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Wimblehack: The Winner

A post-mortem of election post-mortems reveals the winner of the prize for worst campaign journalist of 2004.
 
 
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The kids still loved him. You were sure that Spot could live for another year at least. But those clouds over his eyes just got too big, and he was walking into the refrigerator and the brick edge of the fireplace just a little too often.

Then there were those wheezing fits, the ones that kept waking you and the wife up in the middle of the night and throwing the both of you into a tiresome panic. Do you call the vet? Is there even a vet to call at 3 a.m.? What moral calculus applies, in the middle of the night, to the adult owners of a dying Shar-pei with glowing green pus in his eyes?

The time comes when you and the wife have to send the kids off to school and take an unscheduled trip to that little one-story clinic downtown. Make that one last handshake with Dr. Bernstein, and stroke Spot's head as he cheerfully lies down on the table and waits for the needle...

Such is the situation with Wimblehack, which comes to an end this week in highly unsatisfactory fashion. The much-hyped prize to the winner is going to have to be put off, for now, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the Press had felt quite confident that the winner would ultimately prove to be Newsweek's Howard Fineman, and had staked much of its prize plans (which failed, hilariously, anyway) in that direction.

But Fineman never filed an election post-mortem for Newsweek, and aside from a few cautiously irritating exchanges with Joe Scarborough in which he disingenuously defended Maureen Dowd as his "favorite high-brow hussy," Fineman kept a very low profile after the election. There was no rationally defensible way to declare him the winner, except on the basis of his cumulative record. And that would have been a cop-out even worse than the already egregious cop-out this final round is going to represent.

That leaves as the winner Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times , who did file a number of grossly objectionable pieces after the election, and so wins the contest, if not yet the prize. And though this contest fails in its stated objective of delivering a just reward, we can say with a clear conscience that Bumiller deserves her hollow victory, for consistently representing almost everything that made this campaign the Monumental Bummer it was.

On November 7, reverting to her pre-campaign state as a Times White House correspondent, Bumiller filed her first large post-election article. Entitled "President Feels Emboldened, Not Accidental, After Victory," the piece was pleased to draw a number of conclusions about the sunny state of the reelected executive's mind. She writes:

One trademark of President Bush's first term was his aversion to news conferences, which his staff says he often treated like trips to the dentist. So on the morning after Mr. Bush's re-election, Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, was taken aback when the president told him he was ready to hold a news conference that Mr. Bartlett had suggested, win or lose, the week before.

"I didn't have to convince him or anything," Mr. Bartlett said. "Without me prompting him, he brought it up."

It was a small but telling change for a president whose re-election has already had a powerful effect on his psyche, his friends and advisers say.

This habit of taking at face value the unconfirmable assertions about the personal feelings of officials – assertions hand-delivered to the journalist by a paid mouthpiece whose very job is to deadpan preposterous pieces of mythmaking to the media – is nothing new to most political reporters. But almost no one consumes this stuff more eagerly than Bumiller.

Take her piece from March 2 of this year, "Gay issue leaves Bush ill at ease," in which Bumiller gives off-the-record spokesmen a chance to allow Bush to split the difference on the gay-marriage issue:

When President George W. Bush announced his support last week for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, his body language in the Roosevelt Room did not seem to match his words. Bush may have forcefully defended the union of a man and a woman as "the most fundamental institution of civilization," but even some White House officials said he appeared uncomfortable.

This kind of thing is standard in the business – it is how we are delivered such seemingly unknowable facts as the "remarkably close friendship" we are told exists between Bush and Vladimir Putin – but what's striking about Bumiller is that this is apparently her conscious response to an administration whose excessive secrecy she has complained about in public.

On December 3 of last year, Bumiller gave a talk at Yale University nauseatingly entitled "Shock, Awe, and Battle Fatigue," in which she complained about the lack of access in the Bush White House.

"The White House has set a troubling standard for secrecy," she said. "I worry that future administrations will look at this White House as a model that has worked fairly well."

Bumiller went on to laud the administration's "genius" in interpersonal relations, adding: "The White House is awesomely good at what it does... The political skills of the president and his handlers are unparalleled."

This speech came just days after Bumiller had experienced a very public slap in the face by that same White House, which took the extraordinary step of sending Bush on a surprise trip to Baghdad on Thanksgiving with a handpicked contingent of reporters. In a move that was widely interpreted as payback for the paper's insufficiently slavish reporting on the Iraq war, the Bush people conspicuously omitted the Times and Bumiller from the guest list. Characteristically, however, rather than giving back in kind by ignoring the Bush p.r. stunt or burying it in an inside page, the Times responded by having Bumiller write a front-page story about it, accompanied up top by the famous turkey photo in full color.

How did she write the story? The same way she always covered the White House, and went on to cover the campaign: She took what was given to her, in this case the pool report of the Washington Post 's Mike Allen.

The pool report allowed her, she said, to write about the trip "vividly, as if I had been [there]." Her "vivid" descriptions of the dramatic journey she did not actually go on included inspired passages of pastoral magnificence like the following:

"Air traffic controllers in Baghdad did not know the plane heading for the runway was Air Force One, and it then landed without its lights in darkness, but for a sliver of moon."

