THESE LAST FEW WEEKS of the presidential election campaign season are turning out to be not a whole lot different than the last peaceful hours before a prostatectomy. That is, a brief moment of fatalistic calm before something painful and unavoidable, something you were dreading when it was far off, but something that is easier to face now that you know it will all soon be over.
The end is in sight. That much we should be thankful for. But that’s about all we have to be thankful for, as this Bush-Kerry fiasco is turning out to be one of the greatest and most prolonged insults to human dignity the world has ever seen.
It is hard to imagine anything more meaningless, underhanded, vapid, shameless, pointlessly vicious, embarrassing, uninspiring, degrading and even unentertaining than this billion-dollar daily exchange of sneering teenage accusations between the Bush and Kerry camps. And it is hard to imagine anything more galling than the unspoken media subtext of the electionthe idea that this slime-fest somehow represents an important moment, a landmark memory, in our own lives. The implication that we’re such losers that we would actually want to watch this crap 24 hours a day for 15 or 16 months is almost more appalling than the behavior of the candidates themselves.
Though we’re tempted to blame the politicians, it’s time to dig deeper. It’s time to blame the press corps that daily brings us this unrelenting symphony of horseshit and never comes within 1000 miles of an apology for any of it. And it’s time to blame the press not only as a class of people, but as individuals. We must brand anyone who puts his name or his face on credulous campaign coverage an eternal Enemy of the State. Hopefully, over time, this will have a deterrent effect.
To begin this important process of collective healing, we must find that first person to mark with our scorn. That is why New York Press has launched the First Quadrennial Election Hack Invitationala tournament, to be held between now and the week after the election, which will answer the question: “Who is the worst campaign journalist in America?”
The rules are very simple. We have chosen 32 of the country’s leading campaign reporters, mostly from the world of print, and bracketed them into pairs. Each week, the pairs will square off against one another. Whoever writes worse, advances. It’s that simple.
The tournament progresses until the week after the election, when the writer of the worst and most slavish and dishonest election post-mortem among the two remaining contestants will receive an Illustrious Mystery Prize from the New York Press tournament committee. Anyone familiar with the history of these sorts of competitions is welcome to speculate as to what that might be.
To determine a winner in each match-up, the contenders’ articles will be examined by a three-person panel of drug-addicted judges culled from the editorial ranks of this newspaper. Our decisions are completely subjective and cannot be appealed. In fact, one of our rules is that any appeal from a contestant, whether in private or in public, results in automatic advance through to the next round.
That does not mean that we are unsympathetic to the plight of reporters who are “just doing their jobs.” For those many reporters out there who, for whatever reason, are covering the campaign against their willwho wince with shame as they write phrases like “Democratic nominee John Kerry went on the offensive today…”we offer several outs.
First, reporters may get out of the tournament through a simple monetary bribe, paid to the editors. The sum is not fixed, but dependent upon the reporter’s economic circumstances. A Joe Klein, for instance, would pay more than a Ron Fournier.
Reporters may also be excused if they agree to submit to our offices a videotaped confession of wrongdoing. Extra credit will be given to reporters who openly beg for their livesagain, on the tape.
Reporters who do not file during any given week of tournament competition do not advance. This is not a logistical loophole in the tourney, but has an ideological basis. The best way to be a better journalist, especially when it comes to the campaign, is to not practice journalism. Therefore any reporter who does not file is to be rewarded.
Competition commenced last week, when each of the 32 contestants in the tournament was mailed an official notification, printed on the reverse side of a photo of the fangs and underbelly of a Cameroon Red Baboon Tarantula. The Cameroon Red Baboon Tarantula is the official symbol of the New York Press First Quadrennial Election Hack Invitational.
The seedings and bracketings are self-explanatory. Let the games begin!
KAREN TUMULTY (1)
NEW YORK TIMES
NEW YORK TIMES reporters in a tournament of election hacks are like Spaniards at Roland Garros. There are a hell of a lot of them, and if the first one doesn’t beat you, the second or third usually does. They wear you down. That’s why only the real bruisers, the Borgs and the Lendls and the Musters, can be counted on to blast their way through the draw on the slow clay of the election season. When it comes to bad journalism, stamina is the midwife of greatness.
Karen Tumulty is Lendl in his prime. Mortals don’t stand a chance against her. She is the standard-bearer for a new breed of campaign journalist: the reporter who is incapable of comprehending the election as anything other than a horse race. She appears quite honestly not to understand that it might have some other significance. In the old days, reporters used to lapse into poll-watching and political sportswriting on the campaign trail when they got tired or lazy. Thanks to shameless hacks like Tumulty, the sportswriting has actually replaced issue politics as the only meaningful story of the race.
Tumulty’s articles are all the same; they are all about momentum, who has it and why. Every piece is essentially a reaction dealt in response to some new poll, often commissioned by Time and limited to a few dozen mysterious respondents (a recent widely cited Time poll showing Bush ahead had just 857 respondents). The deck to a typical Tumulty piece reads something like this: “A new poll shows Kerry trailing Bush by nine points in four key battleground states. TIME looks at why the Kerry campaign was fucked from the startand what it must do now to convince us it takes our poll numbers seriously.”
