Opinion

Jack Shafer

Newt Gingrich and the fine art of press-bashing

Jack Shafer
Jan 31, 2012 23:10 UTC

After being bruised by tough questions in the primary debates, Newt Gingrich pouted yesterday that if nominated, he would not participate in any reporter-moderated presidential debates with Barack Obama.

“We should be able to talk to the American people without reporters playing gotcha, being clever or having 60-second rules like, ‘What would you do about Nigeria in 60 seconds?,’” the Georgia doughboy said, complaining that reporters serve as a “second Obama person” in debates.

Gingrich went on to propose a fall schedule of seven three-hour, Lincoln-Douglas style debates with Obama, ignoring the fact that three presidential campaign debates and one “town hall” meeting have already been set by the Commission on Presidential Debates. At the rate Gingrich is going, he will soon demand the right to choose the color of the debate set’s curtains, limit the number of close-up shots used on TV and stipulate that the bowls of candy in the debate green rooms contain no brown M&Ms.

Perhaps Gingrich really regards presidential campaign debates as execution by journalists. If so, he’s well within his rights to petition for something different in the fall. After all, nobody ever elected the press to police presidential campaign debates in perpetuity. Perhaps a historian, a retired judge or even John Edwards could perform better interrogations of the candidates than did Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw and Bob Schieffer in 2008.

But I doubt that Gingrich really blames journalists for the shortcomings of the debates, which anthropologist James R. McLeod calls elements of the lengthy “ritual sociodrama” that is a presidential campaign. More than any politician since Richard Nixon, Gingrich needs the press to demonize so he can change the subject whenever asked a tough question, as Juan Williams of Fox News and John King of CNN recently dared. If historians or retired judges were asking the questions, no matter how benign, I’m sure they’d earn a powerful Gingriching, too.

Wasting away in Dementiaville

Jack Shafer
Jan 25, 2012 02:17 UTC

I’ve found a great spot for most of the Republican presidential candidates — active and vanquished — to retire to after Barack Obama wins his second term in November. Dubbed “Dementiaville” in press accounts, it’s a mock-1950s “village” of 23 residences that the Swiss are building in Wiedlisbach to house 150 cognitively impaired old folks.

Dementiaville follows a similar nursing home that was established in the Amsterdam suburbs in 2009, where the residents (or their guardians) “pay €5,000 a month to live in a world of carefully staged illusion,” as the U.K. Independent reports today. The visual and architectural cues at Dementiaville will all be from the comforting 1950s, when the residents still had full possession of their minds. The operation’s caretakers “will dress as gardeners, hairdressers and shop assistants,” the paper continues, to extend the illusion. Dementiaville founder Markus Vögtlin claims that the planned environment at the Amsterdam village makes its patients “feel comfortable. I call it travelling back in time.”

Although the geriatric-care profession is split on the value of stockpiling dementia patients in the equivalent of the old Ozzie and Harriet back lot, it’s easy to discern who is the target of Dementiaville’s marketing: The mentally complete offspring and the spouses of the patients, who naturally feel guilty for delegating care to an institution.

Another president is reorganizing government. Again.

Jack Shafer
Jan 17, 2012 01:18 UTC

Newly elected presidents call for the reorganization of the federal government with such regularity that a federal Department of Reorganization should be established to assist them in their attempts to downsize the bureaucracy, eliminate redundant agencies, reduce red tape, cut costs, and tame the out-of-control agencies created and fed by the presidents elected before them. If you’re earnest enough to think that those moves will actually reduce the size or cost of federal government, I’ve got a monument I’d like to sell you.

President Barack Obama originally promised to streamline federal bureaucracy in his 2011 State of the Union speech but only got around to specifics last Friday, as he requested new powers to merge agencies subject to an up-or-down vote by Congress. Obama’s first target: the Commerce Department. He wants to meld the Small Business Administration and five additional trade and business agencies into one body that would replace the Department of Commerce. Obama promised savings of $3 billion over the next decade and to cut 1,000 to 2,000 jobs through attrition over the same period.

The presidential urge to reorganize goes back to Theodore Roosevelt, who established the Keep Commission in 1905 to bring efficiency and accountability to bureaucracy. Scholar Oscar Kraines admiringly called Roosevelt’s attempt to remake Washington in his image “a bold step … to break down the long-existing aim and the tendency of Congress to retain full legislative authority in the management of the public business.” According to political scientist Peri E. Arnold, 11 of 14 presidents elected in the 20th century attempted some sort of governmental reorganization. Congress rightly viewed the Keep Commission as a presidential power grab and has continued to contest similar presidential reorg plans by Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, the Bushes and Bill Clinton — who called his reorganization plan “reinventing government.”

Now that we have dirt on everyone

Jack Shafer
Jan 11, 2012 02:08 UTC

Has opposition research finally reached a big fat dead end?

