Friday, July 30, 2004

GOOD ENOUGH AND THEN SOME. Everyone seems to think that John Kerry is a lousy speaker. In fact, he's quite a good speaker when he has a decent speech to deliver and is in front of a big crowd, where his old-fashioned, stemwinder style doesn't seem too archaic. His speechifying is not terribly well-suited to television, which is an obvious problem in this, the sixth decade of the television age. That didn't matter so much last night, though, because he was speaking not to the television cameras directly but rather to the Democratic faithful, with TV simply capturing that.

Kerry got exactly what he needed. He got to introduce himself to that segment of the public that hasn't been paying attention up until now. He put himself forward as a more-than-plausible alternative to George W. Bush. And he managed to humanize himself somewhat, even though he praised his wife with exactly the same solemnity that you might imagine he would use to declare war.

The modern style is to talk, not orate, and to smile often. Kerry orates, and he almost never smiles as he's speaking. But he's learned to compensate for that by grinning broadly whenever he isn't speaking, a technique he used quite effectively in the primary debates last winter. The cameras capture him darkly glowering as he delivers his message, which isn't necessarily a bad thing when he's talking about serious issues. But then he comes off as relaxed and smiling during the pauses.

Last night in the FleetCenter, it seemed like Kerry was rushing his speech, stepping on applause lines, plunging ahead inaudibly as the crowd continued to whoop it up. But later, I watched maybe the first 10 minutes on the C-SPAN replay, and it came across differently. Kerry was miked so that the crowd wasn't nearly as loud. You could hear the cheers, but as background. So although I've heard several commentators say that Kerry was rushing, I'm not sure it came through that way to the viewers at home.

One thing that surprised me was the harsh tone of Kerry's speech. I think it may have been a smart move, but it was also a risky one. The rule of thumb in modern political campaigns is that the candidate takes the high ground while surrogates - the running mate, party officials, and the like - slash and smear. George W. Bush has been doing his share of Kerry-bashing, but he's left the heavy lifting to Dick Cheney and Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie.

Last night, though, Kerry did some of his own dirty work. For instance:

I will be a commander-in-chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a vice-president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a secretary of defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an attorney general who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States.

The reference to John Ashcroft, in particular, elicited the loudest applause of the speech, matched only - and oddly, I thought - by Kerry's promise to boost stem-cell research. I didn't quite get that. Perhaps, to Democrats, the roadblocks Bush has erected to slow stem-cell research are emblematic of a world view based on his particular religion rather than science, and represent the arrogance of a man who places his personal beliefs above the good of the country. (But that would just be a guess!)

The heavy reliance on military symbolism and the strong emphasis on foreign policy were most un-Democratic. It's possible that it will backfire on Kerry, given the lack of specifics he offered in dealing with the war in Iraq. On the other hand, his handling of the war, should he become president, will be entirely dependent on his negotiations with other countries. We all know that the leaders of those countries would rather deal with Kerry than Bush; but Kerry obviously can't negotiate until he becomes president.

Late last night, I graded Kerry's speech as an A-minus for content and a B for delivery. Now that I've seen that he didn't appear to be rushing things on TV as much as it seemed in the arena, I'll upgrade the latter grade to a B-plus. Not bad. In fact, quite a bit better than not bad.

JULY SURPRISE. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reports that the White House waited to announce the arrest of a major Al Qaeda figure in Pakistan until yesterday at 3 p.m. Kurtz notes that the New Republic had outlined precisely this scenario a few weeks ago.

The only surprise is that this didn't get major coverage the night of Kerry's speech. Either the media were too geared up to change directions, or they're not falling for this garbage anymore. Maybe both. (Correction. It was not the White House that announced the arrest. My error, not Kurtz's.)

Thursday, July 29, 2004

IN THE HOUSE. I don't have an Internet connection inside the FleetCenter, so I can't do any real-time blogging. But I thought I'd bang out a few observations for later upload. I'll skip Kerry's speech tonight and deal with that in the morning.

8:10 p.m. I've been here for about 15 minutes, high above courtside, stage left and slightly behind the main podium, surrounded by folks from Slate and the New Republic. If anyone tries to leave, he or she won't be able to get back. Slate's Tim Noah has already tried. I am trying to limit my liquid intake.

Wesley Clark is speaking, and he delivers a speech heavy on militarism and patriotism. "The flag!" (Wild cheers.) "Enough is enough!" "Under John Kerry ... we're going to attack and destroy terrorist threats to America!" "America! Hear this soldier! Choose a leader! ... Protect our liberty! Renew our spirit!"

8:18 p.m. Joe Lieberman arrives, to the strains of Neil Diamond's "Coming to America." He manages not to say, "Is this a great country or what?" He does say of Kerry and Edwards, "They're not just going to win the popular vote, as Al Gore and I did. They're actually going to get to take office."

8:39 p.m. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is speaking: "Hope really is on the way." Groan.

A few minutes ago we got an advance copy of Kerry's speech. It's l-o-n-g.

I thought it was funny when they played "Mr. Big Stuff" for Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell last night. But why are they playing it for Pelosi?

8:42 p.m. Willie Nelson and an African-American choir sing a song that appears to be called "The Promised Land." No, not the Bruce Springsteen song of that name.

Kerry's speech is embargoed, but I'm not posting this until after he delivers it, so what the hell. It looks like his refrain will be "America can do better. And help is on the way." Gee, what happened to "hope is on the way"? Has it already arrived?

8:46 p.m. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright is speaking: "He [Kerry] will use intelligence to shape policy, not twist intelligence to justify policy."

9:02 p.m. Kerry's speech is good. And harsh! If his delivery passes muster, it's going to give him a big boost. Check this out: "I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation - not the Saudi royal family." Look for Prince Bandar to start spinning on the No-Spin Zone, like, tomorrow.

9:06 p.m. Carole King comes out to sing "You've Got a Friend."

9:11 p.m. John Kennedy on the video screen while his voice crackles over the PA system: "Let the word go forth from this time and place ..." The reaction is pretty tepid, and it occurs to me that the whole JFK thing is starting to sound like my parents' invoking Franklin Roosevelt. Except that FDR had only been gone 20 years when I was 10. If you're 10 today, JFK has been gone for nearly 41 years.

No wonder Bill Clinton got a bigger hand than JFK when Clark started rattling off a list of "great Democrats."

9:12 p.m. They're projecting on the screen pictures of Republicans who are planning to vote for Kerry-Edwards.

9:17 p.m. The late Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan appears on the big screen.

9:21 p.m. Out come Andre Heinz, Chris Heinz, Vanessa Kerry, and Alexandra Kerry. Of the two daughters, Vanessa goes first. "There was not one moment when he doubted his ability to win," she says. Really? Not even in November and December? It's probably true. Politicians are a different breed.

She also says that when he told his dying mother that he would run for president, her response was, "It's about time."

