The week ahead in presidential politics, amazingly free of any primaries or caucuses, nonetheless has major events coming up, mostly centering around what may be Hillary Clinton’s last full week to rally against Barack Obama, But first let’s focus in on that backfiring New York Times expose on John McCain, which is similar to the Los Angeles Times‘ backfiring expose on Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both hits had the same editor at the center of the action.
I’m referring, of course, to this past Thursday’s New York Times story on John McCain and lobbyists. And one lobbyist in particular, a very attractive young blonde who in 2000 supposedly had an affair with the maverick Western senator, as the paper’s sensational yet largely fact free lead very strongly implied.
It reminded me of the eleventh hour assault on Arnold Schwarzenegger leveled by the Los Angeles Times during the 2003 California recall campaign. The timing in both instances was suspicious. The Schwarzenegger exposé happened five days before the election, just as the former action superstar was beginning a statewide bus tour to cement his front-running status. The McCain exposé happened after the Vietnam War hero effectively won the Republican nomination with a California primary victory that knocked Mitt Romney out of the race, leaving his party with no good options.
As it happens, one editor was at the center of both sensational stories.
Some say the publication of this New Republic story –planned originally for today– prompted the New York Times to publish a few days ago.
The New Republic reports that the Washington bureau chief of the Times, Dean Baquet, played the key managerial role in pushing the story forward, against the skepticism of Times chief editor Bill Keller.
What the New Republic piece doesn’t say, since it’s written by an Easterner, is that, prior to becoming the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, Dean Baquet was with the Los Angeles Times. Most recently, he was its editor, and won widespread praise in the journalism profession for getting fired rather than carry out yet another round of cuts. But prior to that hero-making stance, he was the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. And in that role at the LA Times, Baquet was deeply involved with and a key internal advocate of the late-breaking LA Times story during the 2003 California recall slamming Arnold Schwarzenegger.
That story proved to be a major backfire, as Schwarzenegger not only survived but went on to a landslide victory, with most not buying the convenient late timing of the story. Nor its prior awareness by top Democrats, who were primed to go on the attack against Schwarzenegger. The LA Times and its influence has been on a steep downslope ever since.
I wonder if the McCain story will have a similar effect on the New York Times.
The LA Times, under then editor John Carroll, whose animus for Schwarzenegger was evident, threw a team of investigative reporters working with Carroll and Baquet at every aspect of the former Mr. Universe’s life. Schwarzenegger realized this early on. Coupled with the paper’s obviously biased coverage against his candidacy — replete with polls which were consistently out of phase with all other credible polls, including the private polls of then Democratic Governor Gray Davis, the subject of the recall — this made Schwarzenegger notably wary of the Times, as one might suppose.
When all was said and done, Baquet, Caroll, and their crack team of investigators didn’t come up with much. Other than a set of sensational charges that Schwarzenegger had behaved disrespectfully and abusively toward several women. This became the basis of what was dubbed “Gropergate.”
The trouble was that what the Times had was essentially a rehash of a 2001 Premiere magazine article on the same topic. Some of the same women were in both stories. After months of investigation, the LA Times came up with refried beans. Which Schwarzenegger had had ample time to consider since Premiere magazine did it first.
Some of the story sounded like amplified rumor, with questionable details. If one were so inclined, at least half of the story could be knocked down. But some would remain, and getting into any of it would further obscure the campaign’s close.
And some of it was undoubtedly true. Schwarzenegger had misbehaved. Probably not in all the particulars alleged in the LA Times, where volume matched anonymity and vagueness, but enough. And so Schwarzenegger — “Where there is smoke, there is fire” — acknowledged that he had acted like a macho jerk at times, issued a general apology, and set about the task of running against the LA Times amongst his other partisan enemies.
Under Baquet’s guidance, the Times rushed more stories about specific instances of Schwarzenegger misbehavior with women into print. But the Times team was grasping at straws now, with motivation and detail clearly not accounted for in the hurried scramble to validate a backfiring story. One brand new story was promoted to the paper by a longtime Democratic operative. Which the Times neglected to mention. Others seemed at variance with established fact. The purportedly painstaking fact checking, which supposedly accounted for the story appearing so late in the campaign, simply was not. The paper looked worse.
Rushing to defend a backfiring story with more innuendo and hearsay is not what the New York Times did with the McCain controversy. Baquet presumably learned from that mistake with Schwarzenegger.
Of course, one big difference is that the head editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, was not avidly pushing the story, unlike his 2003 counterpart at the LA Times, John Carroll.
Keller was a skeptic about the McCain story. But Baquet, whose title of Washington bureau chief if anything underplayed his clout at the paper, pushed hard internally on behalf of his reporters. In the end, his position prevailed.