Tumulty’s most delicious moments of happiness come when she can report on those panicked reactions by the candidatesas she did here on a recent panel appearance on CNN:
What we’re seeing is a lot more aggressiveness out of the Kerry campaign and they’re continuing to drive this message. They have lost the timidity that a lot of Democrats were criticizing them for. And of course the Bush campaign is ready for it and they’re going to hit back just as hard.
Aggressiveness…timidity…ready for it…hit back just as hard… Is she talking about a football game, or an election? This is as full-of-shit and meaningless as political journalism gets.
That said, it was hard to vote against Adam Nagourney in this one. In two successive recent articles, the Sept. 15 “Democrats Seek Louder Voice From Edwards” and the Sept. 18 Sunday front-pager, “Bush Opens Lead Despite Unease Voiced In Survey,” Nagourney did his best Tumulty imitation, chasing polls in the latter and wondering aloud about Edwards’ lack of aggressiveness in the former.
In fact, in the Edwards piece, Nagourney hit what had to be a new low in WWF-style campaign journalism when he wrote, “[Several Democrats] said they were concerned that Mr. Edwards, like Mr. Lieberman, would duck when it came down to the vice-presidential debate next month.” He left out the logical next sentence: “Spokesmen for Edwards said the senator was not planning to duck, but rather to bob and weave.”
This match-up was basically a tie. In this tourney, though, we give points to reporters who look like pre-op versions of Dave Barry, yet still go on tv every chance they get. The mannish Tumulty therefore advances; Nagourney goes back to Seville.
SAMMON, A SEMIFINAL loser in the qualifiers, secured a late entry into the tournament when the Boston Globe‘s Glen Johnson withdrew at the last minute with a torn meniscus. And the tournament’s “lucky loser” makes the best of it, routing the stolid Shapiro in three punishing sets. He could be this year’s Ivo Karlovic, or maybe even its Wayne Arthurs.
Sammon seized control of the match early when he made headlines by quoting Karl Rove, in the run-up to the debate, as saying of Kerry: “He will be the best debater the president has ever faced.” Every other journalist on the campaign trail groaned audibly at the sight of this quote, understanding immediately that Rove had chosen the one reporter on the planet who would not add the caveat: “Which is exactly the same goddamn thing he says before every debate.”
It didn’t take long for the rest of the press corps to dig up Rove’s nearly identical 2000 quotes about Gore: “The word’s best [debater].” “[Gore] is a very accomplished debater…and has sort of carried them to a high art form.” Or, about Bush vs. Gore: “Our debate strategy can be summed up in one word: Survive.” Or even, after Bush had won the first two debates against Gore, the hilarious: “He’s a smart man, he’s an able politician, he’s a fantastic debater. He’s not going to have three bad debates in a row.”
Sammon, of course, left that stuff out, completely deadpanning Rove’s “best debater ever” pitch. Out of all the Washington beat writers, Sammon is the only one who can always be counted on to deep-throat, to the root, whatever foul, mud-streaked accusation the Bush camp happens to be throwing out the window that day. Just look at the headlines to Sammon stories from the last month:
“Bush camp rips Kerry rhetoric” (9/29)
“Bush attacks Kerry’s flip-flops” (9/28)
“Bush slams Kerry over ‘brave’ Iraqi” (9/25)
“White House rips Rather for report, his advice” (9/17)
“Kerry’s evolving stance on Iraq derided by Bush” (9/17)
“Bush slams Kerry’s stand on Iraq war cost” (9/11)
“White House accuses Kerry of ‘coordinating’ Guard attacks” (9/10)
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Sammon doesn’t have range. Not all of his articles are about Bush/the White House/Karl Rove ripping, attacking, slamming, deriding or otherwise accusing some deserving enemy. This summer, Sammon also published articles on the diverse themes of “Bush raps…,” “Bush hits…,” “Bush mocks…,” “White House scolds…,” “Bush ads rip…,” “Bush camp hits back…” and, last but not least, the deftly alliterative “Cheney… chides…”
This is nice work if you can get it. One can only hope that Sammon can find a job in the next world holding a spittoon for Idi Amin.
Shapiro, meanwhile, quietly publishes his Kerry trail diary, One Car Caravan, and nobody wants to interview him about it because there’s no dirt in it. He drops out; lucky loser Bill “Superstretch” Sammon advances.
NEW YORK TIMES
THOMAS, WHOSE LAST column (“The Media’s Trust Problem,” Sept. 29) gushingly opened with a quote from Rupert Murdoch, walks right over the unprepared Friedman. The latter, just returning from a book-writing sabbatical, was clearly not ready for live action. His first “comeback” column (“Iraq: Politics or Policy?” Oct. 3) was suspiciously low-key, and completely free of deranged metaphors. There is a whiff here of a dog who has just eaten a pair of your shoes upstairs greeting you obediently at the door; Friedman’s upcoming book must be a doozie. We’ll have to wait to find out, though. He exits, Thomas still alive.