Alexandra tells the now-familiar story of her father administering CPR to Vanessa's hamster its cage had fallen overboard during a boating trip. "The hamster was never quite right after that, but he lived." She also recalls what he told her when she was an angst-ridden 19-year-old: "Remember that you're alive and that you're an American. Those two things make you the luckiest girl in the world."

9:36 p.m. The video begins to play. Fortunately, I can watch it on a TV in the press row in front of us. It's short - less than 10 minutes. Your typical gauzy bio with vaguely patriotic music in the background.

It accomplishes the important task of going over his war record and anti-war activism, since Kerry himself is only going to talk about that a little. But wait! Network coverage hasn't kicked in. But wait again! They probably wouldn't have carried it anyway ... on Tuesday, I had to switch to C-SPAN to watch the Teresa video. What can I say? I like videos.

9:47 p.m. A video on the Worcester fire, and Kerry's involvement in the aftermath.

9:50 p.m. The crews of Kerry's two swiftboats come out. The biggest hand is for Jim Rassmann, whose life Kerry saved - and who, in turn, saved Kerry's campaign when he surfaced in Iowa last January. "Nobody asked me to join this campaign. I volunteered," says Rassmann, a Republican.

Rassmann introduces Max Cleland, who receives a hero's welcome.

9:56 p.m. Cleland begins speaking from his wheelchair. He talks about being elected to the Georgia state senate in 1971, a young veteran missing three limbs, and seeing Kerry on television. "He put everything I was feeling into words," he says. "Even before I met John Kerry, he was my brother."

10:02 p.m. Cleland has entered the main part of his speech, just as the networks join us. Tells a story about pressing a Bible into Kerry's hand at Kerry's South Carolina campaign kickoff. "My fellow Americans, John Kerry has never let me down, and he won't let you down, either."

Kerry will be at the podium in a few moments.

11:34 p.m. Just made it back to the filing center. Instant grades: A-minus speech; solid B delivery. Much more tomorrow.

KERRY'S LIBERAL APPEAL. It's 5:30 p.m. as I finish this. In just a little less than six hours, John Kerry will deliver his acceptance speech - the proverbial most-important-speech-of-his-life, and one that will go a long way toward determining whether he can defeat George W. Bush this fall.

My Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi and I have stopped by a WiFi-enabled Starbucks after spending a good part of the afternoon in Cambridge with the Campaign for America's Future - an umbrella group that brings together various lefty and progressive causes and organizations. Al Gore was a no-show. His former top campaign strategist, Donna Brazile, had still not arrived by the time we had to leave. So the highlight turned out to be the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who delivered a rambling but occasionally moving speech. (You'll be able to read Lombardi's account here once she's done with it.)

One thing I want to address in these final hours of the convention is the notion that John Kerry is nothing but a centrist weenie, and that the left will have to push him continually if he's elected president. Jackson said as much today, telling the throng, "When Kerry wins, the anti-war movement will just have to get bigger the next day."

Texas populist Jim Hightower, at last Sunday's tribute to the late senator Paul Wellstone, got at much the same thing. Speaking of Kerry, Hightower said, "I don't care if he's a sack of cement, we're going to carry him to victory" - and, afterwards, be "in their face" to get Kerry and John Edwards to toe the line.

What spurs a lot of this talk, of course, is the experience with Bill Clinton. But Clinton really was a centrist with a lot of conservative impulses. Kerry is not the most liberal member of the Senate (click here to find out why), but he is an actual living, breathing liberal. As David Corn explained (sub. req.) recently in the Nation:

Kerry did support NAFTA, and he has proposed corporate tax cuts to spur investments. He once raised questions about the political costs of affirmative action (while still backing such programs). He's not a Wellstone Democrat. But compare Kerry with Bill Clinton, who still captivates the Democratic faithful. When Clinton ran for President, he burnished his centrist credentials by pushing welfare "reform" and advocating highly punitive crime legislation. This year, Kerry's post-primary lurch to the center entails cooling down the populist rhetoric (which he borrowed from his Democratic rivals) and emphasizing his "values." He has done nothing as crass as when Clinton left the campaign trail in 1992 to return to Arkansas for the execution of a mentally disabled convict. Kerry, a former prosecutor, opposes capital punishment.

Outside the Wellstone service Sunday at the Old West Church, Corn told me, "Progressives are going to vote for Kerry. Bush energizes the base enough that he doesn't have to worry about that." Corn's analogy is the Republican Party's extreme right wing in 2000, which swallowed its doubts about Bush's moderate rhetoric out of a burning desire to recapture the White House. (Of course, few knew that Bush would actually govern from the extreme right.)

Corn added of Kerry: "He is not a DLC Democrat," referring to the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist faction that Clinton once headed. "I don't think progressives have to swallow too hard to see the positive aspects of a Kerry candidacy," Corn said.

We all know how maddening Kerry can be - the nuances, the grays, the reluctance to take a clear stand and to stick with it. But when it comes to broad themes, Kerry is a true liberal - the first to win his party's nomination since Walter Mondale in 1984, if you subscribe, as I do, to the theory that Michael Dukakis in 1988 was more of a proto-New Democrat.

There's been a lot of talk this week that the American people are much more liberal than is generally thought. "Most Americans in their hearts are liberal and progressive," filmmaker Michael Moore told the Campaign for America's Future crowd on Tuesday.

Tonight, Kerry has a magnificent opportunity to bring those liberals back into the fold - to appeal to them not as a centrist looking for liberal votes, but as a liberal who is able to explain himself in mainstream, centrist terms.

NEW IN THIS WEEK'S PHOENIX. George W. Bush has united the Democrats. But where do John Kerry and John Edwards go from here? Also, please check out the Phoenix's continuing coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF EDWARDS. I'm afraid that I'm developing a John Edwards problem. Last night was only the latest example. Let me explain.

My first exposure to Edwards came four years ago, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where the North Carolina senator spoke at a breakfast gathering of the Massachusetts delegates. He struck me as a phony - a slick huckster who'd succeeded in aping every move and mannerism from Bill Clinton except the ability to seem genuine.

I liked him better during his presidential run. Mrs. Media Log loved him, although perhaps that's a problem of a different sort. Still, the stories crept out about his robotic repetition of his "Two Americas" speech at appearance after appearance, his creepy insistence on staying on message no matter what. Yes, you could say that's what he takes for a politician to succeed. But Edwards, uh, lost, you know?

Last night's speech was okay, sort of, although it seemed like he managed to say very little, wrapped up in a lot of bland generalities. And how icky was it that the party had passed out "Hope Is on the Way" signs to delegates so that they could wave them whenever Edwards mouthed the words?

I'm sorry, maybe it's because he's such a pretty boy, but I nearly burst out laughing when he looking into the camera and said, "And we will have one clear unmistakable message for Al Qaeda and the rest of these terrorists. You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you." What are you going to do, counselor? Sue them?

And don't you think he should have referred to "John Kerry" rather than the overly familiar "John"? Even Teresa called him "John Kerry."

