Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Character counts

Bob Somerby at the incomparable Daily Howler points up this bizarre tidbit from Chris Mathews on MSNBC's Hardball:
MATTHEWS: Talk to me, both of you, about the psychology of the Democratic Party which I find very depressing. If George W. Bush—let’s be honest about this. Everybody watching, conservative, middle-of-the-road, or liberal—if the George W. Bush had won the popular vote by 600,000 votes in the last election, and somehow didn’t manage to become president because he didn’t win the electoral college, fair or not, he would have walked around the country in Texas as some sort of stud. He would have been the stud duck of the country. Everybody would have looked up to him and applauded wherever he went. He would have been the guy who got the most votes. Al Gore looks and acts like a guy who really, really did lose. He really did lose. And why is that? Because you know that Bush would have loved it. Bush would have had the most votes. He would have said, sure the guy gets the job, but I am the most popular guy in the country. Why is that?

Well, gosh, Chris -- maybe it's because some people were saying this just before the election:
Al Gore, knowing him as we do, may have no problem taking the presidential oath after losing the popular vote to George W. Bush. He's lost popularity contests before. But how will the country take it?

How will a populace already turned off to politics react to the news that the guy who's gotten the most votes isn't getting the job?

Of course, it was being widely speculated then that Bush might win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College. This had the conservative press corps in a tizzy, as in this story in the Washington Times :
Vice President Al Gore's strategy to go after states rich with electoral votes raises a remote possibility that has not occurred in presidential politics since 1888.

There is a chance he could capture 270 electoral votes and win the presidency even if he loses the popular vote to Texas Gov. George W. Bush....

Mrs. Jeffe, the analyst from California...says a split decision between the popular vote and the electoral vote would make it hard for the next president to lead.

A presidential election "is about credibility — it's about legitimacy," she said. "It's not about words on paper."

Do you suppose the Times raised that concern after the actual outcome? Of course not.

That was just the start of it. Some of you may recall that in fact Team Bush had a plan in hand for the eventuality of a Gore Electoral College win. From Michael Kramer's column in the New York Daily News, Nov. 1, 2000:

Bush Set to Fight An Electoral College Loss [sample page only]

They're not only thinking the unthinkable, they're planning for it.

Quietly, some of George W. Bush's advisers are preparing for the ultimate "what if" scenario: What happens if Bush wins the popular vote for President, but loses the White House because Al Gore's won the majority of electoral votes?...

"The one thing we don't do is roll over," says a Bush aide. "We fight."

How? The core of the emerging Bush strategy assumes a popular uprising, stoked by the Bushies themselves, of course.

In league with the campaign — which is preparing talking points about the Electoral College's essential unfairness — a massive talk-radio operation would be encouraged. "We'd have ads, too," says a Bush aide, "and I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted."

Local business leaders will be urged to lobby their customers, the clergy will be asked to speak up for the popular will and Team Bush will enlist as many Democrats as possible to scream as loud as they can. "You think 'Democrats for Democracy' would be a catchy term for them?" asks a Bush adviser....

And what would happen if the "what if" scenario came out the other way? "Then we'd be doing the same thing Bush is apparently getting ready for," says a Gore campaign official. "They're just further along in their contingency thinking than we are. But we wouldn't lie down without a fight, either."

In retrospect, obviously, the Gore campaign did not conduct a campaign of subversion against Bush's legitimacy, as Bush planned to wage against Gore were the tables reversed. Oddly enough, no one in the press was bright enough to observe that. Nor did anyone at the time wonder what such plans suggested about the nature of Bush's character -- particularly his utter ruthlessness even at the cost of basic democratic principles. However, one certainly can easily imagine the sustained howls of outrage about his base character that would have arisen had Gore even breathed word he was considering such a strategy.

By the time we made it through the subsequent Florida Debacle, in which the scenario posed by the pundits was turned on its head, the public no longer had to speculate about the character of the respective candidates. It became clear then (as it has remained ever afterward) that Gail Sheehy already had nailed down George W. Bush's character in her incisive Vanity Fair piece, "The Accidental Candidate":
Even if he loses, his friends say, he doesn't lose. He'll just change the score, or change the rules, or make his opponent play until he can beat him. "If you were playing basketball and you were playing to 11 and he was down, you went to 15," says [Doug] Hannah, now a Dallas insurance executive. "If he wasn't winning, he would quit. He would just walk off.... It's what we called Bush Effort: If I don't like the game, I take my ball and go home. Very few people can get away with that."

Indeed, one wonders where Chris Mathews was during the Florida Debacle, and the week after, when it became painfully apparent that George W. Bush was more than happy to steal away the presidency by eking out just enough Electoral College votes (through, of course, highly questionable means) in spite of Al Gore's wide-margin victory in the popular vote.

Oh, that's right -- he was still busy questioning Al Gore's character.

It continues even to this day, including this latest diatribe. What has become painfully clear is that for no one in the Washington press corps do George W. Bush's absolute ruthlessness and his unwillingness to win or lose by the rules of the game raise a character question. Instead, they look at the guy, Al Gore, who has made abundantly clear his willingness to abide by the rules, to play fairly and squarely at every turn, and deride him for his wimpiness in comparison.

This is a serious pathology in journalism.

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