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Post Partisan
Posted at 07:00 PM ET, 08/29/2012

In defense of Juan Williams (and Chris Matthews)


TAMPA – The Romney campaign just can’t stand politically incorrect comments, which they define as anything that gets in the way of its messaging. The Romney folks will work the refs right through the end of this campaign.

Today, their target is Juan Williams of Fox News (and formerly my colleague at the Washington Post, and also at NPR, about which see the postscript below). Juan had the nerve on Tuesday night to break with the media pack and say he didn’t think that Ann Romney’s speech was as good as everyone else said it was.

As Politico reported this morning:

“Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, on the other hand looked to me like a corporate wife,” Williams said on Fox News. “And you know the stories she told about struggle, eh, it’s hard for me to believe. She’s a very rich woman and I know that and America knows that.”
Williams said Ann Romney didn’t convince him she understood the struggles of average American women, and looked like “a woman whose husband takes care of her and she’s been very lucky and blessed in this life.”

The Romney folks didn’t like this. “We respect our colleagues in media and appreciate they too have invested a lot to be here to cover the convention,” a Romney aide said in a statement to Politico. “But, Juan’s comments are deeply disappointing: not only were they unfair and personal, they were wrong.”

I feel honor-bound to defend Juan for a simple reason: He, another colleague and I walked out of the Tampa Bay Times Forum together last night and when Juan gave us the gist of what he had said, I emphatically agreed with him that her speech was not the success so many others were saying it was. I had said as much, in different words, on NPR earlier. In light of the controversy, it doesn’t seem right to have said to Juan what I did in a private conversation and then not be willing to say in public why I did so.

My own reaction arose — paradoxically perhaps — from the fact that I had very high expectations of Ann Romney. Her speech didn’t meet them because the Romney campaign stuffed it with too much politics and asked her to do too much. As a result, she was a less persuasive witness on her husband’s behalf than she has been before.

My first experience of how good she can be came when Romney announced his candidacy at Doug and Stella Scamman’s Bittersweet Farm in Stratham, N.H. on a very beautiful day in June of 2011. Ann Romney was extraordinary that day, I thought. Her description of her husband was entirely personal, warm, and persuasive. Here words were not freighted with a lot of politics. She was especially moving when she spoke of how her husband had been there for her when she was ill. I have little sympathy for Romney’s politics and great doubts about his willingness to alter his views on so many subjects. But thanks to his wife, I came away from that day thinking of the private Romney as a very decent guy.

A lot of damage has been done to Romney’s image since, some of it by the Obama campaign and some by Romney himself, his gaffes and the very tough and negative campaign he has run. He needed an image transfusion. If Ann Romney had just given a version of that simple but powerful New Hampshire speech, it could have done the trick.

But the speech she gave included lines that didn’t have to be there. For example: “We're too smart to know there aren't easy answers. But we're not dumb enough to accept that there aren't better answers.” That might not be an awful line in someone else’s speech, but I don’t think it belonged in a address whose central purpose was to make everyone feel good about her candidate-husband.

Or this: “It's true that Mitt has been successful at each new challenge he has taken on. It amazes me to see his history of success actually being attacked. Are those really the values that made our country great? As a mom of five boys, do we want to raise our children to be afraid of success?” That’s not what the criticisms of Romney are about. It’s not his success that’s under scrutiny. But whether you agree with this or not, I think the passage gave the speech a harsher and more political tone than it should have had.

And Juan’s point was also important. There was something strikingly discordant between what everyone knows — that Mitt and Ann Romney have lived very privileged lives — and Ann Romney’s claim that during graduate school, she and her husband “ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish,” had “a door propped up on sawhorses” as a desk, and had a “dining room table” that “was a fold down ironing board in the kitchen.” Why pretend that they were poor when they weren’t?

It’s worth noting that others, including conservatives, came to the same conclusion. Ramesh Ponnuru, a staunch conservative who writes for Bloomberg and National Review and is a Mitt Romney sympathizer, said Ann Romney’s speech “seemed like clumsy pandering to women. When she said ‘I love you women,’ it reminded me of nothing so much as George H. W. Bush’s ‘Message: I care’ — as if she were reading her stage directions. And are people really going to believe that she feels the pain of high gas prices?” Ponnuru’s point is pretty much what Williams was arguing. Similarly, my Post colleague Ruth Marcus wrote today of “the unsubtlety of Ann Romney’s we-moms-get-it pander” and concluded that her remarks came off as “objectifying and demeaning.”

Everyone respects Ann Romney for her battle against MS and cancer (and Williams himself noted this today). But the campaign chose to use her in a highly political way, and the speech deserved to be treated as a political speech. Williams’ comments thus well within the bounds of fair comment and were also, I think, perceptive.

And while we’re on the subject of cable commentators, I think that my MSNBC colleague Chris Matthews was entirely justified in calling out the racial undertones of the Romney campaign’s welfare ads during an appearance on “Morning Joe.” The welfare ad is racially coded, as Tom Edsall argued in a strong piece at The New York Times.

Matthews offered his view with a vigor that is his trademark. I don’t recall the GOP being offended by Matthews’ tone or outspokenness when he was sharply critical of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinski episode. The Republicans and the Romney campaign launched a full-court press against Matthews to send a message to anyone who thinks of calling them out that there will be pain and suffering for doing so.

Of course the Romney folks have free speech rights like everyone else, and they will use them. But in a campaign where Romney is stretching the truth far beyond the breaking point on his welfare ad and on other matters (my Post colleague Glenn Kessler, The Post’s fact-checker, has written powerfully about this problem), it’s especially important that the media not allow itself to be intimidated from tough, searching coverage and commentary about his campaign.

Some readers may be understandably impatient with media commenting on media and journalists writing at great length about fellow journalists, including their friends and colleagues. But there is no escaping the fact is that the battle over the media — and over what constitutes “fairness,” “balance,” and “accuracy” — is now a central question in American politics. It should not be evaded out of a mistaken reticence. And a quest for a phony sort “balance” can too easily become an excuse for giving in to bullying.  

Postscript: I have proudly been a commentator on NPR (balanced mostly by my friend David Brooks and also by other conservatives) for over a decade. Because of the controversy that ensued when Juan was fired by the network in the fall of 2010 for comments he made on Bill O’Reilly’s show, I should note for the record my reaction at the time. My first response, offered on NPR itself during my weekly exchange on politics with Brooks, was to call it an “unfortunate decision” that was “unfortunately handled.” (How many networks, by the way, invite criticisms of their own decisions on their own air?) Two days later on “Meet the Press,” I reiterated that I thought that “NPR made a mistake,” and explained why I felt this way. But I also vigorously defended NPR as politically unbiased and as “one of the best news organizations in the world,” something I still very much believe. I also argued that it was important to resist “a smear campaign against NPR” that Fox launched after the Williams episode.

By  |  07:00 PM ET, 08/29/2012

 
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