I watched Edwards's speech at Harvard's Kennedy School amid maybe 60 or 70 students and other onlookers. By far the biggest reaction of the evening was for the Reverend Al Sharpton's speech, which was so moving that you could almost forget what a dubious figure Sharpton really is. Check out how Sharpton closed:

I often hear the Republican party preach about family values, but I can tell them something about family values. Family values don't just exist for those with two-car garages and retirement plans. Family values exist in homes with only one parent in the household making a way against the odds.

I stand here tonight, the product of a single parent home, from the depths of Brooklyn, New York. My mother was a domestic worker who scrubbed floors in other people's homes for me. And because she scrubbed those floors, I was proud to stand as a presidential candidate.

Those are family values.

I recall that a few days after the September 11 terrorist attacks I was in a radio station that played "America the Beautiful," as sung by Ray Charles.

As you know, we lost Ray several weeks ago, but I can still hear him singing: "Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plain."

We must leave here committed to making Ray Charles's song a reality and to making America beautiful for everyone.

Good night, God bless you all, and God bless America!

As Sharpton walked off, the sounds of Brother Ray singing "America the Beautiful" played over the PA system. It was a genuine, shivers-up-your-spine moment, akin to Patti LaBelle singing "A Change Is Gonna Come" after Bill Clinton's speech on Monday. Which only served to emphasize how flat Edwards's effort was.

Maybe Edwards didn't want to overshadow John Kerry's big speech tonight. He certainly succeeded. And you can't help but admire his and his wife's resilience following the worst thing that could possibly happen to a parent.

But if you're looking for a running mate who'd bring substance and gravitas to the table, who could unquestionably step in as president on a moment's notice ... well, boring old Dick Gephardt is starting to look pretty good right now.

RACE, RAPE, AND IMUS. This one's for you, Philip Nobile. For several years, the former New York magazine media critic has railed against the racist content of Don Imus's New York-based syndicated radio program. I always thought Nobile had a tin ear and just didn't get the humor. And I haven't changed my mind - at least not generally.

But this morning, sidekick Bernard McGuirk said something that ought to get him suspended for, oh, I don't know, six months - or six years. I was driving and not taking notes, so bear with me. (Imus in the Morning is heard locally on WTKK Radio, 96.9 FM.) At about 9:15 a.m., the gang started talking about the Kobe Bryant rape trial. McGuirk called Bryant's accuser a "skanky ho." Some discussion ensued as to whether Bryant might actually be guilty, the morals of his accuser aside.

Then, incredibly, McGuirk asserted that regardless of Bryant's guilt or lack thereof, this was obviously not a "classic" rape - which he proceeded to define as a black man in a hood assaulting and raping a white woman. Imus did his usual, acting half-bemused, half-appalled, and complaining that McGuirk and another sidekick, Sid Rosenberg, were behaving badly.

A commercial break followed. I sat in the parking lot, waiting to hear what would happen when they returned. Imus again chuckled about McGuirk and Rosenberg's behavior, then started talking about New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's new book. No apology.

In the past year in Boston, WEEI Radio (AM 850) hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan were suspended for comparing an escaped gorilla to black schoolchildren, and WTKK host Mike Barnicle apologized for using the phrase "jungle fever" to describe the marriage of former Boston television personality Janet Langhart, who's black, and former secretary of defense William Cohen, who's white.

Yesterday Callie Crossley, a television producer who's African-American, cited those incidents as evidence of Boston's improved-but-still-troubled racial climate. Read it. (Disclosure: Crossley and I often appear together on WGBH-TV/Channel 2's "Beat the Press" edition of Greater Boston, on Fridays at 7 p.m.)

But will anything happen to McGuirk, or to his enabler, Imus? This isn't a Boston problem - it's a New York problem, exacerbated by conglomerate radio ownership that brings this into cities across the country. What McGuirk said was far worse than Barnicle's utterance, and at least as bad as Dennis and Callahan's exchange.

I would say "where is the outrage?", except that this only took place two hours ago. Will New York take action? If not, will WTKK general manager Matt Mills do anything locally? I'll be watching. You should too.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

INSTANT ANALYSIS. More on Edwards tomorrow, but my first reaction to his speech: a hodge-podge of meaningless clichés, punctuated in the middle by a few specific bullet points. Maybe I'll feel differently in the morning, but there's a contrived quality to Edwards's public utterances that I've never much liked. Maybe he was trying too hard not to overshadow Kerry.

BRASS KNUCKLES. I'm watching the convention at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, which is holding a convention party every night. There's free WiFi, so I figured I'd post a quick item. Al Sharpton got a huge reaction from the students. But obviously the most important message of the evening - other than John Edwards's upcoming speech - is the military.

Not only did retired generals John Shalikashvili and Claudia Kennedy speak, but they trotted out a bunch of military officers ... right after 10 p.m., to make sure network coverage had kicked in. Smart. If Bush and Cheney are going to turn this into a war election, you've got to have some brass on your side.

Cate Edwards is speaking now. Good Lord ... she's as pretty as her father. Going to post this quickly, because Elizabeth Edwards is walking to the podium.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, TOURIST ATTRACTION. It was time for a commercial break. While Chris Matthews waited to go back on the air, he asked the crowd of several hundred people who were gathered around the MSNBC tent what they thought of Teresa Heinz Kerry's speech the previous night. Cheers went up. Matthews kept pushing.

"You're all sophisticated city people. Do you think she'll play in Peoria?" he asked. "Yes! Yes!" came the response.

Among the curiosities that the Democratic National Convention has brought to Boston this week is Hardball, which has set up operations right outside Quincy Market. MSNBC may be the least-watched cable news channel, but the fascination with television is universal. The program is blasted out of loudspeakers so the crowd can hear, punctuated by the sound of military helicopters overhead. (Read Mike Miliard's no-bullshit account about what happened on Tuesday night.)

"Coming up, Congressman Charles Rangel of New York," Matthews announces. And there, near the barrier separating the set from the crowd, is Rangel, resplendent in a dark suit and red tie. He hands out MSNBC ballcaps as the crowd cheers - but not quite loud enough for a producer, who strides briskly along the barrier ordering louder applause.

When they come back, Rangel - a combat veteran of the Korean War - offers a sharp critique of the war in Iraq. He blasts Bush for sending young soldiers into Iraq despite having "no plan at all." Rangel blames the war on a host of familiar names - "Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Kristol, Cheney."

Matthews interjects: "How come we never hear your candidate speak like you are now? He waffles, he hedges."

Rangel parries the question and runs out the clock. Soon enough, it would be time for another commercial.

NO-READING ZONE. Four years ago - I think it was at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, but it might have been at the DNC in Los Angeles - my then-Phoenix colleague Seth Gitell and I were walking through the media center. A little while earlier we'd been writing pieces for Now we were checking out the media circus before doing whatever it was we were going to do with the rest of the day.