Far from being insulted at not having been invited, Bumiller told her Yale audience that the Bush trip was "brilliant politics." She made sure to point out to the audience that the Times had taken care to insert in her article a passage explaining that the piece had been based on the account of another writer. "That was a good addition, and it is in essence truth in packaging," she said, adding that it was "inserted largely because of the changes at the paper since the catastrophe of Jayson Blair."

This is ironic again because, as noted previously in this contest, no reporter in the campaign was more consistently guilty of violating the "Jayson Blair test" than Bumiller. In this particular campaign-journalism fixture, reporters file campaign pieces from remote state locations in which the entire article could have been written from a burned-out crackhouse 2000 miles away, using nothing but a glimpse of a photo from the event and a Rolodex with which to call friendly campaign aides.

The typical Bumiller campaign piece showed some version of that same "sliver of moon" imagery and sandwiched it around a lot of quotes from trail regulars – who often, again, provided primarily apocryphal insights into the mindset of the president that could then be credulously reported to the public as fact by the Greatest Newspaper In The World.

In one of her last campaign-trail pieces ("Entering the homestretch with a smile," Nov. 1), Bumiller followed this formula exactly. Ostensibly the action takes place in two sites in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, but all we see of the locations is some more (literally) pastoral descriptive stuff in the lede:

Late last week at a campaign rally in a dark Pennsylvania pasture, thousands of supporters listened raptly to President Bush and then watched fireworks explode overhead. But other pyrotechnics were going off in a distant corner, where a giant scrum of reporters ignored the candidate but hung on to every word of a bombastic, deceptively cherub-faced man Democrats love to hate.

He was Karl Rove, the president's political adviser...

In this particular, article Bumiller uses a technique that my research indicates is peculiar to her alone. In this passage, she actually swallows an apocryphal story from one aide about another apocryphal story about a different aide's apocryphal relationship to the president. This is Bumiller, reporting from the unseen alien planet New Hampshire, quoting Karen Hughes telling a story about Karl Rove talking to George Bush:

Other times Mr. Rove likes to playfully withhold news of recent polls from the president. "He'll smile and say, 'I'm not going to tell you about the latest numbers,' but he'll have a big smile on his face," Ms. Hughes said.

 
Bumiller told her Yale audience last year: "What I write about is really important. Ninety-five percent of it is interesting, and 30 percent of it is absolutely riveting." One wonders which percentile this insight about Rove falls under.

All campaign journalists fall into the habit of writing long personality pieces about the "man-behind-the-man" figures they spend so much time with on the campaign. In the last two years there were probably 10 times more profiles of Stephanie Cutter and Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove and Karen Hughes and Joe Trippi and Chris Lehane and Ralph Reed than there were of laid-off workers, prisoners, illegal immigrants, the uninsured or any of the other mysterious categories of depressing individuals ostensibly involved in the election.

Obviously, this was a crime in itself of sorts, as the campaign press focused a lot more on the optimistic, self-justifying soap opera of the campaign itself than on the country's actual problems. The campaign press was consistently far more fascinated with the drama and the trimmings of power than it was with, say, nuclear safety, or how people who collect AFDC checks live. That's why the only time you saw a profile of a "working-class Catholic girl" was when it was Karen Tumulty writing about Mary Beth Cahill, the "miracle worker" who brought back John Kerry's campaign from the dead.

Now, if you're like me, you probably don't give a shit about the fact that Mary Beth Cahill honed her political reflexes at her working-class Boston dinner table, where she was the bossy older sister in a family with six children. But if you think that's irrelevant, try giving a shit about the inner life of the presidential tailor, Georges de Paris, whom Bumiller amazingly profiled just a week after the election, when half of the population was still trying to talk itself down from the ledge in the wake of the horrifying result.

Here's Bumiller quoting de Paris on Nov. 8:

"I love all the presidents, but President Bush is something more special," Mr. de Paris said Friday, perhaps employing the principle that it is best to have the sitting president as No. 1. "He makes you happy."

More insights, just days after Bush's reelection:

Mr. de Paris would not say how many suits he had made for the president, although he did say that he was responsible for a dark blue-on-blue stripe that Mr. Bush wore for his "axis of evil" State of the Union address in 2002. The president, he added, likes full-cut trousers and his hand-sewn white Sea Island cotton and French blue shirts... As Mr. de Paris spoke, he sewed a lining with rapid, precisely placed stitches into a new suit for the secretary of commerce, Donald L. Evans, a close friend of the president. Hand-sewn suits, Mr. de Paris said, take three full days to make and are far more supple than those made by machine. "It's the difference between filet mignon and hamburger," he said.

 

Well, I guess if the administration won't tell you anything about why it invaded Iraq, and if you don't feel like making a fuss about it, you might as well find out who made that blue-on-blue-stripe suit Bush wore during his "Axis of Evil" speech.

