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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Welcome to the Hillary Show

The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last reminds us what to expect from the Washington press corps as they cover "Hillary!"

Are you old enough to remember Dukakis, one of the most uninspiring political figures to ever run for president?  Here's an example of how it went.

Didion, who covered politics only sporadically, and as an outsider, wrote a fantastic piece for the New York Review of Books about the nature of press coverage during the '88 campaign. Her most telling example came on a morning in San Diego when Didion, as part of Dukakis' traveling press, witnessed the candidate briefly tossing a baseball on the tarmac, shortly after his plane landed. Here she is:

About this baseball on the tarmac. On the day that Michael Dukakis appeared at the high school in Woodland Hills and at the rally in San Diego and in the school-yard in San Jose, there was, although it did not appear on the schedule, a fourth event, what was referred to among the television crews as a "tarmac arrival with ball tossing." This event had taken place in late morning, on the tarmac at the San Diego airport, just after the chartered 737 had rolled to a stop and the candidate had emerged. There had been a moment of hesitation. Then baseball mitts had been produced, and Jack Weeks, the traveling press secretary, had tossed a ball to the candidate. The candidate had tossed the ball back. The rest of us had stood in the sun and given this our full attention, undeflected even by the arrival of an Alaska 767: some forty adults standing on a tarmac watching a diminutive figure in shirtsleeves and a red tie toss a ball to his press secretary.

"Just a regular guy," one of the cameramen had said, his inflection that of the union official who confided, in an early Dukakis commercial aimed at blue-collar voters, that he had known "Mike" a long time, and backed him despite his not being "your shot-and-beer kind of guy."

"I'd say he was a regular guy," another cameraman had said. "Definitely."

"I'd sit around with him," the first cameraman said.

Kara Dukakis, one of the candidate's daughters, had at that moment emerged from the 737.

"You'd have a beer with him?"

Jack Weeks had tossed the ball to Kara Dukakis.

"I'd have a beer with him."

Kara Dukakis had tossed the ball to her father. Her father had caught the ball and tossed it back to her.

"OK," one of the cameramen had said. "We got the daughter. Nice. That's enough. Nice."

The CNN producer then on the Dukakis campaign told me, later in the day, that the first recorded ball tossing on the Dukakis campaign had been outside a bowling alley somewhere in Ohio. CNN had shot it. When the campaign realized that only one camera had it, they had restaged it."

So there you have it. Dukakis staged--not for the first time--an "impromptu" minute or two of catch. But since Didion had the luxury of a long lead time, she was able to follow up on how this game of catch would come to be portrayed in the press. And if you think the Hillary nonsense is bad, then hold onto your hat:
Not until I read Joe Klein's version of these days in California did it occur to me that this eerily contrived moment on the tarmac at San Diego could become, at least provisionally, history. "The Duke seemed downright jaunty," Joe Klein reported. "He tossed a baseball with aides. He was flagrantly multilingual. He danced Greek dances...."

In the July 25 issue of U.S. News & World Report, Michael Kramer opened his cover story, "Is Dukakis Tough Enough?" with a more developed version of the ball tossing:

"The thermometer read 101 degrees, but the locals guessed 115 on the broiling airport tarmac in Phoenix. After all, it was under a noonday sun in the desert that Michael Dukakis was indulging his truly favorite campaign ritual--a game of catch with his aide Jack Weeks. 'These days,' he has said, 'throwing the ball around when we land somewhere is about the only exercise I get.' For 16 minutes, Dukakis shagged flies and threw strikes. Halfway through, he rolled up his sleeves, but he never loosened his tie. Finally, mercifully, it was over and time to pitch the obvious tongue-in-cheek question: 'Governor, what does throwing a ball around in this heat say about your mental stability?' Without missing a beat, and without a trace of a smile, Dukakis echoed a sentiment he has articulated repeatedly in recent months: 'What it means is that I'm tough.'"

Nor was this the last word. On July 31 in The Washington Post, David S. Broder, who had also been with the Dukakis campaign in Phoenix, gave us a third, and, by virtue of his seniority in the process, perhaps the official version of the ball tossing:

"Dukakis called out to Jack Weeks, the handsome, curly-haired Welshman who good-naturedly shepherds us wayward pressmen through the daily vagaries of the campaign schedule. Weeks dutifully produced two gloves and a baseball, and there on the tarmac, with its surface temperature just below the boiling point, the governor loosened up his arm and got the kinks out of his back by tossing a couple hundred 90-foot pegs to Weeks."

The story went from a set-piece in San Diego in which Dukakis tossed a ball back and forth a couple times to him "shagging flies" and throwing "a couple hundred" "90-foot pegs" in Phoenix. Why does the press do this? Because to a large degree, the political press is interested primarily in furthering a narrative. Here's Didion again:

The narrative is made up of many such understandings, tacit agreements, small and large, to overlook the observable in the interests of obtaining a dramatic story line. It was understood, for example, that the first night of the Republican National Convention in New Orleans should be for Ronald Reagan "the last hurrah." "REAGAN ELECTRIFIES GOP" was the headline the next morning on page one of New York Newsday ; in fact the Reagan appearance, which was rhetorically pitched not to a live audience but to the more intimate demands of the camera, was, inside the Superdome, barely registered. It was understood, similarly, that Michael Dukakis's acceptance speech on the last night of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta should be the occasion on which his "passion," or "leadership," emerged. "Could the no-nonsense nominee reach within himself to discover the language of leadership?" Time had asked. "Could he go beyond the pedestrian promises of 'good jobs at good wages' to give voice to a new Democratic vision?"

The correct answer, since the forward flow of the narrative here demanded the appearance of a genuine contender (a contender who could be seventeen points "up," so that George Bush could be seventeen points "down," a position from which he could rise to"claim" his own convention), was yes: "The best speech of his life," David Broder reported. Sandy Grady found it "superb," evoking "Kennedyesque echoes" and showing "unexpected craft and fire." Newsweek had witnessed Governor Dukakis "electrifying the convention with his intensely personal acceptance speech." In fact the convention that evening had been electrified, not by the speech, which was the same series of nonsequential clauses Governor Dukakis had employed during the primary campaign ("My's what the Democratic party is all about"), but because the floor had been darkened, swept with laser beams, and flooded with "Coming to America," played at concert volume with the bass turned up.

Keep all of this in mind as you watch the political press covering Clinton. This is what the political press does. It's what they've always done.

As I have said more than once, what you are watching is "Hillary, the Movie" created by the media who are over 90% Democrats.  To get the real story you have to draw the camera back and see the sets, the props, the extras and view the script.  And you know, given the state of technology today you just may be able to get the view from behind the media camera. 

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