Dick Cheney’s speech last night underscored the peculiar nature of his nomination in 2000. He is not a stirring stump speaker. He is not, to quote Laura Ingraham’s name for John Edwards, a camera-melting “Silky Pony” of good looks. He is sober, serious, and casting-agency perfect in the role of Respected Washington Insider, something Governor Bush needed for the voters last time around. But his speech wasn’t going to upstage the presidential address tonight. It did have some nice lines, like “Senator Kerry’s liveliest disagreement is with himself.”
The pre-speech talk was about building a case for Cheney’s unpopularity. Before the speech, NBC White House correspondent David Gregory told Chris Matthews on MSNBC that “one of the obstacles for Dick Cheney tonight is the fact that he has become a dark figure. And Karl Rove and the president’s advisers understand this. … There are those who believe that Dick Cheney has led this administration and this president down a path of recklessness. That maybe his approach, his dark approach to this constant battle against another civilization, is actually the wrong approach for ultimately keeping America safe.” Last night was utterly typical, as the media elite have tried to change Cheney’s image from Respected Washington Insider to Scary Neoconservative Puppetmaster.
But the media didn’t really want to talk about Cheney last night. On CNN, Aaron Brown proclaimed, “I don’t know if anybody’s going to remember the vice president’s speech tomorrow morning, honestly. They’ll remember the Zell Miller speech. Will it matter, will it change the equation at all?” Brown invited on a list of outraged reporters. Only the Boston Globe’s Nina Easton said that the Democrats were pretty harsh at their convention, mentioning Carter, Sharpton, and Ted Kennedy. Brown immediately objected that “at least two” of those were “not in prime time and hardly viewed.” They were all on cable in the standard definition of prime time, but none of them was aired on the Big Three, except Peter Jennings was so enamored of Sharpton that he ran a clip at the start of ABC’s show on Wednesday night in Boston.
More typical was Wall Street Journal reporter John Harwood. When Brown asked him to provide the newsman’s take on the Miller speech, he said: “Republicans like the emotion that he showed tonight, because they don’t underestimate what real, unvarnished emotion counts for in politics. You got to wonder whether other voters look at Zell and say, uh, he looks like the guy, the spouse at a divorce proceeding who says, ‘and oh yeah, she’s a child molester, too.’ You know, how credible are those charges?”
Time’s Joe Klein, perhaps the most undisguised Democrat-booster in the print media today, was howling. While “Democrats a month ago was them being under-the-top, you know, uh, benign and positive, and that’s because they believe their focus groups,” the Republicans were hot and deceitful: “Let me just point out that even the vice president said that John Kerry says he sees two Americas, that’s John Edwards’s line. I, it seemed pretty clear to me that Kerry has been careful not to talk about two Americas. So you have angry inaccuracies by the basketful here tonight, and I don’t know how it’s going to play.” How hypersensitive is that? Cheney used the “two Americas” line as a joke to say, “America sees two John Kerrys.” Kerry clearly allowed Edwards to make the whole “two Americas” line an official Kerry-Edwards slogan in his speech in Boston. It’s important to note that, despite wild charges made against the Republicans in Boston, the networks were not playing the role of factual quibbler with those speeches.
But Klein was on to something, and that’s how focus groups and the media have drained the “hot” talk–and even more so, the Miller contemptuous scowl–out of the Republicans’ repertoire. As Jonah Goldberg noticed last night, it took only minutes for pundits to reach for “Pat Buchanan” in their memory banks. On ABC, George Stephanopoulos said that was coming across in his e-mails (no doubt from all his Democratic blood brothers … er, sources).
To conservatives, Miller’s words were so refreshing because the White House has seemed rhetorically timid in talking diplomatically to Democrats and reporters and European allies. The other side has accused the president of intentionally misleading the country into war in Iraq. No one in the media-Democratic complex labors to remember that they were the ones who went on television and predicted massive casualties, massive resistance by regular Iraqi citizens, chemical-weapons attacks on our forces, and a military “quagmire” without the dislodging of Saddam.
The media-Democratic complex has, without much protest, routinely presented our men and women in the armed forces as occupiers of Iraq and Afghanistan and denied that they are liberators. No wonder Miller’s words sting in their ears. The media-Democratic complex has for at least three decades attacked nearly every new weapons system as the next boondoggle, much like John Kerry. No wonder Miller’s words sound harsh. The media-Democratic complex has since the Vietnam War generally seen America’s best moments in offering apologies for our depredations and our worst moments in bold military action. No wonder Miller sounds too angry to them.
But their outrage over “hot” Zell is a typical double standard. In the first half of 2003, the media loved the harsh words of another old Democrat, Robert Byrd. He spat on the notion of American liberation of Iraq: “In fact, if the situation in Iraq is the result of ‘liberation,’ we may have set the cause of freedom back 200 years.” But Time magazine praised Byrd’s pompous speechifying as “bracing,” and compared him to Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A year ago, Howard Dean’s hot stump speeches–full of reckless charges against President Bush–were all the rage in the political press, and pundits fully expected as 2004 began that Dean would probably be the Democratic standard-bearer. Don’t believe for a minute that the national media elite are the guardians of our political civility. They only dislike hot rhetoric when it zings against the liberal media’s heroes.
–Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and an NRO contributor.