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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Press Sees a Slugfest

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2004; 10:50 AM

It took Dick Cheney about five seconds to mention 9/11, in the course of justifying the Iraq war (and ducking a question about Paul Bremer saying the administration never sent enough troops).

That enabled John Edwards to say the Bush administration wasn't being straight on Iraq.

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The Veep Showdown (washingtonpost.com, Oct 5, 2004)
A Changing Political Landscape (The Washington Post, Oct 4, 2004)
Press Gives Kerry the Nod (washingtonpost.com, Oct 1, 2004)
The Future Is Now (washingtonpost.com, Sep 30, 2004)
The Ultimate Expectation (washingtonpost.com, Sep 29, 2004)
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It took Cheney just a few minutes more to mention John Kerry's "global test" comment for military action in his debate against the president -- prompting Edwards to say Kerry had made perfectly clear that no other nation would have a veto over American security.

It took John Edwards 25 minutes to mention Halliburton -- and he kept mentioning it, as a symbol of what was wrong with the Iraq venture and corporate America (while never quite saying that the ex-CEO was reaping any financial benefit). Cheney dismissed all that as a "smokescreen."

It took Cheney about two seconds to give up a 90-second response on a followup question about gay marriage, after he'd suggested he didn't agree with the boss on a constitutional amendment. Edwards managed to praise the veep for defending his gay daughter while also saying he and Kerry oppose gay marriage while also accusing Bush of using the constitution as a political tool.

It took about a nanosecond for Edwards to turn a question about his lack of experience into an attack on Bush and Cheney for the wrong kind of experience. Cheney wisely didn't pile on, instead talking about his own selection as VP. Nor did Cheney, somewhat surprisingly, accept Gwen Ifill's invitation to hold trial lawyer Edwards personally responsible for the malpractice crisis.

Edwards closed by talking about his father in the mill. Cheney closed by talking about 9/11 and terrorism.

They each got their jabs in -- and were very, very careful not to scowl, smirk or roll their eyes when the other man was talking. Cheney had no real answer on letting Osama escape from Tora Bora. Edwards had no real answer for using a loophole to avoid $600,000 in Medicare taxes.

Who "won"? Despite their differing styles, the answer was not immediately obvious, at least not to me. Each had a job to do -- scoring points on behalf of the presidential candidates and cleaning up their messes -- and got it done.

There was no immediate consensus among the pundits. Cheney had "a tall hill . . . to climb" in defending the Iraq war the day Bremer's comments were reported, said CBS's Bob Schieffer, and Edwards "did what trial lawyers do -- he began to poke holes in Cheney's argument."

But Andrea Mitchell said on MSNBC that Cheney "steamrollered over John Edwards" on foreign policy.

Several saw a boxing match. NBC's Tom Brokaw said that Cheney "reminded me of George Foreman -- kind of a slow gait but a powerful right hand when he unleashed it." CBS's Jim Axelrod likened the debate to an Ali-Frazier bout.

Tim Russert seemed impressed by Cheney, saying he rallied the Republican base and in effect told Edwards: "You're a young man in too much of a hurry. I never met you until you walked on the stage tonight."

David Gergen said the debate "ran out of electricity" and called it a draw.

An ABC insta-poll gave it to Cheney, 43-35. CBS's survey of uncommitted voters gave it to Edwards, 41-28.

On the spin patrol, Kerry campaign chief Mary Beth Cahill said Cheney looked "grumpy and angry." Bush campaign chief Ken Mehlman said the Democrats "hired the best lawyer they could in America and even he couldn't defend the Kerry record."

Oh, and Joe Lockhart said he thinks Edwards has too met Cheney before last night, despite the veep's effort to paint him as a Senate no-show.

In fact, says the Los Angeles Times, "Less than two hours after the debate ended, aides to Edwards and Sen. John F. Kerry distributed a photograph from the Feb. 1, 2001, National Prayer Breakfast showing Edwards and Cheney standing side by side."

Shades of Jamie Lee Witt! Imagine if Al Gore had done that.

"By the time the final finger had been pointed, the final statistic disputed, and the final attack levied on a candidate's competence, truthfulness, or record of service," says the Boston Globe, "the 2004 presidential campaign had descended to a new level of acrimony with last night's vice presidential debate. . . .

"In strategic terms, Cheney seemed to succeed in turning the spotlight back on the Democrats, and Edwards seemed to answer doubts about his experience by holding his own beside the vice president. But last night may well be remembered as the debate that gave voice to some of the resentments that were largely absent from last week's face-off between the presidential candidates."

The New York Times replays some of the greatest hits:

"Let it be noted that Vice President Dick Cheney never actually used the word 'whippersnapper' on Tuesday night. And Senator John Edwards never said 'ogre.'

"But they may as well have.

"Gravel-voiced, practically growling, Mr. Cheney leaned heavily on his elbows on the desk before him as he recalled his long service in Congress and the White House. 'Your rhetoric, Senator, would be a lot more credible,' he said at one point, 'if there was a record to back it up.'

