The dead middle of a three-day weekend, the Sunday before Memorial Day, was not a day for political news. The morning chat shows – Meet the Press and This Week and the others – passed without much notice, and Clinton and Obama were in Puerto Rico campaigning hard before the Tuesday primary there. One has to get those delegates – even if no citizen of Puerto Rico can vote in the presidential election. It was rather bizarre. If you wanted a closely fought contest you could watch the Indianapolis 500 – but that round-and-round business isn’t terribly compelling. There was the annual Grand Prix in Monaco – much better, as those fellows have to turn both left and right, brake hard and shift a lot, as it is run through actual streets, and this year in the rain, and that young black Brit, Lewis Hamilton, won big. If zoom-zoom wasn’t your thing, just a few miles east, the Cannes film business was settled (with Clint Eastwood foiled again). Those into kitsch might have followed the Eurovision Song Contest – Russia won (with this, sung in English) – but that was awful, even if more slick than anything on American Idol or Star Academy. The default news story for this particular Sunday in America was actually the Mars landing at the North Pole – out here at the control center at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena they were giddy, they handed out Mars Bars. The major networks and cable news ran with that – a politically neutral feel-good story.
The political story that seemed to be hanging around was Hillary Clinton’s comment about Robert Kennedy’s assassination in short, she had said she wasn’t going to bow out, that primaries often were not settled until mid or late June, and hey, we should remember that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June. Oops – she really didn’t mean to imply anything about Obama, just that anything could happen and it wasn’t even June yet. She issued an apology and Obama said something like they were both a bit exhausted and such things happen, so let’s move on.
But the press wouldn’t let it go. Via Susan G at Daily Kos, watching the Sunday morning talk shows while the rest of us were reading the Sunday paper and working on the crossword, it seems that on Fox News, Liz Trotta was asked to comment on the Hillary Clinton assassination statement. And Trotta said something curious. Watch the video:
Trotta: And now we have what … uh…some are reading as a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama …uh… um… Obama [after being prompted by the FNC anchor]… well both, if we could [laughing].
Host: Talk about how you really feel?
Sure, she’s not the first to call Obama “Osama” but I’m guessing she’s the first on a national cable news network to openly state that it’d be great if both Osama and Obama could both be killed.
And she found it hysterical.
It seems the folks at Fox News just cannot help themselves. Perhaps the idea is that most sensible Americans feel this way – Obama Should be shot – and they’re just in touch with their audience. They are, after all, the top cable news channel, and there’s a reason for that.
But who is this woman? This is her – a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Perhaps she should be less casual. The election in November is a long way off – and it’s going to be a bumpy ride, just like that other woman said. The general atmosphere is very McBethish, as the man says.
Over at Politico, John Harris considers the actual problem here:
The signature defect of modern political journalism is that it has shredded the ideal of proportionality.
Important stories, sometimes the product of months of serious reporting, that in an earlier era would have captured the attention of the entire political-media community and even redirected the course of a presidential campaign, these days can disappear with barely a whisper.
Trivial stories – the kind that are tailor-made for forwarding to your brother-in-law or college roommate with a wisecracking note at the top – can dominate the campaign narrative for days.
Who can guess what stories will cause the media machine to rev up its hype jets?
Actually, I have gotten pretty good at guessing which ones will. So have many of my colleagues and a generation of political operatives.
This weekend’s uproar over Hillary Rodham Clinton invoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy as rationale for continuing her presidential campaign is an especially vivid example of modern journalism as hyperkinetic child – over stimulated by speed and hunger for a head-turning angle that will draw an audience.
The truth about what Clinton said – and any fair-minded appraisal of what she meant – was entirely beside the point.
Her comment was news by any standard. But it was only big news when wrested from context and set aflame by a news media more concerned with being interesting and provocative than with being relevant or serious.
And he goes on to tell how Politico handled the story, ending with this:
… The distinguishing feature of most political hype storms is that they pass quickly. Who the hell can remember what we were up in arms about last month? Wasn’t it something about Sinbad and a telecom lobbyist who was bitter about being a Muslim? In that sense, a news culture in which – like the amplifiers for “Spinal Tap” that go up to 11 – everything is exaggerated may not seem like a big deal.