Not that there is no fresh dirt to dig up on candidates. Each day, the morning editions bring us additional sleaze, flip-flops, and embarrassments from the candidates’ pasts, some of which comes ladled from oppo-researcher notebooks. We learn about our candidates’ legislative histories, their leveraged buyout histories (that would be you, Mitt and Newt), their adventures on K Street (take a bow, Newt and Rick #2), the filth and fury discovered in their back pages (hello, Ron!), the casual racism of a parent (Rick #1), and their military resumes (if they have one). And if they’ve generated any sort of paper trail from tax liens, divorce proceedings, campaign-finance filings, or civil actions—or if there is reusable disgrace from past campaigns—we read and re-read all about it, too.

But how much of this stuff actually sticks anymore? Beyond the undoing of Herman Cain’s candidacy by an avalanche of romancing-while-married stories, it’s hard to imagine any campaign revelation that, by itself, could burn any of the current candidates out of the current race or remain sufficiently hot to scald them in November’s general election. Dirt just doesn’t stain like it once did. (Even if some of this dirt sticks, it won’t alter the outcome for candidates like Rick Perry. The worst that could happen for him is to go from 1 percent to 0 percent support.)

That’s not how the political operatives feel. Today, Talking Points Memo reports how bummed the Democrats are that Newt Gingrich has already attacked Romney with the Bain story. Democrats had been holding Bain in reserve to use against Romney in the general election—as they did in 1994 in his race against Sen. Edward Kennedy (D, Mass.)—to portray Romney as a vulture capitalist of the most craven sort.

Presidential campaigns, sports writing, and the fine art of pretending

Jack Shafer
Jan 3, 2012 22:54 UTC

The jobs of political reporters and sports writers are almost identical: Determine who is ahead and who is behind; get inside the heads of the participants; decode the relevant strategies and tactics; and find a way to convert reader interest into sustainable enthusiasm. Then, maintain reader enthusiasm for the months and months of caucuses or preseason games, primaries or regular season games, conventions or playoffs, and the general election or Super Bowl (or World Series).

So elemental is this eternal connection between sports and politics that even underdog presidential candidate Rick Perry gets it.

“The only scoreboard that matters is tomorrow, and it’s the scoreboard when the caucuses meet and we win the big Iowa caucus tomorrow,” Perry told the cheering crowd at his final campaign rally yesterday, sounding like the coach of a broken-down wildcard NFL team.

OTUS and the golden age of political reporting

Jack Shafer
Dec 24, 2011 00:09 UTC

Just what the country needed: Another political Web site.

At the beginning of the week, ABC News launched OTUS, its political news supermarket with its top political reporters (Jake Tapper, Jonathan Karl, Amy Walter, and George Stephanopoulos) hunkering on the site’s home page. OTUS threatens to dice, grind, sieve, and aerosol the complex business of campaigns and the affairs of the state into inhalable powder.

As Tapper says in this promo, OTUS (short for of the United States as in, POTUS, president of the United States, or SCOTUS, supreme court of the United States) is all about the “power moves, the mini-dramas, the scheming” in politics. Tapper promises that OTUS will flag both the “urgent and the ridiculous,” offer games, display correspondents’ Twitter feeds, and create a stock market-style ticker that assesses the rising and falling worth of candidates with social media.

ABC News has expanded its Web efforts at what is obviously a late date. SalonSlateTalking Points MemoYahoo PoliticsPoliticoRealClearPoliticsRed StateHuffington Post PoliticsFiveThirtyEightMother JonesNational Review OnlineDaily BeastDaily CallerRoll CallThe HillCNN Politics, NBC’s First Read, Time ‘s SwamplandNational Journal, specialty sections at the Washington Post, the New York TimesNew York magazine, the Associated PressBloomberg News, and Reuters, as well as numerous other sites already cover the beat, and cover it well.

Crock the Vote

Jack Shafer
Sep 14, 2011 21:14 UTC

By Jack Shafer
The opinions expressed are his own.

In case you haven’t heard, the 2012 presidential election is already over and the Republicans stole it. Both Rolling Stone and Mother Jones report this week that those wascally Wepublicans have already walked away with the ballot boxes.

The Rolling Stone piece (Sept. 15, 2011) finds evidence of an “unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008.”  Comparing the Republican efforts to suppress the vote to the Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests erected by Dixiecrats, writer Ari Berman claims that a “dozen states have approved new obstacles to voting.” By “obstacles” Berman means new laws requiring proof of citizenship in Kansas and Alabama; the repeal of Election Day voter registration in Maine; shortened early voting periods in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia; and the presentation of government-issued ID before casting ballots in Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, as well as other new voting measures.

As clampdowns go, these measures seem too anemic to support the Rolling Stone‘s hysterical headline, “The GOP War on Voting,” but it is no journalistic crime to over-promise and under-deliver on a piece, especially a political piece.

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