Out of control

Why have conservative journalists lost it over the perfectly predictable battle in Florida?

Published November 30, 2000 8:11PM (EST)

For George Will, the syndicated columnist and former Republican speechwriter, the cheese fell off the cracker on Nov. 11. That's when the mass-market intellectual, who prides himself on occupying a plane above the noisy fray, uncorked a column in the Washington Post that rattled with a peculiar hostility.

The topic, of course, was the unfolding Florida recount of presidential ballots. The average American, Republican or Democrat, may have thought what was happening in Florida was a predictable, if highly contentious, legal battle to decide one of the closest elections in American history. But Will saw much more. He detected the remnants of Monica Lewinsky's "stained blue dress." He saw Gore's "serial mendacity." He spied a "corrupting hunger for power," a selfish attempt to create "postelection chaos" and "delegitimize the election."

That was just the beginning. In weeks to come, as the recount battle was played out in Florida's courts, Will, coming across less as the Montesquieu-quoting sage he fancies himself and more a foaming GOP attack dog, spouted on about "Gore's attempted coup," "slow motion larceny," "manufactured votes" and a "stolen" election.

The rest of the respectable conservative press brayed just as loudly. Michael Kelly, whose animus against President Clinton (forged in the Lewinsky scandal) cost him his editor's job at the New Republic, insisted in his Washington Post column that Gore's "revolting" campaign was littered with "hacks and political thugs."

At the Weekly Standard, a magazine that referred to the vice president of the United States as "the jerk" during the campaign, editors could barely contain their spleen. According to their current cover story, Gore is "self-obsessed, conniving and dangerous." He's "certainly divisive and ruthless, and wholly obsessed with achieving his ends," a man "seen as compulsively mendacious. Politicians lie, but few do so as audaciously and with such self-satisfaction as Gore."

The more rabid right-wingers, of course, were positively apoplectic with rage. To Ann Coulter, who has made a career out of loudly hating Clinton since the Lewinsky sex scandal first broke, the confused voters in Florida were "stupid," "feeble-minded" "jackasses," while the Florida Supreme Court represented "a kangaroo court."

Just what was Gore's unspeakable sin? What did he do that caused the entire conservative press to lose its moorings at once? The winner of the nation's popular vote, he aggressively, but lawfully, contested a crucial state race so close -- the difference in Florida represents just .01 percent of the statewide vote -- that if the election were a 100-meter dash at the Olympics, both Gore and Bush would have been declared winners in a dead heat.

Even Bush supporters find it hard to argue with a straight face that the Texas governor wouldn't have done pretty much the same thing if their situations were reversed.

Of course, you expect partisans to be partisans. Republicans have enough bottled-up impeachment frustration to power a locomotive, and conservatives haven't been locked out of the White House for this long since the Beatles invaded America. No one thought that the vein-bulging right-wingers were suddenly going to call for national patience with their horse in the lead, even if only by a ten-thousandth of an inch.

Still, their all-out, no-holds-barred assault on Gore is so wildly disproportionate to its putative cause as to be almost surreal. And what's even more remarkable is that their lock-step rantings don't even raise eyebrows anymore. It's as if the impeachment debacle created a minimum standard for conservative bile, and now everyone simply takes it for granted that the right-wing press will serve up bitter, resentful, ad hominem attacks on the flimsiest of pretexts. For the more thoughtful of conservative critics, this can scarcely be cause for rejoicing.

The difference in tone, and independence of thought, between the right-wing and the left-wing press has been glaring during the whole election crisis. It was admittedly a tougher sell -- since Bush never trailed in the Florida vote -- but you were hard-pressed to find one Gore supporter in the press who suggested the governor was trying to "steal" or "rig" the election. Liberal pundits, many of whom spent the fall mocking Gore's campaign style, have questioned Bush's political skills and noted his team's glaring hypocrisy since the election, but belittled his honor, morals, or patriotism? Not the way Gore opponents do with an eerie ease.

Just look at the work of perhaps Gore's most vocal supporter during the recount effort, the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne. Read through his recent columns in search of one insult directed toward Bush, or a single, baseless accusation of criminality. You won't find either. Former Clinton advisor Paul Begala recently rolled up his sleeves and wrote a tough, although widely misinterpreted, column for MSNBC.com. The reaction from professional name callers on the right? They were apoplectic with rage. Apparently, liberal pundits aren't supposed to dish it out.

It's hard to say if all this conservative "rage" is sincere or simply calculated. Neither conclusion is particularly flattering: If it's sincere, the right-wing pundits are in bad faith (since they must know in their hearts that Bush would do the same thing Gore is doing if he were in the same situation); if it's calculated, they're not serious political thinkers as much as obedient spokesmen for the Republican Party.

