As That Republican Show shuffles to a close in St. Paul, the networks strike the set, and the anchors chisel the baked-on greasepaint from their faces, vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin will return to her campaign bubble with her staff to size up her fall opponent—the press.
Ever since Richard Nixon discovered that running against the press was better for stirring up the animals and getting them to vote than merely attacking your political opponent, politicians—usually Republican politicians—have saved their best shots for reporters.
A politician can’t launch an effective anti-press campaign until he attracts the sort of coverage that he’s able to frame as unfair or inaccurate. Sarah Palin was doubly blessed in the last week, as the press asked questions about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy and completed the vetting that the McCain never really started. Last night in her acceptance speech, Palin seized the advantage with this opening dig at the press:
Now here’s a little news flash for those reporters and commentators: I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this great country.
Never mind for a moment that her running mate has long sought—and secured—the good opinion of Washington reporters and commentators. If Palin had a prayer of winning the blessings of such conservatives as Charles Krauthammer and David Frum, let alone political reporters, she’d be slathering them with flattery. Because she doesn’t, she’s turning the negatives reported in the press (lack of experience, mediocre résumé, beneficiary of tokenism) into her positives. The press is only attacking me, she grins, because they’re partners with the elitists who fear that John McCain and I are coming to Washington to tear their playhouse down.
McCain strategist Steve Schmidt claimed to the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz earlier this week (Sept. 3) that the press was “on a mission to destroy” Palin and that it was displaying “a level of viciousness and scurrilousness” in reporting out the facts of her personal life.
Schmidt’s complaint wasn’t that the press (as opposed to anonymous bloggers) was publishing untruths about Palin, Kurtz noted. It was that they were asking too many intrusive questions about allegations leveled at Palin and her family. At the same time the McCain campaign was protesting the press corps’ overinterest in the Palin family, it was arranging for a future member of the clan—Levi Johnston—to attend the convention. He’s Bristol’s fiance and the father of the child she’s carrying. For the benefit of the network cameras, the campaign seated Johnston in a row with the Palin family and Cindy McCain, where the newborn Trig Palin was passed up and down the line like the campaign prop he’s become.
Palin’s mixed message says: Please respect the privacy of my family—as I exploit them. Respect my family’s privacy, but let me wrap myself in baby Trig to prove my anti-abortion stand. Question for the Commission on Presidential Debates: If you let Palin nurse Trig as she debates Joe Biden on Oct. 2 at Washington University, will you level the field by letting Biden bottle-feed one of his grandchildren? If such questions are disrespectful to the Palin and Biden families, where do I submit my apologies?
The McCain campaign’s touchiness manifested itself supremely during Campbell Brown’s Sept. 1 interview with McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds on CNN. Brown kept pressing Bounds to explain why Obama’s experience was a valid campaign issue but Palin’s was not. As Bounds continued to evade, Brown turned up the volume on him, abandoning the polite pretense that accompanies so much TV news. McCain retaliated by cutting off his own nose: He canceled his scheduled appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live program. What was the campaign thinking? Nobody in televisionland but King is willing to pitch McCain softballs in front of his best demographic (over 65 and dying).
But who can blame the McCain campaign for punching the press instead of pounding on Joe Biden? He’s the Pillsbury Doughboy of politics—his gut will swallow any well-formed fist thrust into it, and then he’ll giggle uncontrollably.
McCain will eventually return to romancing the press instead of fighting it, but Palin has no reservoirs of goodwill in the press in which to harbor and let bygones be bygones. Palin will drop the umbrage bomb at every opportunity, finessing the space between being a victim of the press and being outraged by its conduct.
Instead of letting Palin talk directly and frequently to the press, the McCain campaign will dress her in bunting and rush her from one controlled setting the next—small towns, firebases in Iraq and Afghanistan, “town halls,” important funerals, church conventions, and American Legion halls (essentially George W. Bush’s current itinerary). There she’ll play the role of Spiro Agnew to McCain’s Nixon, dismissing reporters’ tough questions as effete, impudent, sacrilegious, snobby, intrusive, unpatriotic, hostile, disrespectful, chauvinistic, “East Coast,” unfair, unbalanced, liberal, biased, trivial, hypothetical, elitist, and as partisan attempts to lasso her with a “gotcha.”
Beating the press always attracts votes, but rarely enough to turn an election. Palin could find herself winning the battle for her running mate but losing the war.
Don’t get me wrong. I hate the press, too. Please send additions to my starter list (“effete, impudent, sacrilegious, snobby, intrusive, unpatriotic, hostile, disrespectful, partisan, chauvinistic,” etc.) to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Agnew in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to email@example.com.