(CONNECTICUT) - The truth hurts, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may feel the pain more than most. He watched his dad’s 1968 presidential bid flame out after George Romney told the truth about the Vietnam War: “I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anyone could get when you go over to Vietnam,” he said.
The senior Romney meant that the Pentagon and diplomatic corps had tried their best to convince him that the war was going according to plan when it clearly wasn’t. But the press didn’t hear that. They heard “brainwashing” and that meant “mind control” or Manchurian Candidate or some other cockamamie idea, and that was enough to cement the view among reporters that George Romney, who’d been a popular governor of Michigan and innovative head of the American Motors Company, was the worst kind of candidate to be assigned to: a political lightweight.
“The ‘brainwashing’ remark encapsulated all of Romney’s ineptness in one easily remembered word, and it finished off his chances,” writes Timothy Crouse in Boys on the Bus, the landmark 1973 book of his coverage in Rolling Stone of the political press covering the 1972 presidential campaign. “He kept on campaigning until the end of February 1968, in the same way that a corpse’s fingernails keep on growing.”
Boys on the Bus was the first to look at the human side of the political press, taking for granted that reporters have points of view like everyone else. In fact, Crouse writes, journalists are painfully aware of their biases. They struggle to keep those views out of sight, as any political expression, however slight or innocent, violates the sacred tenet of journalistic objectivity and invites all manner of partisan hellfire. Crouse’s observations about the press of 1972 are strikingly relevant to the press of 2012. Obviously, the mechanisms changed (reporters no longer need land-line telephones to file stories, for instance). But people are people, and the political fictions we maintain for ourselves and others are still fictional.
“It is an unwritten law of current political journalism that conservative Republican candidates usually receive gentler treatment from the press than do liberal Democrats,” Crouse writes. “Since most reporters are moderate or liberal Democrats themselves, they try to offset their natural biases by going out of their way to be fair to conservatives.”
In April, the Pew Center released a survey showing that President Obama, during the first quarter of this year, received mostly negative coverage from the press while Romney, after clinching his home state of Michigan, received mostly positive coverage. This is in “sharp contrast to the perception on the right that the press corps is in the tank for Democrats and Barack Obama,” wrote Matt Taylor in The National Memo.
Yet conservatives are right. The elite national press is “liberal,” but “the more [a reporter] likes and agrees with the candidate personally, the harder he judges him professionally,” Crouse writes in The Boys on the Bus. “Like a coach sizing up his own son in spring tryouts, the reporter becomes doubly strict.”
Case in point was James Naughton, the New York Times reporter covering the campaign of liberal Democrat George McGovern. One day in October 1972, Naughton filled out an absentee ballot, Crouse writes. He chose McGovern. Two days later, he covered a Chicago press briefing in which McGovern accused local Republicans of bribing Latinos not to vote. He offered no evidence for his claim, and just as the briefing was coming to an end, Naughton asked: “You’ve made a fairly serious charge … but haven’t given us any details … how do you distinguish what you are doing from what Joseph McCarthy used to do?”
Later on, Naughton confessed to Crouse: “I wonder whether I would have been as cutting, as direct, and as vicious in my question if I had not voted for McGovern a couple of days before. I think I may have been tougher on McGovern after that.”
Crouse’s media formation holds true in 2012. Only flip it around. The more reporters dislike and disagree with the candidate personally, the softer they judge him professionally. We already know the media doesn’t like Romney. Reporters reflect public opinion as much as they inform it, and according to a USA Today/Gallup poll, only 31 percent of respondents like Romney. Meanwhile, 60 percent said they like Barack Obama.
“When is the last time the clearly less likeable candidate beat the clearly more likeable one for the White House?” asked Michael Tomasky in The Daily Beast. “The answer is, a long time. I put the question to Gallup, which didn’t have historical numbers at hand. But doing some noodling around on my own suggests that you have to go back to 1968″ when the irascible Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey.
Perhaps this explains why the press is so tolerant of Romney’s habit of lying. I don’t mean trivial lies, like the “Soviet Union” is our “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” I mean huge, tectonic-plate colliding, earth-shattering lies, like more people lost their jobs during Obama’s presidency than in any other time since the Depression (well, yes, but that was happening as he took office). Or: The $800 billion stimulus program destroyed jobs (sure, if you count the months before the program was enacted). And: Obama never created a job (true only if you don’t include 24 straight months of job growth).
Greg Sargent of the Washington Post asked: “Many of the claims that form the foundation of Romney’s entire case for the presidency are going without any meaningful national press scrutiny to speak of. Why?”
Well, maybe because journalists essentially don’t like Romney, and because they are afraid of betraying that dislike, and thus offending the sacrosanct rule of impartiality, they go out of their way to be nice.
This might also explain why the press, until very recently, has been so tolerant of Donald Trump. Trump, you may recall, is probably the nation’s foremost proponent of “birtherism” — the ring-wing fallacy that holds that the president was not born in the U.S. and is hence not a legitimate president. Trump is many things, but likeable is unlikely one of them.
