Given the extent to which the self-definition of elite Washington reporters depends not only on their access to power but also on their role in reinforcing its prerogatives, it would be odd if eight years of a limitlessly corrupt, pathologically dishonest and lawless presidency did not leave its mark. And while we might have hoped that these actions would help the press to stiffen its collective backbone, unfortunately it has done just the opposite.
Republicans are running a presidential campaign at a moment of historic unpopularity for their party and with a candidate who has a panoply of potentially negative associations for voters. In the first place, John McCain's stances on the issues, while consistent with the desires of his party's base, are at odds with the professed wishes of the American people. Second, while he bills himself as a man of principle, he has in fact changed his position--"flip-flopped"--repeatedly on fundamental issues such as immigration, taxes, campaign finance, reproductive choice, etc. (See "Loving McCain," July 7.)
Third, owing to the inheritances of the woman with whom he conducted an adulterous affair before leaving his disabled first wife, the Republican enjoys eight separate residences across the country as well as the corporate jets she puts at his disposal, and he ambles around in shoes costing more than $500 a pair. At 71, he would be the oldest first-term President in US history if elected; and on the campaign trail he frequently becomes confused, loses his temper and sings songs about bombing Iran. He has engaged in discussion with supporters about that "bitch" Hillary Clinton. On one occasion in 1998, he joked that Attorney General Janet Reno was the "father" of the "ugly" teenager Chelsea Clinton.
His opponent has no such liabilities. His party is on an upswing. His positions are popular. He has never been associated with personal scandal; has earned, together with his wife, all of his family's money himself; is young, vivacious and without McCain's mean streak. But Barack Obama is black, and burdened with a Muslim-sounding name, in a country that has yet to transcend the racial horrors of its past or the reflexive parochialism and xenophobia of much of its populace. McCain must depend on these two factors to remain competitive in an election year when all indications suggest that a conservative Republican would have little to no chance of victory.
Of course, a presidential campaign cannot openly traffic in racism and xenophobia. So it must conduct this campaign in a kind of code. Historically blacks and dark-skinned immigrants have been accused of "not knowing their place" by whites who see their positions challenged, and are deemed to be "uppity." The code word du jour is "presumptuous."
Think about it: the candidate who won his party's presidential nomination and is leading in every national poll stands accused of acting as if becoming President requires some planning and preparation. Apparently ignorance and incompetence have become prized virtues in George W. Bush's Washington, and so potential competence is considered a cause for concern.
Sadly, many in our mainstream media have eagerly enlisted in the racist Republican cause. I could give numerous examples, but let us focus on just one: the Washington Post's White House columnist, Dana Milbank. In a recent column, Milbank, who prides himself on his alleged lack of ideology, complained that "Barack Obama has long been his party's presumptive nominee. Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee," adding, "Obama's biggest challenger may not be Republican John McCain but rather his own hubris." Milbank's shocking litany of Obama's offenses included his taking a foreign trip, meeting with world leaders and leading Washington figures, failing to post his schedule, leaving a private prayer in Jerusalem's Western Wall and tying up traffic in Washington. Each of these unremarkable events was described in language dripping with sarcasm and imputed evil intent--as if Obama was responsible for his security detail's traffic planning. In a single column, Milbank complained of Obama's "presidential-style world tour...presidential-style business...presidential-style pep rally...presidential-style visit...acting presidential...outdoing the President in ruffles and flourishes lately..."
After holding Obama personally responsible for the campaign's failure to include a New Yorker reporter on its press plane abroad--allegedly in retaliation for the satirical cartoon--Milbank wrote, "Even Bush hasn't tried that." Oh, really? Does a White House reporter really need to be reminded that the New York Times was refused access to Dick Cheney's press plane in 2004? Has no one mentioned to him that US citizens have been removed from official presidential events because of the bumper stickers on their cars?
Most egregious, Milbank also apparently sliced and diced Obama's words to give them exactly the opposite connotation the candidate intended. In order to drive home his accusation, Milbank wrote, "Inside, according to a witness, he told the House members, 'This is the moment...that the world is waiting for,' adding: 'I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.'" Milbank's colleague Jonathan Weisman later explained that according to participants in the meeting, Obama added, "It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign--that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol." When questioned about his journalistic ethics, Milbank called the criticisms "whines" but was unable to offer any evidence or even claim a good-faith effort to verify his account.
In fact, it is the Post's White House columnist who is the symbol: a symbol of a press corps that has become almost as corrupted--morally and intellectually--by Bush and company as has the US government. In media as well as politics, Americans need a change they can believe in.