"But it was deep in Mr. Cheney's capacious record that Mr. Edwards reached for ammunition to fire back. 'He voted against funding for Meals on Wheels for seniors,' Mr. Edwards said, the corners of his eyes crinkling in a look of boyish, pained bewilderment.

"A freshman senator from North Carolina, Mr. Edwards was clearly used to Mr. Cheney's line of attack, that Mr. Edwards was inexperienced and inconsistent. But Mr. Cheney, a Washington mandarin and among the most influential vice presidents ever, found himself playing defense on what has been unchallenged home turf, his reputation for competence."

It was the kind of debate journalists love, if this Philadelphia Inquirer piece is any indication:

"They threw everything at each other except the kitchen sink. Then they threw the kitchen sink.

"Vice President Cheney essentially said John Edwards is a liar. Edwards said Cheney is a liar. Cheney said Edwards is a feckless weather vane. Edwards said Cheney is a heartless warmonger. Cheney said Edwards is a showhorse, not a workhorse. Edwards said Cheney is more plutocrat than public servant.

"So went the vice presidential debate last night, a bare-knuckled duel between drawl and monotone. Whether it changes the dynamics of the 2004 race is doubtful. There was no single galvanizing moment, nothing that exposed either man as an empty suit, and attention will soon turn to the next presidential debate. But the snarling last night was significant, because it epitomized the strong ideological and personal tone of this campaign. And there were surely enough insults to sate the emotions of both sides."

And even to sate the media.

One point of agreement is that Cheney did better than Bush, as USA Today says:

"Cheney deployed a command of detail and a withering disapproval -- some of the qualities that have made him both influential and controversial in office -- to critique John Kerry on national security and other issues more effectively than Bush did in his debate last week.

"Sen. John Edwards, attacking the opposition more directly than he has on the campaign trail, gave no quarter. He attacked Cheney and Bush for leading the country in a way that has left its citizens divided and the nation engaged in a difficult war in Iraq."

"In the end," says the Chicago Tribune, "the vice presidential debate Tuesday night wasn't about the candidates sitting on stage. Instead, the encounter between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards provided a fresh opportunity to carry on their bosses' bitter quarreling. Both men served as fierce proxies for the top of the ticket, aping the presidential candidates' words, backing and filling on their shortcomings and advocating for their betters.

"Their arguments often rang with a more convincing tone than the words of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry themselves. Yet both vice presidential candidates also played to their respective strengths, with Cheney projecting an image of experience tested by fire, arguing for the status quo. Edwards, for his part, made a reasoned case for change, offering a new brand of energy and optimism."

The Los Angeles Times also sees a 15-rounder:

"In a spirited and at times fierce debate, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards made it clear that both presidential campaigns believed this election could turn on a single question: Will the race be more about the record of George W. Bush or that of John F. Kerry?

"Tuesday's 90-minute encounter was far more intense and confrontational than Cheney's relatively genteel debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman in 2000. At times it felt like a heavyweight bout, in which each fighter was landing teeth-rattling blows against the other.

As for the bloggers, Andrew Sullivan is pretty tough on Cheney:

"He went down snarling. His personal attacks on Edwards were so brutal and so personal and so direct that I cannot believe that anyone but die-hard partisans would have warmed to them. Edwards' criticisms, on the other hand, were tough but relatively indirect - he was always and constantly directing the answers to his own policies. Edwards, whom I'd thought would come of as a neophyte, was able to give answers that were clear and methodical and far better, in my view, than Kerry's attempts to explain himself last Thursday.

"On substance, Cheney clearly had the better of the debate on Afghanistan; his criticisms of Kerry's record were strong and detailed; his brutal assessment of Edwards' attendance record was sharp - but too direct and brutal to win over swing voters. But on domestic policy, he was terrible. Again, he used the term 'fiscal restraint,' but he gave no explanation for the unprecedented slide toward debt in the last four years. When asked to respond to a question about young black women with HIV, Cheney might as well have been asked about Martians. He had no response to the charges (largely new to me) about Halliburton."

Not that Edwards didn't have flaws: "Visually, Edwards' face was neutral or smiling. Cheney barely cracked a smile in the entire debate, and, at times, seemed positively angry and bitter. The split-screen contrast made this even clearer. Edwards made little sense on Afghanistan; he wobbled on the 'global test' issue; and he was completely at sea when asked to respond to the question that he was too inexperienced for office. Of course, that's a hard question to answer without seeming defensive. But Edwards still failed."

Mickey Kaus reviews the lowlights:

"Cheney's stand-up-to-Howard-Dean line was justly damaging. Plus, Edwards at times looked like a yapping ankle-biter, albeit a well-briefed one. At other times he seemed condescending--e.g. 'They want to know that their president and their vice president will keep them safe.' I got the heebie jeebies when he smarmily praised Cheney for having a gay daughter. Why was that Edwards' business (if he didn't have the guts to then accuse Cheney of abandoning his own child)?. . . .