ROBERT NOVAK (8)
U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT
VIEWERS OF MSNBC were witness to an extremely disturbing scene during that network’s coverage of the Republican convention. It involved Gergen, and you wouldn’t have noticed it unless… well, unless you happen to spend a lot of time doing Nexis/Lexis searches on the rhetorical habits of conservative columnists.
A few years ago, after Bush’s post-9/11 State of the Union speech sparked a wave of Winston Churchill references in the periodical media, I started keeping track of Churchill-humping among American pundits. I found that Gergen, the former Reagan communications aide, was far and away the national hack most pathologically determined to quote Churchill at every conceivable opportunity. He’s referenced Churchill in his U.S. News columns roughly two dozen times; it’s a habit so ingrained that regular Gergen readers don’t even blink anymore when he begins an article previewing the Bush-Kerry debates as follows: “On May 10, 1940, as Britain trembled at Hitler’s sweep across Europe, the king summoned a new prime minister to power…” (Aug. 30, “Time to Face the Real Issues”).
And it doesn’t stop in his print work. Even when Gergen goes on television, you can almost see him drifting away mentally during the broadcast, like he’s having trouble paying attention over the sound of the bombs falling on the London streets above.
The only figure in American media who even comes close to Gergen in his Churchill-worship is Chris Matthews. So when he and Gergen are together on the set, sparks fly.
Thus, on Aug. 30, Gergen appeared on a special RNC Hardball with Newsweek monster Howard Fineman and the defiant and mostly unwelcome Ron Reagan. And Matthews and Gergen, the chummy Churchill fans, spent much of the show engaged in what can only be called flirting. Two moments in particular stand out. In the first, the pair engages in a little four-hands Churchill piano:
GERGEN: Well, but yes and no. One of your great political heroes, Winston Churchill, as you’ll recall, he switched parties twice.
MATTHEWS: And he said?
GERGEN: Well, he he…
MATTHEWS: He said, Anybody can rat. It takes somebody special to re-rat.
But the real kicker came here:
MATTHEWS: You know, when Ron showed up, even though he’s not a Democrat, it was such a big deal at the Democratic convention. Now we got Ron We got Zell Miller. Is this the way it goes in politics now, a switch?
GERGEN: Everybody’s a switch hitter these days…
MATTHEWS: …more than that way!
GERGEN: We may not want to go there too far, right?
MATTHEWS: We’re already too far!
As the Russians would say: “We leave without commentary.”
Nonetheless, Novak advances. He advances because of that dreary purse-lipped sadist’s face of his. (You’ve seen that face before: the prison warden meets high school vice-principal of your nightmares, shitting on your wife’s back.) He advances because his outing of Valerie Plame is suddenly being upheld as a free-press issue. He advances because he recently told an audience of Penn State students that he is only able to stand James Carville because “CNN pays me a lot of money.”
But here’s the worst thing about Novak. Six years ago, Novak’s column was the favored destination of anonymous leakers from the office of special prosecutor Ken Starr. They gave him such nuggets as the revelation that it was their “educated guess” that Hillary Clinton would be named as an unindicted coconspirator in the Hubbell case (“Clinton’s Woes Far from Over,” Nov. 26, 1998). At the time, Novak had no problem being the submissive love-slave of an overzealous independent prosecutor seeking, in a clearly inappropriate manner, to try his case in public.
Now Novak is going to sit back and let people like William Safire blast special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for going too far in hammering Novak for his sources in the Plame case. Live by the leakdie by the leak, you fucking dog.
JILL LAWRENCE (5)
THIS WAS A TOUGH ONE. Lawrence, author of some of the most notoriously lowbrow horse-race pieces this campaign season, came out last week with what appeared to be another dooziethe Sept. 22 “The election is turning into a duel of manly men.” There were many objectionable things in this article, but the worst was probably its legitimizing use of the phrase “Toughness Gap”a recent invention by vile Newsweek scoundrel Jonathan Alter that may be the media’s most purely adolescent campaign analysis since 1987’s “Wimp Factor”.
That said, Lawrence’s 2200-word piece so exhaustively catalogues all of the candidates’ pathetic and shameless attempts to look tough (Kerry praising “Lambert field” in Wisconsin; Bush campaigning on his opposition to child safety locks on handguns) that it almost sounds like she’s sincerely deriding them.
But, no. In the end, she is really criticizing only Kerry, whose tough-guy act, unlike Bush’s, is unconvincing. Bush, she eventually concludes, is more of a real regular tough guy. “As useful as it might be politically, Bush’s passion for outdoor activity is not exaggerated for campaign season,” she writes. Lawrence conveniently ignores Bush’s tendency to actually invade foreign countries and goad terrorists to attack as a means of looking tough, surely a more extreme form of posturing.