You’d think a cordial relationship with a vainglorious conspiracy-monger would be a source of worry. Not so. Trump, once a candidate himself, has remained intimately involved in Romney’s fundraising, and Romney, despite repeated calls to do so, has never denounced him. The national press has established a pattern of indifference toward birtherism despite indubitable evidence that Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961. So it’s hard to imagine a reporter doing to Romney what Naughton did to McGovern: raising the ghost of Joseph McCarthy, perhaps America’s greatest fabulist. That would be vicious, after all, and would absurdly suggest that the reporter liked Mitt Romney.
One would hope that if Romney learned anything from his father, it was that you shouldn’t take the media’s apathy for granted. The press can quickly turn savage. The central issue of the 1968 election was Vietnam, and George Romney wasn’t prepared. “Romney didn’t know enough about Vietnam to have a stand, so he had to improvise one, which is always dangerous,” Crouse writes. “The reporters grilled him relentlessly at one press conference after another, and the more he said, the more his credibility crumbled.” Then came the “brainwashing” incident, and that was that.
Today’s candidates are familiar with this “pack journalism,” as Crouse called it, but they are no less vulnerable to it. I think this goes double for Romney, whose reputation for gaffes (saying, for instance, that $300,000 isn’t a lot of money) is quickly overshadowing his image as a serious candidate for president. Add to this the birtherism of Trump, the gun-nuttery of Ted Nugent, the quiet fiscal brutality of Paul Ryan and the bellicose bloviations of Rush Limbaugh — all together they form a kind of Republican carnival of fools.
John McCain took pains to distance himself from his party’s lunatic fringe in 2008. He argued with facts and reason, and decried claims that candidate Obama was less than a human being. So far, Romney has been unwilling to follow suit, mostly because he has had such difficulty convincing the GOP’s radical conservative base that he is conservative. He’d push back, however, if he felt the media stopped taking him seriously, and that process may be already underway. Unfortunately for Romney, it might be too late.
It should have been Romney’s triumph when, on May 29, he secured the 1,144 delegates needed to become the official Republican candidate for the presidency. But Trump, as he has before, stole his thunder.
On CNN, Trump repeated his claim that “many people” doubt that Obama’s birth certificate is authentic and that “many people” want to know where he was born. Wolf Blitzer, who famously fell the pieces before Dick Cheney’s withering gaze, conducted the interview, and, to the delight of many, destroyed him.
Blitzer: How can you say [it's inauthentic] if the state of Hawaii says this is official … why do you deny that?
Trump: A lot of people don’t think it was authentic … if you would report it accurately, I think you’d probably get better ratings than you’re getting.
Blitzer: You’re beginning to sound a little ridiculous.
Trump: No, you are.
Blitzer: Why did the state of Hawaii authorize this birth certificate, are they part of this conspiracy.”
Trump: [Hawaii's] Democratic governor was the one who was leading it …
Blitzer: The state of Hawaii says it’s not an opinion. It’s a fact.
Trump: No, I don’t think so.
Blitzer: You say many people … Give me a name of somebody in a position of authority in Hawaii who says that [the birth certificate is inauthentic].
Trump: I don’t give names.
Blitzer: Tell us what your people, who were investigating in Hawaii [during Trump's own short-lived campaign for the GOP nomination], what they found.
Trump: We don’t have to go into old news.
Blitzer: You know the governor of Hawaii who authorized the release of this birth certificate is not a Democrat but a Republican.
Trump: I know nothing about it.
Less dramatic but potentially more damaging was the release of an iPhone app the day after Romney clinched the Republican nomination. The app was designed to harness social media for the purposes of the campaign. One problem: It misspelled “America.”
“A better Amercia” goes the slogan.
“Problem? That’s not a problem,” said Stephen Colbert on his show on Comedy Central. “That’s a brilliant strategy. Now Romney can become the president of America or Amercia. He’s just doubled the odds.
Colbert connected the dots that “many people,” as Trump might say, are connecting: “And you know it’s going to please Trump and his birther pals. Because we can debate whether Obama was born in America, but there is no proof that he was born in Amercia.”
In a way, Colbert offered an incisive interpretation of what “Amercia” says about Romney — that he wants to oust a president who is illegitimate only in the minds of those whose political fictions are crucial to winning the presidency of a country that doesn’t exist.
It’s too soon to tell, but the “Amercia” gaffe might at be the first step in Romney’s journey toward sharing his father’s fate. We may look back months from now to see that the official beginning of Romney’s campaign was essentially the end, because, as Crouse wrote of George Romney, “Amercia” “encapsulated all of Romney’s ineptness in one easily remembered word.”
And once Romney realizes this, it may be too late. As Crouse writes: “The press likes to demonstrate its power by destroying lightweights, and pack journalism is never more doughty and complacent than when the pack has tacitly agreed that a candidate is a joke.”
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