Pundit Central

The Journalist and the Biographer

Issue 1 is, natch, the presidential race. Issue 2 is Edmund Morris’ controversial biography of Ronald Reagan. Other issues include Jesse Ventura’s no-holds-barred Playboy interview and Rudy Giuliani’s campaign against the “Sensation” art exhibit.

Most pundits think Al Gore is becoming desperate, and some say he’s now the underdog. (Gore himself tried to claim this mantle by imploring Larry King Wednesday evening, “I think in many ways you ought to count me the underdog in this race now. … I think if you look at the most recent poll in New Hampshire, you’ll see it that way.” Slate’s Ballot Box explains Gore’s motivation.) Gore moved his campaign headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Nashville, Tenn.; fired a pollster; challenged the putative underdog, Bill Bradley, to a series of debates; had his campaign manager, Tony Coelho, accused of past corruption by a federal agency; and raised less money than Bradley last quarter (according to last week’s FEC disclosures). On CBS’s Face the Nation, Gore says he will keep Coelho. He also calls Bradley a quitter for resigning from the Senate and impugning the party system in 1992, rather than supporting the Clinton-Gore ticket.

George Stephanopoulos (ABC’s This Week) says Gore had the worst week of any presidential candidate since Gary Hart’s quasi-Flytrap scandal broke in 1987. Many commentators think moving his campaign to Nashville was meaningless–“You can take your campaign out of K Street, but you can’t take K Street out of your campaign,” wags Arianna Huffington (CNN’s Late Edition)–but some, such as Capital Gang’s Al Hunt and Margaret Carlson, say it helped Gore weed the non-loyalists from his campaign. Bradley’s impressive fund raising, says Paul Gigot (PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer), means that unlike Hart in 1984 and Paul Tsongas in 1992, he’ll have the money to continue campaigning if he does well in the New Hampshire primary. Skeptics–such as Bob Novak (CNN’s Capital Gang), Bill Kristol (This Week), Mark Shields (NewsHour), and Slate editor Michael Kinsley (Wednesday’s Larry King Live)–say Gore is still the favorite and note that he is far ahead in most national polls. Some attribute Gore’s problems to “Clinton fatigue,” but Shields (Newshour) notes that Clinton’s approval rating is higher than Reagan’s was in 1987. “Gore’s [popularity] problem would [still] be there if Clinton disappeared tomorrow,” Sheilds says.

Several pundits criticize George W. Bush for attacking the House Republicans’ plan to balance the budget by fudging with the benefits schedule of the Earned Income Tax Credit. “George Bush sounds exactly like Bill Clinton,” laments Paul Gigot (NewsHour). On Capital Gang, Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calf., defends the House plan–even though he co-chairs Bush’s California campaign. Most pundits, however, think Bush’s triangulation is shrewd and helps flesh out his “compassionate conservatism” philosophy. EITC wouldn’t be an issue, notes Bob Novak (Capital Gang), “if [the House Republicans] had cut the budget like they were supposed to. … The Republicans are so hooked into George W. Bush that he could dance naked through the streets and they’d say, ‘Well, he had a bad night.’ ” Several pundits–such as Shields and Gigot (NewsHour)–criticize Bush for hammering the House GOP but not Pat Buchanan. George Stephanopoulos (This Week) says these two positions show that Bush is more of a social conservative than an economic one.

Critics continue to attack Edmund Morris’ new book, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (buy it here). For the first time since chattering about the book began three weeks ago, many of those commenting on it have actually read it. (Slate’s Culturebox explains this phenomenon.) Journalist Lou Cannon says the book actually “subtracts from our knowledge” of the former president. Historian Haynes Johnson (like Cannon, appearing on Late Edition), notes that the book has only one mention of supply-side economics. Defending himself on NBC’s Meet the Press, Morris calls his conservative critics “ideologues” and explains “the basic inability of the ideological mind–such as George Will’s or Bob Novak’s–to comprehend that a great man can sometimes be comically fallible in private.” He continues: “I have no doubt whatsoever that Reagan was a great man and a great president, but some of his conversation in private was astonishingly banal.” (This week Dinesh D’Souza and Alan Brinkley discuss Dutch in Slate’s Book Club.)

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defends his attempt to withdraw taxpayer money from the “Sensation” art exhibit in Brooklyn. He appears on three Sunday morning shows (This Week, Meet the Press, and Fox News Sunday)–none of which interviews a supporter of art subsidies. Meet the Press flashes a New York Daily News poll  showing that only 30% of New Yorkers agree with Giuliani, while 60% agree with the museum. Meanwhile, a  poll of visitors  to the McLaughlin Group’s Web site shows 85% support for Giuliani and 15% for the museum. … On Fox News Sunday, Elizabeth Dole says she is the only GOP presidential candidate–and the only woman ever–to lead a branch of the armed services (the Coast Guard, when she was Reagan’s Transportation Secretary).

Jesse Ventura’s Original Sin

On Meet the Press, Tim Russert asks Gov. Jesse Ventura, I-Minn., about his explosive interview in the November Playboy, in which he calls organized religion “a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers”:

TR: “Do you believe that priests and nuns and rabbis and ministers [in Minnesota] could be considered ‘weak-minded people?’ “

JV: “No, I don’t–not necessarily. And being weak-minded is not necessarily a detriment, Tim. It just means that you have a weakness and therefore you go into organized religion to help strengthen yourself. That’s the context in which I talked about it, and for those people it’s OK.”

Asked by Russert whether he believes in God, Ventura replies immediately that he does–although he belongs to no denomination. Asked, in separate questions, whether he considers himself a Christian and whether he believes in Christ’s divinity, Ventura pauses each time but answers yes.

Later in the program, Russert interviews evangelical minister and former football star Reggie White, author of the conservative-values book Fighting the Good Fight (buy it here):

TR: “Are you ‘weak-minded?’ “

RW: “Well, I think that all of us end up being weak-minded until we come to Christ. The Bible says, ‘We are weak but He is strong.’ … I think that anyone who lives any kind of way he wants to and do [sic] anything he wants to is weak-minded.”

Last Word

“Actors are trained not to focus too closely on their individual witnesses, or spectators. … What Reagan saw through his myopic eyes was a general blur of smiling, affectionate faces–that’s how he saw his family, that’s how he saw the American people, that’s how he saw the world.”

      –Edmund Morris (Meet the Press)