1. Newsweek displayed the most revulsion at the South Carolina election results, with anti-Bush hits from Jonathan Alter, Howard
Fineman, and the team of Evan Thomas and Martha Brant. "He had been forced to run far to the right – and deep in mud."
2. Time’s Eric Pooley and the U.S. News team of Kenneth Walsh and Roger Simon concurred with the mudslinging-extremist line of analysis, with Pooley claiming Bush’s "slashing tactics" were "ferocious even by South Carolina’s down-and-dirty standards."
3. Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen chided those liberals who would place hope in McCain, who is "combative, caustic, and conservative" – and gets better press than Clinton?
4. Time’s Margaret Carlson trumpeted Al Gore’s military service over George W. Bush. "Gore is fully grown. Unlike the breezy George W. Bush, who was on a career respirator much of his adult life, Gore has worked up a sweat getting to where he is."
On their February 28 covers, Newsweek epitomized the media’s post-South Carolina spin with a picture of George W. Bush in black and white under the word "HARDBALL". Time also put Bush on the cover, promising to reveal "What Drives Bush." After promoting the old liberal chestnut of the-rich-get-richer, the-poor-get-poorer last week, U.S. News & World Report promoted the liberal environmentalist line this week with the cover story "Antarctic Meltdown."
Newsweek displayed the most revulsion at the South Carolina election results, with anti-Bush hits from Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman, and the team of Evan Thomas and Martha Brant.
Alter’s anonymous-as-Joe-Klein "Conventional Wisdom Watch" carried the media ethos into Michigan. It began: "The ghost of Lee Atwater ruled in the toxic-politics GOP S.C. primary. But will the Bush ‘firewall’ hold in Michigan, where not every third voter is a Christian fundamentalist?" Bush drew a reluctant up arrow ("Pulls a Clinton by stealing McCain's message. But winning ugly is still winning") while McCain was awarded a sympathetic down arrow ("Why choked by Bible belt? He threatened its soft money. But he's a survivor"). Conservatives were slammed with Bob Jones University’s down arrow: " Racist, sexist, Catholic-hating ‘university’... that was Bush's base." Al Gore got the only uncritical up arrow: "The real winner in S.C.: Big Al, who got the anti-Bush goods to woo centrists." In his column, Alter predicted Gore would "hammer Bush relentlessly" for failing to change the Republican platform plank on abortion.
Howard Fineman, who spent most of February predicting the ascent of McCain, turned and predicted Bush would pay for his victory: "Bush's triumph in the cultural wheelhouse of the South at least temporarily restored him to front-runner status. But his victory came at a steep cost. He had been forced to run far to the right – and deep in mud. Across the country, Bush's "favorable" ratings plummeted as he and his allies went about the grim business of savaging McCain. Democrats have already taken notice of Bush's drift to the right in South Carolina – and have saved as much of it as they can on videotape. To secure the Bible belt – his first order of business in the state – Bush vowed to keep the strict pro-life plank in the GOP platform. He refused to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, an association of gay party members. He launched his South Carolina campaign at Bob Jones University, where interracial dating is forbidden. And though he had no regrets about it, Bush and his allies used the kind of tactics – full of name-calling, distortions and subterfuge – that could turn off reform-minded voters."
Fineman declared Bush’s "campaign and its allies laid down a barrage of ‘negatives’ as intense as any in recent history. Bush spent heavily, and ‘independent’ groups matched it. In cascades of radio and TV ads, direct mail and phone calls, they portrayed McCain as a flip-flopping, abortion-tolerating, union-loving hypocrite who talked about reform while surrounded by evil Washington lobbyists. And that was the nicer stuff."
Fineman ended by protesting that McCain’s claim that Bush twisted the truth like Clinton was "McCain’s only descent into negative advertising," and complained that "Incredibly, voters in South Carolina said it was McCain – not Bush – who had run the nastier campaign."
Evan Thomas and Martha Brant raised the ghost of disparaged Republican operatives of the past: Bush aide Warren Tompkins "was an old colleague of the late Lee Atwater, the self-described ‘Bad Boy’ of South Carolina politics who had been instrumental in electing Bush the Elder in 1988. In South Carolina, Atwater and Tompkins had perfected the science of negative campaigning: using polling and research to find weak spots in an opponent's record and persona, then zeroing in to drive up the ‘negatives.’ Atwater and Tompkins had been particularly effective in conjuring up demons that would frighten and energize the Bible-belt vote."
Thomas and Brant also criticized the participation of conservative nonprofit groups: "One of the murkier and darker arts of negative campaigning involves the use of outside groups to make ‘independent expenditures’ on behalf of a candidate – or against his opponent. These usually consist of raw and sometimes malicious ads on local talk radio or direct mail or leafleting at a shopping mall. Under the loosely enforced campaign-finance laws, a candidate cannot coordinate these outside attacks. As a practical matter, no one needed to. Tompkins's friends include Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. Reed and Norquist, in turn, have many friends on the fringes of the right."
They left out who else worked for Atwater, at least in the Reagan White House: McCain campaign manager Rick Davis.