Bumiller of course, was not completely immune to concerns about the lack of substance in the campaign. She demonstrated that most forcefully when she was one of the moderators of a live televised debate of Democratic candidates, held in New York on Feb. 29 of this year.

You may remember that one: Bumiller was one of three journalists, along with Dan Rather and Andrew Kirtzman of WCBS, who moderated the last meaningful Democratic debate. At the time, there were only four candidates left: Kerry, Edwards, Sharpton and Kucinich. The debate was remarkable because of the obviousness with which the three panelists tried to steer the discussion away from Sharpton and Kucinich. Early in the debate, Bumiller cut Sharpton off in the middle of one of his answers, about Haiti. When she tried it again later on, Sharpton protested:

SHARPTON: If we're going to have a discussion just between two – in your arrogance (ph), you can try that, but that's one of the reasons we're going to have delegates, so that you can't just limit the discussion. And I think that your attempt to do this is blatant, and I'm going to call you out on it, because I'm not going to sit here and be window dressing.

BUMILLER: Well, I'm not going to be addressed like this.

And Bumiller made it clear later on that the press was not going to be pushed around, when in an exchange with Kerry she angrily insisted on the right to make political labels an issue in the campaign:

BUMILLER: Can I just change the topic for a minute, just ask a plain political question?

The National Journal , a respected, nonideologic publication covering Congress, as you both know, has just rated you, Senator Kerry, number one, the most liberal senator in the Senate...

How can you hope to win with this kind of characterization, in this climate?

KERRY: Because it's a laughable characterization. It's absolutely the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in my life.

BUMILLER: Are you a liberal?

KERRY: Let me just...

BUMILLER: Are you a liberal?

KERRY: ...to the characterization. I mean, look, labels are so silly in American politics...

BUMILLER: But, Senator Kerry, the question is...

KERRY: I know. You don't let us finish answering questions.

BUMILLER: You're in New York. 

This question – how can you hope to win if you're so liberal – was what sank Howard Dean, was what allowed the press to ignore Sharpton and Kucinich, was what ultimately made it impossible for opponents of the war to have a voice in this campaign. In most cases, this demonization of the word and witch-hunting of anyone who could be attached to it was a subtle thing whose effect was cumulative. But Bumiller brought it right out into the open, wore it like a badge of honor. And looked like a smug, barking cow doing it.

One of the most pervasive themes of the post-electoral wrap-ups was the relentless focus on the seeming geographical intractability of the political red-and-blue picture. Nearly every newspaper in the country led with one version or another of the "nation bitterly divided" theme, which within a day or two morphed smoothly into the next round of post-mortems speculating on the prospects for Bush to "unite" this wounded nation (Bumiller did one of these, incidentally).

Almost every part of the country woke up the morning after the election to see a journalist on its local daily's front page sounding this "divisiveness" theme.

"Now, as Bush, 58, looks forward to a second term, he leads a nation as bitterly divided as ever over the bruising presidential election campaign..." wrote David Greene of the Baltimore Sun .

"The country is still divided, bitterly divided, and [Bush's] plans controversial and not proven," countered Newsday.

"The nation may be as bitterly divided as ever, but this one is in the books," sighed the Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star , seemingly in relief.

And it must be admitted that some attention was given to the relationship of the media to this divisive picture. There was some hand-wringing in the press about some errors it might have made in covering the election, although as in the case of the Iraq war, it was all the wrong kind of hand-wringing.

Much attention, for instance, was given to the apparent fact, supported by exit polls, that journalists had underestimated the role "moral values" had played in determining the election. No less an authority than Howard Fineman was one of many who asserted that the media was out of touch with mainstream America, and even offered his own mea culpa on that score. Journalists "don't understand red-state America," he said, adding, "I'm an indicted co-conspirator."

But the unanswered question in all of this was: If the nation was so bitterly divided, how come the campaign press corps wasn't? Why did they all look so charged up by the whole thing on television? Why did it seem like, no matter what they might have said as pundits on-camera, they were all such buddies off-camera? Why was an avowed Bush-lover like Howard Fineman sticking up for Maureen Dowd on MSNBC? Jon Stewart aside, was there anyone out there in the business who took this election personally enough to risk pissing off a colleague over it?

The answer is no, not a one. It was all a game to these people, which is why they covered it like a game. There were some people I know personally out there who hated it, who felt guilty about being part of the whole ugly charade. But there were a lot more who were really proud of this life of free lunches, VIP seating and the chance to be the planted audience for the occasional dick joke in an off-the-record chat with some of the hired liars on Air Force One. The maintenance of these privileges for certain people dwarfed the more abstract matter of which millions down there on the ground won or, more to the point, which ones lost.

How does one decide the country's Worst Campaign Journalist? Well, the one who loves his job the most is probably a good candidate. Why not the reporter whose first cheerful thought after the election was the hand-sewn suit of Don Evans?

New York Press apologizes for not having a prize ready for Elisabeth Bumiller, but hopes readers will allow us time to try to make amends. We have four more years, after all.

Matt Taibbi lives in New York. He covers politics for Rolling Stone and the New York Press.