Zuckman, the squirrelly bitch who once complained about me, Matt Taibbi, to Washington Post media policeman Howard Kurtz for shooting video of the political press, seems to have pioneered a new he-said/she-said campaign journal technique with her self-serious Floridian colleague at the Trib, Mark Silva. In it, Zuckman follows Kerry while Silva follows Bush, and every other day or so they file a single-bylined piece in which they alternate paragraphs full of the day’s accusations and counter-accusations from the two camps.
While this makes one hate the candidates more than usual, at the writing level it creates a sort of touching, Prince-and-Rosie Gaines “Nothing Compares 2 You” effect. Who knows, the Silva-Zuckman byline might be this year’s romantic smash hit, the campaign’s very own You’ve Got Mail.
New York Press says, give ‘em a chance. Don’t smother love in the cradle. Zuckman advances; Lawrence hands the ball to Al Neuharth and walks off the mound.
BILL HOFFMANN & HEATHER GILMORE
NEW YORK POST
NEW YORK SUN
THE POST AND the Sun both did well to make sure the public was served by a crusading free press investigation of John Kerry’s mysteriously lustrous, apparently painted-on, pre-debate tan. But only the Sun‘s Catton did the job correctly, quoting a former stripper as a tanning authority in her story. If there were more passages like the following in campaign journalism, voter turnout would certainly rise:
If the tan is something you notice, you’ve gone too far. You should never look at someone and think: “Wow, that man is tan,” said Jessica “Kayla” Conrad, a former stripper and author of the self-help book “Dance Naked: A Guide to Unleashing your Inner Hottie.”
That’s the only way we’re going to save American democracy: by turning the race for the presidency into a full-blown porn circus. Civic-minded, the Sun drops out. Hoffmann and Gilmore, their article just the usual Post bleating and gloating, advance.
ARE YOU READY for some football?
Excerpts here from two articles: Nedra Pickler’s Sept. 29 preview of the first debate (“Bush, Kerry Hope to Win Voters in Debate”), and ESPN’s Scouts, Inc. preview of last Sunday’s Bengals-Steelers game.
Pickler: “Kerry may try to knock Bush off stride, but the president is famous for staying on message, keeping to his political point no matter what.”
Scouts, Inc.: “Giving RB Rudi Johnson 20-plus carries takes some pressure off Palmer and helps keep an aggressive Pittsburgh front seven on its heels… However, establishing an effective running game won’t be easy working against a Pittsburgh defense that is giving up 3.1 yards a carry.”
Pickler: “Kerry needs to hold back enough to give Bush the opportunity and time to create errors.”
Scouts, Inc.: “Pittsburgh has the front seven to slow Cincinnati’s ground attack and force Palmer into some obvious throwing situations… and the result should be some costly mistakes that the Steelers turn into turnovers.”
Pickler: “Kerry needs to make people envision him as president, says Alan Schroeder, a presidential debate expert… ‘He has to diminish George W. Bush without being personally mean about it,’ Schroeder says, even as he tries to ‘dispel the negative stereotypes that have been created about him.'”
Scouts, Inc.: “Cincinnati’s offensive linemen can’t lunge at their blocks because the defender lined up over their head may not be attacking upfield. They’ll struggle to recover in time to pick up the blitz if they fire out of their stances too aggressively.”
Pickler: “The senator criticizes Bush’s Iraq policies in every speech, and he will try to drive home his argument that the war is going badly and Bush doesn’t understand or know what to do about it.”
Scouts, Inc.: ” Look for Pittsburgh to spread the Bengals’ run defense with some multireceiver sets and then pound the ball inside with RBs Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis to exploit this weakness.”
The format isn’t exactly the samePickler doesn’t have headers in her piece that read things like, “When Kerry has the ball”but it’s pretty close. Meanwhile, Fournier’s post-debate analysis (“Nation hears tough questions, pre-tested answers,” Oct. 1), which strongly suggested that Kerry was the winner, was one of the most picked-up pieces in the country, and probably had a significant effect on national debate perceptions.
It’s hard to tell whether this was a good thing or not, but it’s certainly less interesting than seeing if Pickler continues her NFL Today routine for another week. She therefore advances; Fournier is voted off the island.
HOWARD FINEMAN (4)
IT’S TEMPTING TO SHOVE Gourevitch into the next round solely on the basis of his use of the word “totemically” in a recent campaign piece (“Bushspeak,” 9/13), but that’s probably not fair. The poor guy has struggled all year to win the campaign trail’s media modifier battle, ravaging whole stacks of thesauruses in an attempt to launch his catch-descriptions into pop-usageto no avail.
He missed out on “feisty,” “testy,” “angry” and “pugnacious” with Howard Dean; he missed out on “cadaverous,” “lantern-jawed,” “droopy” and “long-faced Easter Island mask” with Kerry. His desperation to get in on the action was particularly evident when he tried to dolphin-surf in on the edge of the Easter Island crazestarted by Dennis Miller, I think, who called Kerry an “Easter Island Statue in a power tie.” Alas, his effort was characteristically long-winded, and didn’t stick: “A long, angular face [that] has something of the abstraction of a tribal mask.”