But rather than having a few casual conversations with other journalists, we saw that everyone was chained to his or her keyboard, pounding away. I stopped by the Washington Post's space so I could say hello to media reporter Howard Kurtz, whom I know slightly. We politely exchanged a few pleasantries before he returned to his seat and started typing again. He was writing twice a day for the Post's website plus once for the paper. He looked like a haunted, exhausted man.

"Everybody's writing," Seth said, shaking his head. "Nobody's reading."

Seth is now the spokesman for Mayor Tom Menino, but I'm still here, writing more than ever. For those of us in the print media, especially, technology has drastically changed the way we do our jobs. When I covered my first convention, the Republican gathering in San Diego in 1996, I had one story to write for the Phoenix, one short piece I'd contracted to do for Salon, and that was it. I could actually relax and take it all in. At the conventions of 2000, I was up to one Web piece a day in addition to my piece for the print edition. Now I'm updating Media Log several times a day. Many journalists I know are doing the same.

Everybody's writing. Nobody's reading.

My heart sinks when I grab the Boston Globe and the New York Times from my doorstep in the morning. Most of what I see is for pure political and media junkies like me, and I could easily spend hours poring over it. But I can't. Who can? We've all got to get back to work.

So much output, so little input. There's a price to be paid for all this, and that is that there's less time to think, less time to read, less time to talk with smart people without try to wheedle a quote out of them that you can use within the next hour. There is no news taking place in Boston. It ought to be a chance to listen and learn, and to get ready for the campaign ahead.

But that's not the way it works anymore. Instead, we've got thousands of journalists producing non-news from a convention whose work, such as it is, was preordained on Super Tuesday, way back last March.

RIVERS WHACKS JACKSON (AGAIN). The Boston Herald today blows out the front on the Reverend Jesse Jackson's criticism of Boston. Reporter Maggie Mulvihill quotes the Reverend Eugene Rivers as saying of Jackson, "Jesse's talking trash and blowing smoke. This is Jesse's showboat."

As Mulvihill notes, Rivers is "one of the city's most respected leaders on racial issues." However, he is also a long-standing Jackson critic. In fact, three and a half years ago, there were even rumors that Rivers had something to do with exposing an extramarital affair Jackson had had - rumors that Rivers denied.

Here is what I wrote about Rivers (and Jackson) in February 2001.

DEPT. OF SELF-PROMOTION. PR Week interviews me about Media Log in its July 26 edition. Also, Timothy Noah of Slate took odds on how long Bill Clinton would speak on Monday night. As you'll see, I was too pessimistic, but what the hell - there was no prize.

DEPT. OF NON-SELF-PROMOTION. Speaking of everybody's writing, if you visit Media Log directly without going to first, well, take a look. Phoenix staffers have been posting like crazed weasels since Monday.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

FUN - AND MEDIA-BASHING - WITH HOWARD AND MICHAEL. The line snaked from the front of the Royal Sonesta Hotel, on Land Boulevard in Cambridge, around the corner, and way, way back down Cambridge Parkway. I had no way of measuring it, but it might have stretched half a mile.

These were the Deaniacs, mostly young, waiting to see Howard Dean, the man they had tried to get elected president, and filmmaker Michael Moore. You could even hear celebrity Dean supporter Joan Jett singing "I Love Rock & Roll" from somewhere amid the boats floating on the Charles. Was it her, or was it a boombox?

The afternoon event, sponsored by the progressive Campaign for America's Future, was not a masterpiece of planning. It was hardly surprising that many hundreds of people would turn out to see perhaps the two biggest celebrities on the American left. As it was, only a fraction of those hoping to get inside were allowed to squeeze into the second-floor meeting room where the event was held.

Those of us in the media, not surprisingly, were well treated, given good seats with a decent view. We soon learned why: we were the main course.

Dean, the former Vermont governor, went first. These days he's running something called Democracy for America, an outgrowth of his campaign organization, Dean for America, that is working to elect local progressive candidates across the country - even a candidate for library trustee. "I like to think library trustee is a pretty important position in an administration where they like book-burning better than reading books," Dean said. (Media Log guarantee: all quotes are 95 percent accurate. Both Dean and Moore talked so fast, and the cheering was so loud, that I may be taking slight liberties.)

After a bit, Dean turned his attention to Teresa Heinz Kerry's telling a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review to "shove it," and asked, "How many of you would like to tell reporters to shove it?" Whoops and hollers all around. Dean then told the crowd that the Tribune Review is owned by right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife. "That," Dean said, "even tops the Boston Herald," which he compared to "the National Enquirer."

Not that the Herald doesn't often deserve it, although the New York Post would be a more accurate, and somewhat kinder, comparison. Later, though, another speaker later noted that a Republican official had recently denounced Michael Moore as being part of the "hate and vitriol from this John Kerry celebrity set." The source: a July 22 story in the Herald by Dave Wedge. Only no credit was given.

Moore was running a good hour late, and other speakers, including former secretary of labor Robert Reich, filled the time. Finally, following an awkward pause created by what was apparently a pit stop to the men's room, Moore bounded on stage, blasting the media for failing to report on weak evidence underlying the Bush administration's case for the war in Iraq.

Conceding that George W. Bush is the villain of his film Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore continued that "there is an unstated villain in the film, and that's the national media.... The film outs them. It outs them as shills for the Bush administration. It outs them as cheerleaders for this war." And this admonition: "You can ask any question you want and not be arrested. So what has prevented you from asking the questions? You haven't just been embedded. You've been in bed with the wrong people."

At one point, Moore quipped, "I'm not picking on the press here today. I'm sure they'll kick the piss out of me later." Well, not here. Certainly not when Moore went on to point out that General Electric, which owns NBC, has $600 million worth of contracts in Iraq, making them "war profiteers." (That's harsh, but it's certainly true that NBC News's corporate parent has a direct interest in not crossing the White House on the war. How come Tom Brokaw doesn't tell us that?) Or how about Moore's contention that Disney, which refused to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11, turns out to have accepted a $300 million bailout from a member of the Saudi royal family for EuroDisney ... brokered by the Bush-connected Carlyle Group. A splendid story for Peter Jennings, whose employer, ABC News, is part of the Disney family.

Moore also urged progressives to work for the Kerry-Edwards ticket, saying of the Bushies, "They're not going to go without a fight, and believe me, they are better fighters than we are. They are up at six in the morning trying to decide which minority group to screw today. Our side, we never see six in the morning. Unless we've been up all night."

Dean and Moore were both terrific, full of fire and passion, bringing their supporters to their feet repeatedly. Dean was as unpresidential as ever, which was a reminder of why - once the caucuses and primaries started - almost no one actually voted for him. But he remains the guy who energized the Democratic Party, who dared speak out about the Bush administration's depredations when most Democrats were hiding under their beds, terrified they would be accused of lacking patriotism.