Time’s Eric Pooley and the U.S. News team of Kenneth Walsh and Roger Simon concurred with the mudslinging-extremist line of analysis. Pooley also channeled Atwater’s ghost: "The architect of whatever-it-takes politics, the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, helped turn South Carolina, his home state, into the most reliably Republican place in the country. He did so on behalf of George Bush's father in 1988 by exploiting the fears of conservative whites and honing the tactics of search-and-destroy politics – black arts he apologized for in 1991 as he was dying of a brain tumor. Bush's South Carolina team, led by former Governor Carroll Campbell and his onetime chief of staff Warren Tompkins, are masters of Atwater-style politics. Bush and his chief strategist, Karl Rove, were both close to Atwater over the years. Atwater's spirit was hovering over the meeting when Bush's advisers decided it was time to ‘drive up McCain's negatives.’" (They also left out Rick Davis.)
Pooley echoed the pack: "Bush's slashing tactics – ferocious even by South Carolina's down-and-dirty standards – don't fully account for the size of his victory," but "What helped Bush most of all was his hard charge to the right on social issues: he boosted conservative Christian turnout to record levels and collected two-thirds of their votes. But the things he said and did to win them could cost him down the road."
For the paragraphs that followed, Pooley described the efforts of conservative groups on behalf of Bush, "carpet-bombing" McCain for "alleged hypocrisies," and how Bush counted on them to "hammer" and "distort" McCain’s record and release "corrosive" material about McCain’s first marriage and his current wife’s drug addiction, plus claims that McCain had sired children out of wedlock.
Pooley tied Bush directly to one attack: "A few days later, a Baptist church in Kentucky began faxing a flyer to South Carolina radio stations, railing against ‘John McCain's fag army.’ (Both McCain and Bush support the ‘don't ask, don't tell’ policy on gays in the military.) The Bush campaign said it had nothing to do with the flyer. But the Governor repeated his anti-gay message during an on-air interview with a Christian radio station in Charleston, implying that he wouldn't appoint openly gay people to spots in his administration. ‘An openly known homosexual is somebody who probably wouldn't share my philosophy,’ he said."
The U.S. News team of Kenneth Walsh and Roger Simon perfected the three-pack of liberal analysis, finding in Bush "a charged, sometimes shrill, campaigner laying down a withering barrage of fire....Bush not only revealed himself as at times a lackluster campaigner, but he positioned himself so far to the right to win South Carolina's hard-core conservatives that he may have trouble now moving back to the center....South Carolina also exposed a new Bush, one many voters may find difficult to embrace. The man who kicked off his campaign nine months ago calling himself ‘a uniter, not a divider’ morphed last week into a combative candidate given to spouting conspiracy theories about South Carolina Democrats voting for McCain in an effort to send a weaker Republican into the general election."
Pooley also quoted Bush against himself: "The man who prides himself on being ‘a uniter, not a divider’ won by pitting social conservatives against moderates." The news magazines may not fax each other their stories to perfect a line of attack, but the similarity of their copy makes it look like they do.
Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen chided those liberals who would place hope in McCain, who is "combative, caustic, and conservative" and hiding behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz. "Voters and journalists alike have expressed admiration for McCain's candor, an imagined virtue that is also at odds with the actual record. One day he tells a newspaper editorial board that he wouldn't support the repeal of Roe v. Wade; later he backpedals and says that he would. He describes the Confederate flag flying above the South Carolina capitol as a ‘symbol of racism’; after the outcry he calls it ‘a symbol of heritage.’ During last week's debate he flatly denied that his campaign had produced a flier attacking his opponent; the next day he admitted it had."
Quindlen concluded: "There is nothing new in that sort of campaign back and fill. There is nothing new in the press leaping on the next big thing, embracing underdogs, insurgents, upsets. (It is, however, difficult to believe that if Bill Clinton had been cozy with corrupt savings and loan executive Charles Keating, as McCain was, the incident would not have been programmed into newsroom software to pop up in every story instead of conveniently evaporating.)"
Speaking of "conveniently evaporating" news stories, Quindlen ought to check out Newsweek’s once-over-lightly 1992 treatment of the Clintons’ coziness with corrupt savings and loan executive James McDougal. Jonathan Alter suggested George Bush’s sons "make Hillary Clinton’s activity look like one of those tea-and-cookies parties she disparages."
Four months after Time columnist Margaret Carlson compared George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service unfavorably to John McCain (his "biography is a bayonet aimed straight at...Bush"), she trumpeted Al Gore’s military service over Bush:
"However formal the father-son relationship, it was strong enough that Al went off to war for him. When most kids wouldn't come to the dinner table wearing a clean T shirt, Al signed up for Vietnam to diminish the impact of his father's opposition to the war in his unsuccessful fight to keep his Senate seat in 1970. Gore, to preserve his father's career, did what few sons of privilege had to do....As psychiatrists and Shakespeare would have it, a son comes into his own when he surpasses his father. By that measure, Gore is fully grown. Unlike the breezy George W. Bush, who was on a career respirator much of his adult life, Gore has worked up a sweat getting to where he is."
Carlson didn’t attempt to compare McCain’s years of imprisonment to Gore’s half-year in Vietnam as a reporter for Stars and Stripes smoking marijuana and writing about engineering brigades on the back lines. That might be seen as "hardball."
– Tim Graham