But the consequences are more serious than meets the eye. The uproar du jour mentality in the media can be a hassle for public officials, but it can also be their friend.
And goes on to suggest that Hillary Clinton can be glad that her assassination comment was the big story. No one noticed this one, “a serious look by The New York Times about Bill Clinton’s dealings with a Canadian tycoon trying to curry favor with a dictatorship.” So it was just as well.
And Harris ends with the expected conclusion:
Politicians know that as long as they have a base of support they can probably ride out any story confident that the pack will soon move on. Only a news media with the focus and discipline to distinguish a big story from a small one can hold politicians accountable – and produce the work that deserves an audience.
Good luck with that, as Bill Clinton was out and about, ladling on the angry self-pity:
“She is winning the general election today and he is not, according to all the evidence,” Clinton said. “And I have never seen anything like it. I have never seen a candidate treated so disrespectfully just for running. Her only position was, ‘Look, if I lose I’ll be a good team player. We will all try to win but let’s let everybody vote and count every vote.'”
Of course no one in the Obama campaign has called on her to pull out if she doesn’t want to – they’ve said the opposite. She’s just way behind, cannot catch up, trapped by rules she agreed to in advance.
But we get a bit of paranoia – “She will win the general election if you nominate her. They’re just trying to make sure you don’t.”
Ah! – It’s a conspiracy, run by someone unnamed. That would be the “they” in question:
And they’re trying to get her to cry uncle before the Democratic Party has to decide what to do in Florida and Michigan because they are claiming that it only takes 2029 votes on the first ballot to win, and it takes a lot more than that if you put Florida and Michigan back in.
If, if, if… but the Clinton folks agreed to the rules. Andrew Sullivan puts this all in perspective:
That was the same paranoia in the Hillary RFK-assassination interview. They’re acting as if it’s bizarre to expect someone who has lost the pledged delegate race, has lost most states, is behind in the super-delegate count, and is mathematically unable to win without a massive wave of defections, to concede the race. It’s not bizarre. The Clintons used exactly the same arguments in 1992. What’s bizarre is the sense of entitlement the Clintons have; and the lengths they will go before their egos relent to reality.
Sullivan, in his Sunday column in the Times of London, says there’s another more important issue:
Just as Obama’s most famous web videos were never commissioned by the candidate – they were created and disseminated spontaneously online – so his fundraising began to take on a life of its own. The only other candidate who managed to inspire such energy was the maverick Republican Ron Paul. His message was not unlike Obama’s: self-empowered, antiestablishment, next-generation.
There is no question in my mind that this is the future of political organization and fundraising.
The strongest criticism of Obama is his lack of substantive achievements in public life. He is a freshman senator, and his record is indeed thin in comparison with that of McCain or Clinton. However, if his abilities in government are in any way similar to the skills he has shown in managing – and brilliantly not managing – his campaign, then this is a candidate not to be underestimated. Clinton has been sideswiped. And, privately, most Republicans I know are terrified.
Hey – forget the assassination-as-hope story. This Obama dude has changed everything. And or should actually worry about terrified Republicans.
Of course on the same Sunday HBO reminded us all of that, with their new movie, Recount: The Story of the 2000 Presidential Election. Having watched Gore concede on small television in a Paris hotel room in the middle of the night, then spending the next day holed up from the heavy rain drinking beer in one of Paris’ few Canadian bars and chatting with the locals… well, it seems so long ago.
The HBO movie did bring back November 19, 2000, and the Brooks Brothers Riot – that “demonstration” by Republican congressional staffers outside a meeting of election canvassers in Miami. The idea was to bring about the cancellation of a hand recount of 10,750 ballots – and it worked. It got rough, the thugs perhaps directed by Congressman John Sweeney, a Republican from New York, and the whole thing organized by the Republican National Committee, who flew in the “protesters” on an Enron jet, or so HBO has it.
