat'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
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 factbut only after
it became necessary. The Arizona senator released about 1,500
pages of medical records, dating back to his release from a Vietnam
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