As for Moore, Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't perfect, but it's been unfairly caricatured as nothing but a factually deficient exercise in Bush-bashing. The truth is that it is a deeply moral statement about America in 2004. No wonder the Republicans are so eager to tear it down.

TED K., "PERFECT BASTARD." Now these Teresa Heinz Kerry quotes, reported by David Guarino in today's Boston Herald, are far more entertaining than a mere "shove it." Even if they are 30 years old.

THE KING OF VOX POP. For all of Bill Clinton's prancing and preening last night about his own eight years in the White House, what really made his speech extraordinary were the touches of self-deprecation. Listening to him talk of his new-found wealth, he sounded for all the world like Bruce Springsteen singing about being "a rich man in a poor man's shirt." And he used it to great effect in criticizing the disastrous economic policies of George W. Bush:

For the first time when America was in a war footing in our whole history, they gave two huge tax cuts, nearly half of which went to the top one percent of us.

Now, I'm in that group for the first time in my life.

And you might remember that when I was in office, on occasion, the Republicans were kind of mean to me.

But as soon as I got out and made money, I became part of the most important group in the world to them. It was amazing. I never thought I'd be so well cared for by the president and the Republicans in Congress.

I almost sent them a thank you note for my tax cuts until I realized that the rest of you were paying the bill for it. And then I thought better of it.

But that was just a warm-up for the main event: Clinton's praise of John Kerry's military service, framed in the context of his own - and Bush's and Dick Cheney's - well-known desire not to fight in the Vietnam War:

During the Vietnam War, many young men, including the current president, the vice-president and me, could have gone to Vietnam and didn't. John Kerry came from a privileged background. He could have avoided going too, but instead, he said: Send me.

When they sent those swiftboats up the river in Vietnam and they told them their job was to draw hostile fire, to wave the American flag and bate the enemy to come out and fight, John Kerry said: Send me.

And then, on my watch, when it was time to heal the wounds of war and normalize relations with Vietnam and to demand an accounting of the POWs and MIAs we lost there, John Kerry said: Send me.

Then when we needed someone to push the cause of inner-city children struggling to avoid a life of crime or to bring the benefits of high technology to ordinary Americans or to clean the environment in a way that created new jobs, or to give small businesses a better chance to make it, John Kerry said: Send me.

So tonight, my friends, I ask you to join me for the next 100 days in telling John Kerry's story and promoting his ideas. Let every person in this hall and like-minded people all across our land say to him what he has always said to America: Send me.

The "send me" refrain became kind of a call-and-response exchange with the audience. It was remarkably effective, and the Kerry campaign couldn't have asked for a better introduction to its candidate on network television in prime time. Hillary Clinton's introduction was good, and she is obviously a much less wooden speaker than she was during her 2000 Senate campaign. Al Gore was warm, funny, and human. But Clinton - as he has been in Democratic circles since 1992 - was the undisputed star of the night.

One touch of irony: despite the self-deprecation, despite the strong words of praise for Kerry, Clinton still showed him up by demonstrating that he is the best communicator in politics, and the one towering figure within the Democratic Party. Maybe he can't help it - he's just too good. But Clinton didn't make it any easier for Kerry to get out from under the Clinton shadow.

I sat next to Slate's Will Saletan last night, surrounded by other Slate-sters and New Republic staffers. Anyway, here is Saletan's take on the proceedings.

SCAIFE'S LONG REACH. Here is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's coverage of Teresa Heinz Kerry's "shove it" blast at the paper's right-wing editorial-page editor, Colin McNickle. McNickle is writing a blog from Boston, but has not yet weighed in on his exchange with Heinz Kerry.

While everyone is a-twitter over Heinz Kerry's outburst, what's almost forgotten is that the Tribune-Review's owner, billionaire right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife, once called a female reporter a "fucking communist cunt."

Granted, a would-be first lady needs to watch her language more than Scaife does. (Not that "shove it" qualifies as being much worse than "I'm not going to answer your question.") But Media Log thought you'd like a reminder as to whom she was telling off.

Monday, July 26, 2004

GAY MARRIAGE AND DEMOCRATS. Bennett Lawson is a young gay man from Chicago. An aide to his hometown Democratic congresswoman, Jan Schakowsky, Bennett has come to Boston this week to do volunteer outreach to the gay/ lesbian/ bisexual/ transgender community. At around 1 p.m. today he was standing outside a conference room at the Sheraton, where the GLBT caucus was holding a standing-room-only meeting. His job was to guard what looked like hundreds of bag lunches prepared for those attending the caucus.

I wanted to ask Lawson about a rather unusual phenomenon: the passionate support that gay and lesbian activists have for same-sex marriage, and their seemingly equally passionate support for John Kerry, even though both he and George W. Bush oppose gay marriage.

Of course, I'm being deliberately disingenuous in phrasing it that way. Yes, Kerry opposes gay marriage, but he also recently voted against a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, an amendment pushed by none other than Bush. Kerry also voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, a nasty law that was happily signed by Bill Clinton. Still - aren't folks like Lawson just a wee bit put off by Kerry's lack of support for one of the gay community's principal issues?

"He's running nationwide in a country that is not exactly comfortable with gay marriage," Lawson replied. "His record is very, very strong on gay issues. Every good liberal has to moderate things in order to run nationwide - or, in Illinois, to run statewide - but his record really speaks for itself."

I told Lawson that he sounded like he didn't believe Kerry when he says he genuinely opposes same-sex marriage. "No," he replied, laughing. "You know what? I don't." And since Kerry supports civil unions, with all the rights, benefits, and responsibilities of marriage, that's good enough for Lawson.

Still, Lawson is less than thrilled at the notion that the Democratic Party establishment would prefer that gay and lesbian voters support Kerry without making too much of a fuss. "I would like to hear the word 'gay' a lot more than I'm hearing," he said. "At the same time, I don't know what that gains."

Shortly before I spoke with Lawson, California senator Barbara Boxer addressed the GLBT caucus. "George Bush has decided that, this year, you're the scapegoat, and I'm here to tell you that you're not the scapegoat," she told the crowd. She raised the specter of a re-elected Bush getting the opportunity to name as many as four Supreme Court justices, and observed that Congress rushed to judgment on the anti-gay-marriage amendment even as a number of homeland-security bills sit unacted upon."They knew they didn't have a chance to pass it, and thank you for all the work that you did," Boxer said, but added: "This hurtful campaign isn't going away. They've just begun."

Given the wildly enthusiastic reception accorded Boxer, I was surprised to learn that her stand on same-sex marriage is exactly the same as Kerry's. In a brief interview, conducted on the run as she headed off to another engagement, Boxer told me that she favors domestic partnerships and civil unions with all the rights of marriage, but not marriage itself. When I sought to clarify by asking her whether she specifically opposed gay marriage, she responded that she would rather stress what she's for rather than what she's against.

I also asked her if she was concerned that, despite Kerry's official opposition to gay marriage, the Republicans would seek use the enthusiasm of Kerry's gay, pro-marriage supporters against him. Her response: "If they want to do that, I think they would be making a terrible mistake."

