The empire strikes back

As the boys on the bus wept in John McCain's lap Saturday, George W. Bush used an old-fashioned media strategy to secure his South Carolina victory.

Published February 20, 2000 3:29PM (EST)

Saturday afternoon, CNN's Christiane Amanpour, that doyen of the desert, reported that polling places in Iran were being kept open an extra two hours to accommodate the huge voter turnout. Early reports indicated that reformers were threatening to rout the conservatives in the assembly, and the religious right was in disarray.

In South Carolina, however, it was business as usual as the ruling mullahs of the GOP and the Christian right maintained the status quo with a clear victory for Gov. George W. Bush. And they used the media to do it.

Not the media that is supposedly so enamored of John McCain -- Washington and New York types who enjoy riding on the Straight Talk Express the same way kids like visiting the cockpit of an airplane. This was media of the old-fashioned sort: radio ads, fliers under windshields, probably even a sandwich board or two.

Rush Limbaugh choked the airwaves, tarring McCain as a liberal (a pro-gun, pro-military, pro-life liberal at that). Pat Robertson told voters that if McCain won the nomination, he would destroy the Republican Party. One rogue Bush supporter even used e-mail to spread a rumor that the senator had fathered children out of wedlock. (When asked to prove his assertion the supporter said, essentially: Prove that he didn't.)

A scandal in which 21 polling places -- some in heavily black neighborhoods -- in Greenville County did not open by order of local Republican party leader, an alleged Bush supporter, was accomplished without media interference. (Unless, of course, you count the Bush bumper stickers that covered up signs telling voters at the closed polls where they could go to vote.) If it was, in fact, a dirty trick, as McCain suggested, it was one of almost Democratic pedigree.

But according to the GOP, McCain was the one with the stain of the Democratic Party upon him. "John McCain is getting support in the Republican primary from some hard-core Democrats, not moderates or independents, but Clinton-style Democrats who oppose everything conservatives stand for," South Carolina's former Republican governor, Carroll Campbell, said in one radio spot.

He ended the ad by saying, "Send the Clinton-Gore Democrats a message Saturday. Vote for the man they are desperately trying to stop, George W. Bush."

It's probably the first time Republicans have tried to paint Gore as a Svengali, casting a spell over the electorate of another party. McCain may have played into their hands by casting himself as the outsider, but if they can make McCain a closet Democrat, anything goes. "It all comes down to turnout," McCain said at a rally in Hilton Head on Friday, declaring that "the establishment can't stop us." Suddenly war hero McCain, a man who believes we could and should have triumphed in Vietnam, was cast as a headband-wearing freak, giving the bird to the Carolina rednecks in their pickup as they passed.

That's when they got out the shotgun.

The news networks were fairly circumspect when it came to honoring their tacit agreement not to make any predictions until the polls closed. MSNBC yielded not to temptation by clogging the afternoon with weekend magazine pieces, including the 400th TV piece this week on Charles Schulz. (He died, it seems.) At 5:14 p.m., Fox featured a triumphant-looking Mark McKinnon, a Bush media strategist, who brushed off a question about the governor's stiff speaking style.

"We don't have Naomi Wolf in our camp," he said, reaching back into last year for an Al Gore joke. "We're not going to try to redo the governor."

At 5:30 p.m. on CNN, South Carolina Bush supporter Lee Bundy of the State newspaper of Columbia, S.C., was already speaking of the race in past tense: "South Carolina has settled the contest." He was followed by a forlorn looking Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an ardent McCain supporter who accused Bush of distorting the senator's record.

By 7 p.m., MSNBC, CNN and Fox had all declared Bush a big winner, predicting a victory margin of 10 to 11 percent. MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell informed us that Bush had been alerted to the probable outcome at 1:40 that afternoon. The governor then took a "power nap."

On CNN, political analyst Bill Schneider said, no doubt thinking of McCain comparing himself to Luke Skywalker fighting his way out of the Death Star, "The empire has struck back." It was doomsday for the kid, according to Schneider. McCain had lost his momentum.

Others on the air seemed less inclined to start taking down the scenery. Tim Russert came to remind viewers that McCain was to be his guest on Meet the Press on Sunday and that his campaign could begin again then and there. On Fox, William Kristol predicted the senator would fall back on his Republican credentials, with Robert Novak, on CNN, echoing the sentiment: "If he had acted more like a Republican he might have won."

If that means street fighting the way Bush did towards the end, maybe. But as CNN's John King, covering the McCain campaign, emphasized, the senator is now locked into a promise not to go negative in his ads.

In Michigan, Bush's decision to speak at South Carolina's anti-Catholic, anti-black Bob Jones University would go over like a ton of bricks -- if someone were to remind them of it. Watching McCain resist the temptation, especially in future interviews, could be like watching Jim Carrey straining not to tell the truth in "Liar Liar": painful fun.

Bush sympathizers gloated across the dial. On MSNBC, former Dole campaign strategist Nelson Warfield saluted the barrage of Bush's negative ads as masterful. McCain's campaign, he told Brian Williams, was essentially over at 7:01. (To me, being a Dole campaign strategist seems like saying you were Bobby Kennedy's bodyguard -- you might want to leave it off the resume.)

But back on CNN, Margaret Carlson reminded viewers that Bush had gone a long way toward branding himself a bedrock conservative in the past few weeks, which she said is "fine if you want to be president of South Carolina." Voters in other states might prove to have long memories of the sleazy campaign tactics practiced on Bush's behalf. "The mail drops he did," she said, "bordered on the libelous."

In his concession speech, awkwardly reading from hastily written notes, McCain said, "I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way." Though his adherence to the high road should serve him well with the public as well as the press, he might want to look at the vanishing candidate Bill Bradley as an object lesson. To his axioms he could add Woody Guthrie's classic farewell: "Take it easy -- but take it."

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.