Maybe it's displaced. Could it be that the conservative press, forbidden from criticizing Bush during his time of need, really has been angry and frustrated since Election Day, but at their own guy? Convinced a victory was assured, and now forced to sit through the painful and precarious recount process, pundits may be stewing over what might have been.

Perhaps they're mad Bush couldn't put away an opponent he outspent nearly 2-to-1, and one whose likability rating, we're told, hovered around that of the Grinch. They're mad Bush spent the final days of the campaign in places like California and New Jersey, where he got routed. They're mad Karl Rove bragged Bush was going to "win in a walk," yet he's still trailing in the popular vote. They're mad GOP governors in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could not deliver their states. They're mad Bush, the "compassionate conservative," won just 8 percent of the African-American vote, the worst showing by a Republican presidential candidate in over 25 years. They're mad Hillary Rodham Clinton won with ease, while five sitting Republican senators got knocked off. They're mad the supposed Nov. 7 referendum on President Clinton has turned out to be too close to call. They're mad Beltway mainstays like David Broder and Maureen Dowd won't join in the Democrat-bashing the way they did during impeachment. And they're mad Bush, in his first post-election challenge, has proven to be everything they hoped he was not -- slow-footed and poorly stage-managed.

Of course some, like CNN's Mary Matalin, might be embarrassed, as well as mad. On election eve she told the Washington Post that Bush would win 359 electoral votes. Wall Street Journal contributing editor Peggy Noonan was sure it was going to be a Bush romp too, with the governor rolling up 411 votes in the electoral column. With the Florida count still disputed, Noonan's currently off by a mere 165 electoral votes, which represents would-be Bush wins in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Hawaii, Maryland and Massachusetts.

It was telling to note the difference in tone that a couple of days and a thousand lost Bush votes in Florida made. Hours after the historic vote on Nov. 7, Bush's biggest backers, including editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal and New York Post as well as columnist Will, all supremely confident that a prompt recount would simply confirm Bush's original Election Day tally, were downright lofty in their remarks.

The Wall Street Journal intoned, "For the moment at least, the tumult of partisan politics has been shouldered aside by the sheer historical drama."

The New York Post reached for the high road: "It's a time for politicians of both parties to put the rancor of the close-fought campaign behind them. America's leaders -- Republican and Democrat alike -- must get through this difficult period with civility and grace."

And in his Nov. 9 Washington Post column, Will himself was in an elevated mode: "Let there be no mistaking what happened Tuesday: Our system of constitutional democracy worked well."

Days later, when it became clear that Gore might win, the high-flown rhetoric suddenly disappeared, replaced by the more familiar litany of insults and unproven accusations. "It is hard not to admit the obvious," read the Wall Street Journal's unsigned editorial. "The Gore campaign is trying to railroad a victory." The New York Post suddenly saw "a coup d'état," while Will was off on a two-week tirade about Gore's "serial mendacity" and "slow-motion larceny."

Who knows if Will blushed when his Nov. 12 column, mocking Gore for "desperately seeking lawyering strategies and a friendly court to hand him the presidential election," arrived on doorsteps just hours before Bush became the first of the two candidates to march into court. (To date, the Bush team has filed roughly twice as many election lawsuits as the Gore side.)

Caught up in the recount frenzy, and busy hurling insults at Democrats, Will had trouble getting his hands around the basic facts. Recycling Republican talking points, he botched the number of discarded ballots in Palm Beach this year as compared to '96. (Sadly, fellow columnist Kelly was cribbing off Will; days later Kelly made the same mistake in print.)

In his next column Will, now thoroughly baffled by the hand recount procedure, told readers Palm Beach's 19,000 double-punched ballots would be pored over by election officials "surmising the intent." But double-punched ballots were never part of any Florida manual recount.

Will also suggested that by Nov. 17, absentee ballots from across the nation would make Bush the popular voter winner as well. That hasn't happened.

And like that of so many raging on the right, Will's anger seemed badly misdirected -- if not downright illogical. Over and over Bush loyalists in the press railed against the Florida recount process, frantically trying to convince themselves that the body of administrative law that had been the norm for years in Florida -- which was overseen by a Republican Legislature and a Republican governor and which allowed local canvassing boards to set their own standards for manually counting ballots -- was a Democrat-devised plot to subvert democracy itself.

"Hand counting is arbitrary, open to manipulation and abuse. Hence the comic contortions of the ballot examiners holding up cards to the light, trying to divine the intent of voters," complained syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, mouthing the party line. Whether "comic contortions" followed when local election officials in Tyler, Texas, adhering to that state's recount law, and working at the request of a Republican state representative, recently held up ballots to the light, trying to divine the intent of voters, Krauthammer did not say.