It's pretty obvious that gay and lesbian activists such as Lawson believe Kerry, Boxer, et al. are being deliberately cynical about their true feelings when it comes to same-sex marriage. Ironically, so do Karl Rove and company. Whether Kerry's inner self supports gay marriage or not, he's clearly walking a very narrow path on the hottest of hot-button issues.

Personally, I'd love to see him come out and declare forthrightly that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. But at the very least, he's decided that that would amount of a political suicide note. And maybe he even thinks it would be wrong.

TRAFFIC TERRORISM WORKS! As Media Log predicted some time ago, Boston and the roads leading into it are virtually empty today. I zoomed in from the Far North in about a half-hour, and had my choice of parking spaces at the Prudential Center, where I'm covering a gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender event at the Sheraton.

REMEMBERING PAUL WELLSTONE. From the time he entered the Senate, Paul Wellstone was someone about whom I was aware, if not particularly familiar. My first real exposure to him came during the 2000 presidential campaign. Wellstone was supporting Democratic candidate Bill Bradley, who struck me as a priggish jerk. Bradley couldn't make it onto one of the talking-heads shows, so Wellstone filled in. It was a revelation. He was smart, funny, charming, self-deprecating, and every bit the progressive that Bradley only pretended to be.

A little more than two years later, Wellstone died in a plane crash while campaigning for re-election in Minnesota. It was a tragedy that redounded doubly to the Republicans' benefit when they and their conservative media allies (Rush Limbaugh, Fox News) grotesquely exaggerated a few partisan moments that took place at Wellstone's memorial service.

Late Sunday afternoon, I dropped by the Old West Church, a few blocks from Government Center, to attend a Wellstone remembrance to benefit the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. Several hundred people were jammed inside as the likes of Al Franken, Arianna Huffington, Jim Hightower, and Boston city councilor Chuck Turner paid tribute to the most progressive member of the Senate. Neither Boston daily covered the event. No, it wasn't newsworthy, but neither were the dozens of parties that the Globe and the Herald reported on today. For that matter, neither is the convention itself, unless you think there is some chance that the delegates are going to choose a ticket other than John Kerry and John Edwards.

The most noteworthy aspect of the tribute was the way that what one observer called "the responsible left and the looney left" invoked Wellstone's memory to advance their particular agenda. Franken, Huffington, and Hightower - the responsible left (and Franken isn't all that left) - insisted that Wellstone would be working hard for Kerry.

Indeed, Huffington, who got a big assist from Wellstone in organizing the lefty Shadow Conventions at the Democratic and Republican conventions four years ago, went so far as to say that Wellstone wouldn't have even wanted a Shadow Convention at the DNC this year, so committed would he have been to electing Kerry and defeating George W. Bush. "When your house is on fire, it's not the time for remodeling," she said.

Franken followed a rousing call by California congresswoman Barbara Lee to bring the troops home by arguing that that's "easier said than done," noting that Secretary of State Colin Powell had warned Bush that if he invaded Iraq, "You break it, you own it." He also puckishly suggested that Kerry recycle one of Bush's 2000 campaign slogans - "I'm a uniter, not a divider" - with the difference being that Kerry could actually mean it.

Yet the uneasy alliance between the Democratic Party and the far left was laid bare by Turner - and the raucous applause he received for his extremist remarks. Turner - last seen unveiling porno shots at City Hall and claiming they depicted American troops raping Iraqi women - compared Wellstone to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., quoting King as saying, "We have to get rid of militarism, materialism, and racism if we are to be a whole and healthy country."

So far, so good. But then Turner asserted that King "was killed by government forces.... I believe it. Hopefully you believe it." Now it's true that conspiracy theories abound about King's assassination, and that the King family itself believes them. But all credible evidence points to the guilt of one lone racist, James Earl Ray. Never mind. The crowd applauded.

Turner continued: "Brothers and sisters, let's be real. The military-industrial complex has control of both parties." More loud applause. Okay, I suppose you could make the point with Halliburton. But both parties? The Democrats are not pure, but come on.

Turner also accused Kerry, like Bill Clinton, of being "controlled" by the Democratic Leadership Council, a "New Democrat" group of moderate centrists. "Kerry isn't prepared - mentally, emotionally, spiritually - to be the president we need," said Turner, arguing that though he supports Kerry's election, progressives will have to pressure him from the left if he becomes president. Now, Kerry isn't Wellstone, but he's considerably more liberal than Clinton.

"We can purge the cancer from the soul of the body politic," Turner said. And, returning to the King theme, he concluded, "If there's nothing worth living for, there's nothing worth dying for." The applause was loud and intense, punctuated by a few dozen people giving him a standing ovation.

Turner's remarks represented exactly what Kerry doesn't need if he's going to defeat Bush: a hard-left wing supporting him while simultaneously hectoring him, overladen with anger and conspiracy theories. It's too bad Paul Wellstone wasn't there to stand up to Turner's stridency.

MORE ALLEGED NEWS. Will the dinosaurs of broadcast journalism please stop whining about the fact that the networks are showing only three hours of the Democratic convention this week? PBS's Jim Lehrer was aghast at Sunday's Shorenstein Center get-together, as Mark Jurkowitz reports in today's Boston Globe.

To which I say: the networks should cover news, and there is no news to be made this week. Conventions used to pick the candidates; now primary voters and caucus-goers do that. Why there needs to be obligatory coverage of anything other than the speeches of the presidential and vice-presidential speeches is beyond me.

Lehrer called the DNC "four of the eight most important days we can possibly have as a nation." Good Lord! Not even close. The debates - which you'd think Lehrer might have some recollection of, given that he's passively presided over a few of them - are infinitely more important.

Today people have choices. An enormous amount of convention coverage is being carried by CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, C-SPAN, and, for those who don't get cable, Lehrer's own PBS. Essentially Lehrer is arguing that viewers should be forced to watch an infomercial. Gee, maybe the off switch could be remotely disabled this week as well.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

THE RIGHT WING AND THE NETWORK NEWSCASTS. Do the major network newscasts bend in the face of conservative and corporate pressure? At a panel discussion on Sunday at Harvard's Kennedy School, the Big Three news anchors - Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings - all said no. But they admitted that the pressure is real, and is something they feel.

It was Rather who broached the topic. As he put it, there are certain types of stories where "you can't afford to be wrong," adding, "That can be a positive or it can be a negative." If it means more checking or possibly holding a story for a day, he explained, that could be a good thing. But, he warned, someone inside the network might kill it, saying, "You know what? This story is going to be trouble with a capital 'T.'"

NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw followed Rather by observing that the pressure has always been there. But now, he said, it's easier to apply that pressure - "just flip a switch" and the e-mails come flooding in, spurred by conservative media activists like Brent Bozell. Brokaw added that he has someone screen his e-mails for him - he deliberately avoids wading through all of them himself lest he be overly influenced.