The closest he ever came to launching an adjective phenomenon was his innovative Feb. 2 use of “stentorian” to describe Kerry. A few of the bus reporters tried that one out for a while, then discarded it. Still, he keeps trying, recently pasting the description “simian modeling” on the face of George Bush.
But Gourevitch must lose to Fineman, who is a real beast in these proceedings. The Newsweek fiend is the patron saint of media hypocrites. His usual punditry cycle begins with a piece that bemoans the lowbrow nature of the campaign, then moves on to a feature aggressively and joyously selling the “Vince McMahon presents” campaign storyline (“the blood sport that is politics,” as he puts it), then moves back to the angelic, “Gosh, what about the issues?” piece.
Typical Fineman: On Sept. 20, Newsweek‘s cover story was a thing called “Slime Time Live,” in which Fineman explicitly blames unregulated money (he doesn’t mention the media) for the back-alley pissing-match character of the campaign. “And here it is: it’s slime time in the most vituperative presidential campaign since the divisive days of Richard Nixonwhich, not coincidentally, was the last time the country was so riven by war, culture and fear, and the last time our politics was so inundated by a flood of unregulated cash.”
A week or so later, he’s on a tv panel, complaining that the Rathergate business is going to distract the media from the job it really wants to doreporting the issues: “I think it’s going to make it difficult for the media, the big media, the national media,” he said, “to write and produce and put out there some of the stories that they might want to be doing about George Bush’s presidency.”
Right, the serious pieces the media wants to do about the substance of Bush’s presidency. Like when Fineman wrote: “But Bush will be a hard man to beat if the race boils down to which pre-school-trained rich kid can play regular guy on the road.” Or when he lauded: “Heavier artillery is on the way. Last week the president and Mrs. Bush quietly taped a long interview with Dr. Phil, the psychologist made famous by Oprah Winfrey.”
Or when he discouraged lowbrow attack campaigning by saying on tv, just before the first debate: “Kerry has to be the aggressor. And even though Kerry’s favorable numbers are low, even though he is not well-liked by the American people, the Kerry people seem to feel they have no choice but to send their man out into the middle of the ring swinging.” Fineman would later say of the first debate: “This is the eighth round of a championship fight of 10 rounds.”
This is the media dynamic nobody talks about. When the candidates don’t bash the shit out of each other, people like Fineman say they need to be more aggressive. Even the New York Times will run a front-page story, wondering why, say, John Edwards isn’t on the attack. Because in the absence of this kind of behavior the press will be left to cover policy differences, turning the election into a “battle of position papers,” as one reporter once put it to me derisively.
No matter how much they say otherwise, reporters love the celebrity rock ‘em-sock ‘em stuff, and are the chief drivers of it; it sells magazines and leaves their evenings free. You think Howard Fineman wants to spend his nights reading the text of the Clear Skies Act? As if!
ELISABETH BUMILLER (3)
NEW YORK TIMES
NEW YORK POST
IT’S ALWAYS A LITTLE surprising to remember that the New York Post has a “Washington Bureau Chief” filing ostensibly factual stories from the Hill about the movements of the president and other real, breathing government officials. The effect of reading these touchingly earnest impersonations of credible journalism is a little like watching Koko the gorilla play with a kitten, or punch the “buttons” on a toy telephone. My god, you think. It’s so human!
But sooner or later Koko plugs her ears with her own turds again, and she’s back to being just another lovable ape. The same goes for Deborah Orin, whose tepid reports in recent weeks might have had you worried until you saw her classic Murdochian lede from Sept. 24:
“CLINTONISTA-turned-John-Kerry-strategist Joe Lockhart’s account of his role in Memogate boils down to this: I did not have National Guard conversations with that man, Mr. Burkett.”
The Post should teach its national political writers to sing these ledes in German accents while leaning on pianos in fuzzy lingerie. The future Reich will be in much better hands if we have our nightclub acts well-trained in advance.
As for Bumiller… Let’s make one general observation about campaign reporting. For the traveling press regulars, even the ones working for an overstaffed organization like the Times, it is a given that there are going to be slow days when you’re just going to be forced to pull 850 words out of your ass. If you have a sense of humor, that piece is going to be funny. If you are a sensitive, reflective person, accidentally employed as a journalist, the piece is going to be full of cogent observations gleaned over time from your privileged spot at the summit of the American political process.
If you’re Elisabeth Bumiller, that piece is going to be the Sept. 20, “In Any Language, Two Candidates Are a World Apart”comparing the Spanish accents of the two candidates. She writes:
“[W]hile Mr. Bush has for years tossed a few sentences of Spanish with a West Texas accent into his speechesthe Spanish wire service Agencia EFE has noted that the president speaks the language poorly ‘but with great confidence’last week Mr. Kerry spoke an entire and very careful paragraph of Spanish, much practiced beforehand, in the neutral accent of Spanish-language television anchors.”