Not surprisingly, the conservative press has gotten bogged down in a swamp of Florida double standards. Here's how the Wall Street Journal, stressing the "rule of law," advised Gore to deal with possible protesters in Palm Beach: "If Mr. Gore wants to assure an honest count, he should discourage these voters from a public protest at this time." Former Reaganite Mona Charen bemoaned the fact that Democrats were "rallying the usual activists to take to the streets."

When protesters did appear, Kelly at the Washington Post was not happy: "Thanks for whoever's bright idea it was to ship union goons into Palm Beach County; tense times are always made better by the presence of large, muscular men bellowing, 'No recount, no peace!'"

Yet Kelly, whose column long ago abandoned original analysis and reporting in place of clichéd Clinton attacks, was mute when it came to the rowdy crowd of shoving Young Republicans who, with their hotel fare and airplane tickets paid for by the GOP, rioted inside a Miami-Dade County Hall, perhaps influencing the board's decision to shut down the recount.

The Wall Street Journal not only welcomed the clean-cut protesters, they found them adorable -- "a bourgeois riot," enthused columnist Paul Gigot.

Meanwhile, writing about military absentee ballots that were tossed out, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak blamed the Gore camp, even though he acknowledged the canvassing board in Duval County, for instance, which voted to disqualify 44 votes from U.S. service personnel, "was controlled by Republicans." So how was that Gore's fault? Easy: "Befuddled Republicans were acting like good bureaucrats, following the letter of the law. Delighted Democrats were part of a coolly crafted scheme to win Florida -- and the presidency." Talk about pretzel logic.

Of course, this is not the first critical juncture of the election in which the conservative press has become willfully blinded by partisanship. Its clips from the Democratic Convention, and particularly its reviews of Gore's acceptance speech, which produced one of the largest post-convention bounces in modern history, are downright embarrassing. Too busy spouting the party line to realize that Gore's well-received address had in an instant changed the dynamics of the national race, conservative pundits followed the script -- right into the swamp.

National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru wrote, "That smell in Los Angeles isn't just the whiff of patchouli wafting over from the protesters; it's the stench of death emanating from the Gore campaign. The speech was a failure."

Robert Novak agreed, labeled the speech "a flop" and erroneously predicted Gore would come out of the convention facing a six-point deficit in the polls. Fox News' Morton Kondracke did him one better when at the conclusion of the convention, certain he had "witnessed Al Gore kicking away the presidential election," predicted Bush's Labor Day lead would be 12 points. According to Newsweek's Labor Day poll, Kondracke was off by 20 points -- Gore led by eight.

Peggy Noonan, whose once-sharp analytical skills have been dulled beyond recognition by her obsession with all things Clinton, wrote, "Al Gore's acceptance speech was a rhetorical failure and, in my view, a strategic blunder of significant proportions."

That's serious political analysis from some of the supposedly brightest minds in the business? The columns read more like writing submissions for an opening on the RNC communications staff.

That same furious party-line spin was in full view when Bush's DUI story broke a week before the election. Second thoughts about a candidate for president who failed to disclose that he'd been arrested for drunken driving? Please. The right couldn't care less about what the episode said about Bush as a man or a potential leader; they were only interested in one thing: conspiracy theories. Was the Gore camp behind the DUI disclosure? (It wasn't.)

Read in hindsight, the head-scratching dispatches mostly prompt amused chuckles, but at the time, they were supposed to represent serious political reporting. As the story broke, National Review Online weighed in with a breathless account that nearly 25 years ago Maine Democratic activist Tom Connolly, who discovered the DUI information on his own and provided it to a local reporter, "probably knew" Gore communications director Mark Fabiani. The clandestine connection? As college students they "were present together" at the same National Debate Tournament. (Connolly went to school in Maine; Fabiani in California.)

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund, when not busy writing November columns predicting a Rick Lazio victory in New York, noted ominously that Connolly denied knowing Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, even though Lehane "is from Maine."

And what about Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater's contention that he asked Bush point-blank whether or not he'd ever been arrested since 1968, and Bush told him no? National Review editor Rich Lowry took care of that one: "When asked about it most directly -- in the 1998 interview -- Bush more or less owned up to it" (in a non-answer that seems meant to have been readily interpreted as a "yes").

And they say Clinton parses his language.

Arguing in Bush's defense, the New York Post wondered if "getting pulled over and having a ticket written counts as an "arrest"?

No matter, wrote Lowry, since "it's difficult to see how this 24-year-old story will hurt Bush."

Of course, based on exit polling and the extraordinary number of late-deciding voters who went with Gore, it's now clear Bush's DUI story is responsible for today's protracted recount. Without the arrest report (25 percent of the fence-sitters cited it to exit pollsters), Bush would have been declared the winner on Nov. 7.

You'd think scores of conservative observers who have followed Bush's campaign for more than a year would ponder that postscript in print. But apparently, during times of tumult, the conservative press frowns upon independent thinking.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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