Which led Jennings to walk up closest to the edge of admitting that, yes, conservative groups do influence the news. "I hear more about conservative concerns than I did in the past," Jennings said. Just recently, he said, a man walked up to him and yelled, "America-hater, leave the country immediately!" This "wave of resentment," Jennings said, has found its way to "the corporate suite" and to advertisers, which these days are urging greater caution.

It was an enlightening moment. But the crack Jennings had opened was closed quickly. Rather responded to Jennings's remarks by saying that he has never gotten any pressure to change the content of his newscast. "At CBS I have not felt this one iota," he said. To which Jennings chimed in, "My boss has been terrific, too ... 100 percent supportive.... But I feel the pressure of the anger all the time."

And Brokaw slammed the door shut by observing that conservative voices were almost never heard in the 1960s, leading to the culture of resentment that prevails among those on the right today. So there you have it: the conservatives are angry, and they attempt to use their power to influence the evening newscasts. America's best-known anchors acknowledge the anger, feel the pressure, and, in Jennings's case, admit that the corporate bosses and the advertisers would rather appease the right-wingers than tell them to shut up and go away. But none of this, we are to understand, actually has an effect on the nightly news.

What's frightening about this is the Big Three might actually be right. It may be that their prestige and long record of accomplishment allows them to protect their newscasts from the crassest of market and political pressures. Once they pass from the scene - and Brokaw's retirement has already been scheduled, with Rather and Jennings perhaps to leave before the 2008 election - who's to say whether their successors will be able (or be allowed) to take the heat?

Sunday's event was sponsored by the Kennedy School's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. Center director Alex Jones moderated, and pushed the participants hard. Jones began by asking whether they should do a better job of pointing out when politicians and public officials are not telling the truth. You can't do "he said/she said," Jones noted, when people are saying things that "aren't true."

"It's not my job to say, 'Candidate Y is lying,'" Rather replied, explaining his job is to report that one person said this, one person said that, and here are the facts.

But is that really the case? As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and others have noted, major news organizations in 2000 repeatedly allowed then-candidate George W. Bush to deny Al Gore's claim that Bush's proposed tax cut would disproporationately benefit the wealthy. The problem, of course, was that Gore was right on the mark and Bush was - well, lying.

If anything, Jim Lehrer, the anchor for PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, was even more emphatic than Rather. The mild-mannered Lehrer said, "I am never tempted to yell, 'Liar!'", making his point so loudly that the audience burst out laughing. He added, "I am not a lie-detector machine, that is not my function.... There are very few things that are black and white.... For journalists to declare, 'This guy is a liar and that guy is not a liar' is risky business, and those of us in the mainstream don't do it."

The fifth member of the panel, Judy Woodruff, anchor of CNN's Inside Politics, expanded on Lehrer's point, saying, "Politicians have always shaded the truth." Her examples: Franklin Roosevelt's promise to balance the budget, John Kennedy's fear-mongering about a phony "missile gap," and Richard Nixon's "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War. Much of what politicians say is "shaded," she said, noting that a point about the economy will be made on the basis of wages or household income depending on which is more supportive of that point.

To which a somewhat exasperated Jones replied, "If everything is true, then where am I?"

What Jones was driving at, though he didn't say the word, was that there are real limits to that old-fashioned concept of "objectivity." Journalists are used to covering "both" sides (as if there was always a duopoly when it comes to the matter of sides), and letting the reader or viewer or listener sort it out. But what qualifications does a news consumer have to sort things out? If Bush - or, for that matter, John Kerry - is clearly lying, isn't it better for Dan Rather to tell his 10 million or so viewers rather than to require that they figure it out for themselves?

Another way of getting at this was articulated by Democratic congresswoman Anna Eshoo, of California, who asked whether the networks could have done anything differently in the run-up to the war on Iraq. Rather replied that when the president tells the public that there is a direct threat to their security, there is "heavy prejudice" to take him at his word. "I'm not apologizing" for that presumption, Rather said, but allowed that tougher questions should have been asked. Added Brokaw: "It was our responsibility to put up more caution signs than we did."

Jennings, by contrast, said that ABC News - and especially Nightline - repeatedly pointed out how little evidence there was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al Qaeda.

Granted, there is no way the network newscasts could have prevented Bush from going to war, even though, with their combined audience of 20 million to 30 million viewers per night, they remain the largest, most influential news media in the country. And as Rather properly observed, this was not a story that could have been reported independently: reporters could not travel to Iraq and determine whether Saddam Hussein had WMD. Remember, the UN had an entire team of inspectors swarming across the country, and they were unable to reach any definitive conclusions in the short time that Bush gave them before going to war.

But even the New York Times has acknowledged that it was too credulous in its coverage of the White House's claims about Iraq. It was not a shining moment for the media.

BUSH TO FOREIGN REPORTERS: SCREW! The international media have been notably critical of the Bush administration for thumbing its nose as the world before, during, and after the war in Iraq. Well, the Bushies know how to get even.

According to MediaNation - a joint project of Harvard's Nieman Foundation and UMass Boston - the White House has cut the $15,000 to $25,000 normally budgeted for helping some 400 foreign reporters navigate the two political conventions.

The story, by Seth Effron, will likely appear in MediaNation's print debut, in tomorrow's Boston Globe. But you can read it now.

IS THIS ANY WAY TO RUN A CONVENTION? After getting my credentials, I decided to check out the media center at the DNC this afternoon. Big mistake! I couldn't get my umbrella through security; an apologetic guard told me umbrellas have been classified as contraband, but that I could get it back at a table on the way out. (Wrong.)

Then, no one seemed to know how to find the media filing center for reporters who are not affiliated with large organizations that are renting their own space. A few of us finally located it, on the third floor of the FleetCenter (nice, actually, since the big orgs are stuck in a tent outside), but some techs were still setting up the Ethernet network.

So my plan to blog earlier today was put off till this evening, when I was able to get onto the Net from a Starbucks in Harvard Square.

Tomorrow will be different. I hope.

THE DIVIDED ELECTORATE. More evidence that this year's election may be about the passionate base of each party rather than swing voters: the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, which shows that 79 percent of potential voters have already made up their minds, up from 64 percent at the same stage of the campaign four years ago. Times reporter Robin Toner writes:

Rarely has a presidential campaign been this intense, this polarized, this partisan, this early. The conventions historically begin the general election season, ending a lull after the primary season has wound down. But for months now, the general election battle has been fully joined.