Two questions. One, if Bumiller needed to cite EFE as an authority on Bush’s accent, on whose authority does she compare Kerry to a Telemundo anchor? Second, who gives a shit? This is typical Times reporting: six writers on each campaign plane, each reaching for 900 words of Big Picture every time one of the candidates touches his nose. Meanwhile, the actual country passes undetected 30,000 feet below.
ANY REPORTER WHO files a “nation bitterly divided” or a “most fiercely contested election in history” piece is going to advance automatically. When 100 million people don’t vote, the nation is not bitterly divided. The nation mostly doesn’t give a shit.
One can only hope that in the future, the fairness rule will be revived to give non-voters equal time in campaign coverage: 10 seconds of silence for every 10 seconds of Candy Crowley talking.
In this battle of soon-to-be-famouser Globe Kerry biographers, Mooney advances because he filed a “country that is horribly divided” piece from Iowa a few weeks ago (“US Political Divide Mirrored in Iowa,” Sept. 17). Iowa, it seems, is at the center of a “furious struggle for votes.” Kranish, meanwhile, filed a piece about Republicans courting Catholics. Globe bitterly divided; Mooney moves on.
THERE IS A kind of mythology about the “Boys on the Bus” crowd that dates back to about the time that the campaign media became self-aware and dared to overtly recognize its own powerful role in the electoral process. That was a golden-age stretch of about 10 years beginning with Theodore White’s Making of the President, 1960, continuing on through Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President and ending in an exclamation point with Fear and Loathing and, of course, The Boys on the Bus.
To this dayand increasingly, it seems, with each successive electionthe campaign press loves to celebrate the great media moments of lore that helped turn the tide in presidential elections. It loves remembering Muskie’s tears, Gary Hart’s “Monkey Business” picture, the Duke behind the wheel of a tank. To a man, the campaign press is positively nostalgic when it recalls these moments. Its members never get tired of reminding readers that the fates of great public figures often hinge upon these crystallized, accidental moments, and their references of these object lessons are always attended by rhetorical trumpet calls: “In a stunning public meltdown reminiscent of Ed Muskie’s New Hampshire breakdown…”
The subtext of all of this, of course, is a rolling campaign of self-congratulation, reminding both politicians and the public that media images and perceptions are the final arbiters of political power. Ultimately that’s a lot of what this prolonged campaign season is abouta relentless, surprisingly humorless reinforcement of the dreary idea that we can be told who’s winning, who will win, and why, before the polls open.
We have one person to blame for this: Richard Nixon. The signature moment in this mythology, the one that really birthed the organized study of political imageering, was the Nixon-Kennedy debate. Every American knows that radio audiences thought Nixon won, but ttvv audiences subjected to Nixon’s sweaty upper lip thought Kennedy won. To this day the media celebrates this as a righteous moment in American political history. And it gets away with lauding it as treasured legend, and not as a sad signpost marking the first major defeat of substance at the hands of image, largely because the hated Nixon turned out to be a paranoid lunatic who needed to be dragged kicking and screaming from the White House. Thus “Nixon’s lip” references are usually offered not in shame, but with pride.
On successive days last weekend, the Post ran media-mythology-heavy articles that attempted to place Bush’s debate scowl in the context of the great gaffes in campaign history. The difference between Dionne’s Saturday piece (“Giving Democrats Reason to Smile”) and Milbank’s Sunday piece (“Reaction Shots May Tell Tale of Debate”) was that Milbank’s autoerotic glee reached all the way back to Nixon, while Dionne’s only reached back as far as Gore. Writes Dionne:
“The Bush Scowl is destined take its place with the Gore Sigh and the Dean Scream.”
“Body language can be more descriptive than actual language in presidential debates. No line from the 1960 debate was as memorable as Richard M. Nixon’s perspiration. And President George H.W. Bush’s glance at his wristwatch during the 1992 debate has endured beyond that night’s words.”
The Milbank passage is where you spot the lie. He uses the word “memorable” about Nixon’s perspiration to mean intrinsically memorable, the wristwatch line to mean that the glance was intrinsically enduring. But if the press hadn’t reminded us about it 500,000 times since it happened, would any of us even remember Bush I looking at his wristwatch? No way. In fact, if the media hadn’t ever made a big deal of it, and yet you still caught a close relative talking about the wristwatch moment eight, 10 and 12 years after the fact, you’d have that relative forcibly committed. That’s how insane this stuff is. But we usually let it pass.
Not here, though; Milbank advances, Dionne limps out.
JODI WILGOREN (6)
NEW YORK TIMES
IT’S TEMPTING TO advance Wilgoren solely on the basis of the fact that she weighs 500 pounds and has the face of Ernest Borgnine, but
Actually, yes, let’s do that.
As for Ann Coulter, what is there to say? Like her predecessor, Joseph Stalin, she has her funny moments.
Shamu steams on; Little Treason Annie bows out.