You don’t mess with terrified, angry Republicans, although in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, November 24, 2000, Paul Gigot had a different view:
The Republicans marched on the counting room en masse, chanting “Three Blind Mice” and “Fraud, Fraud, Fraud.” True, it wasn’t exactly Chicago 1968, but these are Republicans. Their normal idea of political protest is filling out the complaint card at a Marriott.
They also let it be known that 1,000 local Cuban-American Republicans were on the way – not a happy prospect for Anglo judges who must run for re-election. Inside the room, GOP lawyers also pointed out that the law – recall that quaint concept – required that any recount include all ballots.
The canvassers then stunned everybody and caved in. They cancelled any recount and certified the original Nov. 7 election vote, claiming that the Sunday deadline didn’t allow enough time to recount everywhere. Republicans rejoiced and hugged like they’d just won the lottery.
Threats of physical violence can work wonders. Maybe Hillary Clinton was onto something after all. In any event, seeing that, and seeing Gigot laugh about it on the News Hour, calling it a pretty cool “bourgeois riot,” flying off to Pairs seemed like a good idea at the time. Many of us didn’t like where this was heading.
And it only got worse. Over at the Washington Monthly, “dday” has a bit of fun looking at the Los Angeles Times from that odd day some of us were drinking heavily in Paris, and remind us of what everyone expected:
… the prevailing opinion on one of the country’s more respected newspapers on this day was, basically, that George Bush was this conciliatory figure, Al Gore was scheming right up until the very last second and even after to overturn the election, and the public was just glad it was all over and now America can get on with the business of healing and bipartisanship.
Let that marinate in your mind, and bathe it in the knowledge of what actually took place over the past eight years.
Of course, this is the rhetorical angle that Bush used outwardly during the recount battle, that the counting was over with and now is the time to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and move forward. What’s a little shocking is how quickly and directly the major media figures came to the same conclusion. The seeds of how the media treated the Bush Administration over the bulk of his first term are all here, particularly the amplification of the main message coming from Ari Fleischer on any given day. And this was all done for our benefit, in the spirit of ending bitterness and changing tone and overcoming the rancorous partisanship – a time for healing.
Well, some things don’t work out, but some things do. See Al Kamen in the Washington Post, Monday, January 24, 2005, with Miami Riot Squad: Where Are They Now? – and that’s instructive. One member of this riot, Garry D. Malphrus, was appointed to be an immigration judge by Attorney General Gonzales, and another, Joel Kaplan, eventually succeeded Karl Rove as Deputy White House Chief of Staff. Damn – should have stayed in Paris.
Back on Friday, Nov. 24, 2000, in Slate, Robert Wright was on fire:
When this presidential election is over, let the record show the following:
1) Republicans were the first party to resort to mob behavior – the storming of the Miami-Dade vote-counting room that Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot today affectionately called a “bourgeois riot.”
2) This bullying was quite possibly decisive. The “riot” itself – coupled with word that 1,000 Cuban-American Republicans were on their way to join the ranks- seems to have intimidated Miami-Dade’s eternally dithering canvassing board into canceling its manual vote recount, converting Gore’s chances of winning the election from solid to slim.
You might think that conservatives would be slightly abashed about winning a presidential election through physical intimidation. After all, for two weeks they had been paying hourly tribute to the “rule of law.” But no – as ever, conservative pundits seem deaf to all irony involving themselves. In the very column in which Gigot celebrates the Miami “riot,” he writes, “GOP lawyers also pointed out that the law – recall that quaint concept- required that any recount include all ballots.” Quaint indeed.
And as it all finally went to the lawyers, there’s this curious coincidence:
In the days after this year’s election, I was in Europe, where I took a certain amount of kidding about America’s electoral mess. Foreigners, of course, are especially amused that the world’s famously litigious superpower has put its fate in the hands of lawyers. But I didn’t feel at all embarrassed; what foreigners were seeing on television was the strength of our system: The rule of law, naturally, involves lawyers. But footage of Miami’s “bourgeois riot” is something I truly am ashamed for the world to see.
Wright doesn’t know the old trick – bring up Charles de Gaulle. All the talk of Miami’s “bourgeois riot” – whether it was shameful or the triumph of the righteous – will quickly fade.
Still, we are in for a bumpy ride. There is something in the air.