Which is why Franklin Foer's New Republic piece (sub. req.) on consultant Bob Shrum's takeover of the Democratic Party, and of the Kerry campaign, raises some worries about Kerry's chances. Foer's main point about Shrum is that he's not as bad as you've heard. (Well, that's a relief!) But his secondary point is that Shrum is a master of focus groups and day-to-day tactics, not strategy and vision. Foer observes:

In truth, Shrum's greatest weakness is not the ideological inflexibility for which he's often derided - even in private he did not urge Kerry to take more liberal positions on gay marriage and the Iraq war - but rather a strategic myopia. According to one consultant who has worked with Shrum, in the heat of a campaign, "He's far more tuned into focus groups and polling data than moral arguments." He has a gift for churning out pithy lines and spin that will win a newscycle but a harder time devising a grand message for the campaign. He may be an excellent tactician, but former congressman Tony Coelho, who chaired the Gore campaign, told me, "My concern is how good of a strategist he is. In the campaign, Shrum against Karl Rove, I'm not sure that we end up with the long stick." Indeed, during the Kerry campaign, Shrum hasn't produced anything comparable to the leitmotifs that Rove provided Bush in 2000. There's nothing akin to Bush's "compassionate conservatism" or his relentless emphasis on "restoring honor and dignity to the Oval Office" - or, for that matter, to Edwards's "two Americas."

Of course, if ever there was a candidate who needed help in crafting his million-and-one policy ideas into a grand strategy, it's John Kerry. But given that Shrum also has a reputation for not playing well with others, it may become difficult for the campaign to reach out and help Kerry translate his myriad little thoughts into two or three Big Thoughts.

MEDIA! CELEBS! (WELL ...) FOOD! BOOZE! Nice to see the new South Boston convention center filled last night at the Boston Globe-sponsored media party. It could be a while before it's filled again. It would have been a great place for the Democratic National Convention. Why didn't somebody think of that?

The celebrity-journalist quotient was rather low, which may have had something to do with the fact that it was held on Saturday rather than Sunday, when much of the media arrives. The Reverend Jesse Jackson and Bill Russell were there, and Little Richard performed. The most notable media celeb I ran into was New York Times columnist David Brooks, a nice guy whose very aura exudes "Not a Media Celeb."

The Globe spent a reported $500,000 on the party. The food was great and the booze was free - wasted on those of us who had to drive home. The best-line-of-the-night award goes to WLVI-TV (Channel 56) political analyst Jon Keller, who told the Globe's Geoff Edgers: "It's a good marketing ploy for the convention center, and I thank the Globe for the free beer, but Ferris wheels and open bars are a dangerous combination."

Yes, there was a Ferris wheel. No, Media Log did not get on it.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

THE CLINTON NON-SCANDALS REVISITED. A confession: the scales didn't fall from my eyes until September 1998, when Bill Clinton's nemesis, special prosecutor Ken Starr, issued his pornographic report. Up until then, I had actually believed that Starr would somehow tie the Monica Lewinsky matter to Whitewater. My favorite theory was that Clinton associate Vernon Jordan, who had attempted to find a job for Lewinsky, could be pressured into testifying about what if any favors he had done for Clinton's crooked friend Webster Hubbell, who was maintaining his silence from his prison cell.

The Starr Report removed all such illusions. Suddenly, the entire country knew (and believe me, the country was ahead of most of us in the media) that the president was being pursued by an out-of-control right-wing extremist whose obsession with sex revealed a highly disturbed mind. The fever broke, and Clinton's presidency survived, though it was permanently weakened.

Those events still seem so recent - and so irrelevant following 9/11 - that I wasn't sure I wanted to relive them. But on Friday evening, I saw a new documentary about the Clinton non-scandals by Clinton buddy Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry, The Hunting of the President, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Based on Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's book The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton, the film is flawed, and it's difficult to see where it's going to find an audience. Fahrenheit 9/11 it isn't. Yet it does manage to bring home in an occasionally powerful way the madness that gripped the media and political worlds before and during Clinton's presidency, all of it driven by - as Hillary Clinton memorably called it - the vast right-wing conspiracy.

First, the flaws. I nearly laughed when, near the beginning, journalist-turned-Clinton-aide Sidney Blumenthal smugly explained that the right decided to destroy Clinton because it feared the change he represented. You may recall that during his first two years in the White House, Clinton bet his presidency on forming alliances with corrupt hacks like Dan Rostenkowski, who eventually went to prison. Later Clinton hooked up with such noted reformers as Dick Morris. Clinton's alleged reformist zeal couldn't have been detected with a microscope. If he had been more of a reformer, he might have made more of a mark.

Also, Thomason and Perry don't trust the audience's attention span. The Hunting of the President is edited as though it were made for MTV, with head-whipping scene changes and a liberal use of clips from old black-and-white movies to inject a note of fun into the proceedings. It doesn't work.

But there is much of value here, as Thomason and Perry meticulously recount the Arkansas branch of the Clinton scandals, none of which ever amounted to a damn thing. Most important, we see Ken Starr for what he was: a politically motivated Republican activist, an ideological extremist with absolutely no integrity. It is amazing that, to this day, Starr has not been disbarred or otherwise sanctioned for his grotesque abuse of office. Far from it: in April, Starr was named dean of Pepperdine University's school of law, an institution that has benefited from the generosity of another right-wing extremist and fellow-traveler in the Arkansas wars, Richard Mellon Scaife. It's a job that Starr nearly took in the middle of the Whitewater investigation. Too bad he didn't.

The undisputed star of The Hunting of the President is Susan McDougal, the woman who would not lie. In a long, emotional interview, McDougal recounts how her ex-husband, the late Jim McDougal, terrified of being sent to prison, urged her to go along with Starr and his gang, who were trying to get her to fabricate a story and testify about illegal business dealings with Bill and/or Hillary Clinton. She recalls her ex-husband telling her, "They'll give you the story - you don't have to worry about it." She wouldn't do it, and she served hard time for that refusal, being imprisoned in a ward for child-killing mothers, locked in a cage on bus on the way to court appearances as male prisoners masturbated in front of her and urinated on her.

Dan Moldea, the author of A Washington Tragedy: How the Death of Vincent Foster Ignited a Political Firestorm, expresses disgust to Thomason and Perry about the media's complicity in amplifying Starr's leaks in order to move the scandal forward, calling it "the most corrupt journalism" he'd ever seen. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter talks about how socially unacceptable it was within media circles for a journalist to write or say anything positive about the Clintons. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz recalls the media burying a story about the Clintons' being cleared of some fairly serious Whitewater allegations.

The Hunting of the President begins and ends with Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers's memorable speech during Clinton's Senate impeachment trial, in which he said, "When they say it's not about sex, it's about sex." That would be bad enough. The deeper truth, though, is that it wasn't even about sex. It was about getting Clinton by any means necessary.

It's impossible to know whether Clinton could have been a great president, but we do know this: given the 10-year-long witch hunt devoted to destroying him and his wife, he really never had a chance to do much more than hang on and survive.

And Clinton's enemies on the right and in the media are still at large. They helped destroy Al Gore's campaign four years ago, and they're primed to go after John Kerry today. Amid the celebrating in Boston this coming week, Kerry's strategists had better be ready for what's to come. Because Scaife, Starr, and their fellow right-wing thugs make Karl Rove look like a weenie.