GEORGE WILL (7)
WILL ADVANCES, but not because he recently wrote a campaign piece that whined in a predictable way about George Soros’ contributions to ACT (“As Goes Ohio…” Oct. 3). He advances because he recently wrote a column calling “SportCenterese” the “lingua franca of ESPN Nation” (“25 Years of ESPN,” Sept. 7). It was yet another Will column that opened with Will sitting in the stands at a baseball game.
Is there no way to convince the U.N. to intervene to stop this man?
Miga, meanwhile, deserves some credit for being one of the rare campaign reporters to remain immune to Stockholm Syndrome over a long period of time. A lonely figure as one of the few openly anti-Kerry regulars on the Kerry plane, he hasn’t let up on Kerry at all. His was one of the only post-debate pieces that headlined Bush’s performance in a positive way (“I’ll Stay the Course: Bush Stays Firm vs. Kerry Attacks,” Oct. 1). At least he didn’t file from the first-base line.
NEW YORK TIMES
WITH ALL DUE RESPECT to a man who was nearly a victim of a kidnapping in Israel last May, a pair of James Bennet’s articles from the past week perfectly demonstrates what happens when a reporter is forced to keep writing about a subject even after he concludes there really isn’t anything to say.
Bennet’s pre-debate piece (“In Debate on Foreign Policy, Wide Gulf or Splitting Hairs?” Sept. 30) was a rational, obvious and largely bullshit-free piece of analysis. In it, he sought to debunk one of the myths about the electionas he put it, the “axiom of the two presidential campaigns that their candidates offer a stark choice about America’s role in the world.”
And he did a decent (if not particularly comprehensive) job of it, pointing out that in many of the key issues that would be covered in the debatewhat to do about Iraq, what kind of relationship to have with China, the level of support for Ariel Sharon, policy on the Gaza Strip and morethe two candidates “differ only slightly, if at all.”
Fast-forward a day. Bennet’s assignment is a post-debate analysis. He can’t do another “Much Ado About Nothing” story, because he did it yesterday. So what does he come up with? One of the all-time out-of-my-ass campaign whoppers: “Bush Talks About Heart; Kerry Focuses on the Brain” (Sidebar, 10/1).
Unable to repeat his assertion that there were no meaningful differences, a desperate Bennet scrambles in this shamefully overwritten piece to draw plausible contrasts between the candidates. In the headline it was Heart vs. Mind (an earlier version of the story, which ran online, had “Hope vs. Fear” in the headline).
Buried in the text were more “differences.” Bush was “all topic sentence,” while Kerry was “all paragraph and dependent clause.” He talked about the contrast between “sunshine and the shadow,” between “morning in America, and mourning in America.” In closing, he talked about another set of contrasts, “between the actual debate everyone had witnessed and the campaigns’ versions of it, and between the tactical world of ceaseless political positioning and the needs of a country fearful of terrorism, anxious about jobs and health care, and hoping for answers.”
At times it almost appeared that Bennet had been ordered to write about contrasts and was rebelling against the assignment by overdoing it. Take a look at this passage:
Mr. Bush… mocked comments Mr. Kerry had made about voting for financing the war before voting against it.
“That’s not a message a commander in chief gives,” he said.
Mr. Kerry shot back: “I made a mistake in how I talked about the war, but the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?” Grimacing, Mr. Bush reached for his pen.
It seemed fitting that this clash of contrasts took place on the campus of the University of Miami, where sun-toasted students in bikinis and flip-flops strolled today across emerald grass past police barricades and scanning machines. For the debate, the entire campus was fenced.
Why is this “fitting”? What do Bush’s and Kerry’s hissy comments have to do with “sun-toasted students” and “emerald grass”? And what do any of these thingsthe Bush-Kerry exchange, the emerald grasshave to do with “contrasts”? What the hell is he talking about?
When writers don’t have anything real to write, they lapse into Las-Vegas-act versions of John Updike in order to fill space. Probably because their audience can so reliably be counted on to mistake it for literary instinct, Times writers in particular are frequently guilty of Updike-itis. And nobody at the Times is more consistently guilty of it than Bennet. Take this passage from his “Heart and Mind” piece:
Steps away from the debate hallacross a road and a parking lotunfolded a very different scene, as thousands of journalists and scores of campaign aides, party officials and congressmen analyzed, declaimed and chuckled in a froth of commentary, reportage and badinage.
Someday I hope to run into Joe Lockhart, and say to him, “Hey, do you remember me? We met in Miami, after the first debate, when you were declaiming in a froth of badinage.”
Klein, meanwhile, has been Updike-free for months. He did describe the press-White House divide over the National Intelligence Estimate as a “taffy pull,” but that actually made sense. He drops out; Bennet surges.
BATTLE OF THE WOODIES. Calvin has been the AP’s self-appointed campaign factchecker lately, running a number of finger-wagging stories in which he corrects the factual assertions of the candidates. Bob, meanwhile, has not been publishing, but has instead been humping his latest opus, Plan of Attack, in speaking appearances.