"Edwards' weakest moment: He seemed to want experienced-world-leader points just because he was in Israel a few hours before a suicide bomb attack (plus he knew the brand name of the restaurant that was attacked); Never mind Bremer--Cheney still didn't have an answer on Tora Bora!"

Salon's Eric Boehlert finds one hotbed of pro-Cheney sentiment:

"So what debate was the crew at MSNBC watching Tuesday night?

"Following the vice-presidential faceoff, which most observers declared a draw, giving Cheney points for articulating an Iraq strategy in a way President Bush failed to do last week, and Edwards credit for holding his own against the much more experienced veep, the MSNBC team of pundits, led by 'Hardball' host Chris Matthews, immediately declared the debate a knockout for Cheney.

"The Cheney group hug began before Edwards had even exited the debate stage in Cleveland, with NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell declaring, 'Dick Cheney did awfully well in putting John Edwards in his place.' MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, who didn't flinch in naming Sen. John Kerry the debate winner last week, declared, 'There's no doubt about it, Edwards got obliterated by Dick Cheney.' (Perhaps he was trying to appease his right-wing fans who, he later remarked, flayed him alive for giving the debate to Kerry last week.) Newsweek's managing editor Jon Meachem chimed in that Edwards seemed like 'Kerry-lite,' while host Matthews skewered Edwards in a strangely personal way, reminiscent of the way Matthews hounded President Bill Clinton throughout the impeachment process."

Chris's verdict: "Dick Cheney was loaded for bear tonight. He went looking for squirrel and he found squirrel."

Does Bush live in a big fat bubble? The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn thinks so:

"Everybody's analysis of Bush's facial contortions is that it shows the peril of not having regular press conferences and packing campaign events with only like-minded supporters. That's true enough. But it's amazing to me nobody has mentioned the deeper explanation here, which goes right to the heart of Bush's problems as president: the fact that, in general, he does not surround himself with people who present opposing views, based on everything we know from insider accounts (Suskind, Woodward, etc.).

"And, even when he is briefed on opposing views, those briefings are carefully managed by Rove, Cheney, et al, to point him in the right direction. The only exceptions are those rare occasions when the person bringing a different point of view (i.e., Colin Powell) has the cache to bypass the palace guards. This, to me, goes well beyond any 'presidential bubble' we've seen in the past--it's a real problem with Bush's governance and can be linked to myriad policy failures, Iraq being the most obvious and significant. And it's why, unlike Gore's sighs, the Bush twitches have a broader significance for the election."

Longtime Media Notes readers will recall that I occasionally quoted the "Bull Moose" musings of Marshall Wittman, who gave up his blog when he signed on with John McCain. Now Wittmann has jumped the GOP ship to join the Democratic Leadership Council, and he's back:

"This unreconstructed Bull Moose will run with the donkey in November.

"I am an independent McCainiac who hopes to revive the Bull Moose tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, and I support the Kerry-Edwards agenda. Don't get me wrong -- this Bull Moose is not completely in agreement with the Democratic donkey. But the Bush administration has betrayed the effort to create a new politics of national greatness in the aftermath of 9/11. . . . If George W. Bush is re-elected, unlimited corporate power, cynicism, and division will ride high in the saddle. . . .

"When McCain threatened Bush in the 2000 primaries, we got the first real glimpse behind the curtain of Bush World -- with its vicious and ferocious assault on McCain's patriotism and character...

"Anyone who was involved in the 2000 McCain campaign, as I was, knows exactly who is responsible for the 'Swift boat' slime attack on Senator Kerry -- in Bush World, all low roads lead to Rove."

No proof offered on that point.

I've been getting lots of calls from the other networks on how Fox News can continue to have Carl Cameron covering the campaign after his satire (having Kerry proclaim himself a manicured "metrosexual") mistakenly got posted online. Here, courtesy of Hotline, is what some other talking heads have to say:

CNN's Paul Begala: "While right-wingers are calling for Dan Rather's head, no one is demanding that Fox fire Carl Cameron, the journalist who wrote the phony Kerry quotes as a joke that just got taken a little too far. Nor, may I say, should they. Carl Cameron is an excellent journalist. He just made a mistake. Dan Rather's an excellent journalist. He made a mistake, too."

MSNBC's Dan Abrams: "Reporters mock candidates all the time, they just don't usually get published. But my concern is not about what Cameron wrote, but about what may be a double standard. If a CNN reporter, or a reporter for any other broadcast network -- CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC -- jokingly wrote mocking quotes of President Bush, c'mon, Fox would have wall-to-wall coverage about how this demonstrates liberal bias. As I've said in the context of other media scandals, it's not always about bias! Sometimes it's just, in Fox's words, bad judgment, not malice. . . .

"I know a lot of people want to assume the worst, but mistakes happen, and when they do, it doesn't necessarily mean it was based on bias. It just may mean that the reporter's human. In this one I give Carl Cameron the benefit of any doubt. I just wonder whether his network would do the same for me or anyone else."


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