Ironically, to borrow Schwarzenegger’s line, there is some fire beneath all the smoke of the McCain story. While the New York Times utterly failed to demonstrate a McCain affair with the lobbyist in question — no sensational trading of sexual favors for official favors, which is what the story centered on — it did demonstrate that the famous reformer has been pretty chummy with a number of lobbyists and has backed their play on occasion as a powerful senator. (Though the piece did leave out instances of McCain going against lobbyists’ interests.)
But that’s a much more standard political story. Not a knockout blow against a front-running candidate.
And make no mistake, the two Timeses were going for knockout blows against Schwarzenegger in 2003 and McCain in 2008.
They both failed.
The public editor, or ombudsman, of the New York Times, whose charge it is to render judgments on controversies involving the paper, sharply criticized his newspaper for its sensational story strongly implying a past affair between the Western senator and the pretty lobbyist.
Wrote Clark Hoyt: “The newspaper found itself in the uncomfortable position of being the story as much as publishing the story, in large part because, although it raised one of the most toxic subjects in politics – sex – it offered readers no proof that McCain and Iseman had a romance.”
The paper did raise some interesting questions about the relationship between McCain, former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Washington lobbyists, suggesting that he’s not beyond their blandishments. But the story led in sensational fashion with the imputation of an affair. Absent that, it was a bit of a snorer.
Of course, it was not absent that. And the upshot is that the nation’s most powerful newspaper, the so-called “Paper of Record,” was rocked to its foundations by the McCain campaign.
Responding to the firestorm of controversy, Times editor Keller sounded very abashed, if not dumbfounded.
Personally, I was surprised by the volume of the reaction (including more than 2,400 reader comments posted on our Web site). I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision, with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot.
And, frankly, I was a little surprised by how few readers saw what was, to us, the larger point of the story. Perhaps here, at the outset of this conversation, is a good point to state as clearly as possible our purpose in publishing. … Clearly, many of you did not agree.
The political upshot?
The talk show wing of the Republican far right rallied to John McCain against the dread liberal MSM. The lefty/liberal blogosphere mostly expressed major qualms about the story, or ignored it. With the notable exception of our friends at the Huffington Post, whose proprietor, my old friend Arianna Huffington, was once a huge fan/friend of the Western senator. They played it up big time.
And, contrary to Rush Limbaugh’s ramblings about how this shows the MSM is out to get any Republican no matter what, much, if not most, of the conventional media are openly expressing doubt and dismay about the New York Times story and its methods.
Team McCain’s take at the end of a Thursday filled with furious spin: “We feel good.”
The repercussions of the story will continue to echo this week, as McCain and company continue their task of consolidating the Republican Party. Mike Huckabee is still running, but not seriously, though he wants to get a big vote next week in Texas. Huck hosted Saturday Night Live over the weekend, and winningly went along with the running gag about not knowing when to exit the stage.
Huckabee likes McCain, and vice versa. His continued presence in the race on balance helps McCain, as it gives the far right a way to safely bleed off their resentment of McCain’s moderate apostasies, and distracts from how big a job McCain still has to create a truly national campaign apparatus.
Two people who definitely have national campaign apparatuses, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, continue their duel this week with a Tuesday night debate in Ohio and campaigning in the four primary states voting on March 4th: Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont. These are states that Clinton, now trailing by some 150 delegates won in primaries and caucuses, on the wrong end of an 11-contest losing streak, has to win big to start catching up to the freshman Illinois senator. But it’s not shaping up that way.
A new ABC News poll has Obama in a dead heat with Hillary in Texas and closing in Ohio. Here are the numbers. Texas: Clinton 48%, Obama 47%. Ohio: Clinton 50%, Obama 43%. Clinton, who trails by about 150 pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses to date, needs big wins in both states to climb back into a closely competitive position in the race.
In both states, Obama is now seen by primary voters as the more electable of the two in the fall. Hillary is seen as the stronger leader.
Obama and Hillary had a mostly sedate debate last Thursday night in Austin, Texas. But since then, Hillary has been on the attack, on multiple fronts. So their debate Tuesday night in Cleveland, carried by MSNBC, is likely to be more contentious.
The problem for the reeling Clinton team is that they can’t settle on a consistent line of attack. Or, I should say, line, period. So Hillary alternately, over the course of just a few days, presents a positive, even valedictory front, saying what an “honor” it is for her to even be on the stage with Obama, then goes on to say he’s unqualified to be commander-in-chief, has wronged her by attacking the Clintons for pushing through NAFTA, is lying about her record, is against national health insurance, is a false messiah, etc.
One thing she’s no longer attacking him on is “plagiarism.” After her borrowing of lines from her husband and John Edwards for her much-praised Texas debate close has become evident.
It’s another week in presidential politics, folks. The fun never sets.
Bill Bradley is a Pajamas Media correspondent. His PajamasXpress blog is New West Notes.