Woodward continues to seem ashamed of his activist-journalism legacy as the reporter who toppled a Republican president. His investigative efforts since All the President’s Men, and especially lately, seem determined to seek relentlessly a centrist politics, to be gently corrective rather than crusading and muckraking… And sometimes he drifts into outright shameless hagiography of the ruling powers (i.e.”Bush at War”).
Unlike his counterpart Sy Hersh, who appears happily poised to keep pissing people off well into his nineties, Woodward seems very determined to remain a respectable figure to parties on all sides. Therefore he says, with pride, things like the following about Plan of Attack: “It’s a book that looks both ways.” Or: “You can look at that and say that’s what we need in a president or you can look at that and say that’s exactly what we don’t need in a president.” Or that Bush in Plan of Attack either comes across as a “forceful, decisive leader” or “shows he does not know what he is doing,” depending on your point of view.
Woodward achieves this balancing act in subtle ways. He does the actual reporting of just enough damning facts about the Bush presidency (like the revelation that Bush talked about “taking the gloves off” with Gitmo prisoners after 9/11), then turns around and flatters the same interview subjects he just skewered. Thus he will report really damaging things about Bush, then will turn right around and blow smoke up his ass on national television, doing things like telling Tim Russert (Sept. 12, Meet the Press) that he sincerely believed Bush was willing to take the risk to go into Iraq, even if that made him a one-term president. When a professional doubter suddenly starts credulously buying the transparent posturing of politicians, you know something’s up.
Or, Woodward will say things like the following:
“I mean, Bush essentially says, when you get into this question, how is history going to judge the Iraq War? And he makes the point, ‘Well, we don’t know. We’ll all be dead.’ And I think that’s true.”
No, that isn’t true. It’s stupid. It’s the grasping non-answer of a junior-high fuckup who didn’t do his homework. And Woodward knows it. But he does this stuff to ensure that he still gets to sit in the Oval Office a few times a year.
This is too bad, because Bush is a much bigger target than Nixon, his crimes much more outrageous and egregious than Nixon’s, and America’s most famous muckraker is softballing him in the middle of an election season, just to make sure he stays on the White House Christmas card list.
If there’s one criticism of the campaign press that has really held true all across the board throughout this race, it’s this tendency to kid-glove politicians, make excuses for them, make them seem more legitimate than they really are. It is important for the public to remember that a campaign reporter who would call the campaign a bogus, shallow farcewho would say, for instance, that the campaign is a mindless exercise in mudslinging diversion held between a pair of toothy millionaires with nearly identical plans for the management of the countryis also saying that his own job is bogus. Therefore the opposite instinct is usually in evidence in campaign coverage. The race is described as something profound, a true clash of ideals, led by two worthy men of unfathomable depth of character.
Thus you will sometimes see a situation where Bush will get up on stage and stumble around for 20 minutes like a man who’s been breathing out of a bag for a yearand when it comes time to actually describe the things he says, someone like Philip Gourevitch will call him a “master of the American vernacular.”
He’s looking for something that isn’t there, just to reassure himself that something is there. They all do it. Even Bob Woodward. He advances; Calvin hits the links.
JONATHAN ALTER (2)
ACTUALLY THIS ONE is a walkover. Halperin and the rest of his cohorts manning ABC’s “The Note,” a comprehensive daily summary of campaign coverage, have no business even being on the court with the likes of Jonathan Alter. A weird wormhole/oasis of humanity buried deep in the anus of Disney, “The Note” is the only running campaign diary that even comes close to expressing the proper disgust and loathing for the entire process. The intro writing (each summary begins with a small essay about what to expect that day) is often remarkably savage, as in the case of a pre-debate spiel last week:
“Here’s what to expect in the next 72 hours… #15. Elisabeth Bumiller could find yet another Yale angle on the race, and apologetically get it into the paper…”
Solid. Or check out the Note’s pre-debate talking points about debate coverageabout 30 themes we could expect to see. Sample:
“How about those wacky, restrictive, detailed campaign-negotiated rules that make this less a debate and more a joint appearance blah blah blah.
“The first debate historically has the largest audience blah blah blah.
“John Kerry must sound more bar room than Brahmin blah blah blah…”
The only outlet with enough sense to add all those blahs.
Alter, still surfing on his “Toughness Gap” piece, remains a contender. A recent piece, “Where Kerry Went Wrong” (Sept. 27), achieved a milestone in the business. In it, Alter explicitly condemns Kerry and handler Bob Shrum for not pursuing name-calling as a political strategy. The pertinent passage:
“[Shrum] once told me as much, and that name-calling wouldn’t work in post-9/11 presidential politics.
“That was wishful thinking. Politics has always been a contact sport where the winning team is the one that pins the kick me sign on the other guy.”
Nice. That’s just really nice work.
Alter advances; Halperin & Co. go back to the Challenger circuit.
NEXT WEEK: Eight more hacks will be eliminated in round two of the First New York Press Quadrennial Election Hack Invitational.