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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Four More Years . . . of Nastiness?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2004; 8:32 AM

Let's say there's a winner tonight, or tomorrow morning, or sometime in the reasonably foreseeable future, and we finally know, after this incredibly long, bitter and divisive campaign, who will be running the country for the next four years.

What then?

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Will the 48 or 49 percent of the country that didn't vote for Bush (or Kerry) be so infuriated that the politics of polarization will continue as soon as the pundits finish proclaiming why the genius campaign won and the dumb loser campaign lost (as always happens)? Will Election Day 2004 turn out to be the merest catching of breath, like a referee's whistle, before the two sides begin pummeling each other again? And will Crossfire/Hardball/Hannity/O'Reilly/Scarborough and company, along with the rest of the media, resume the shouting, finger-pointing and trash-talking as if the whole campaign was just a pointless exercise?

That would be a shame.

There was a time--I can dimly remember it--when the loser graciously conceded on Election Day and the new president got a honeymoon of at least a few months. That didn't happen last time, because the Dems felt Gore had been robbed, but it doesn't seem likely to happen this time either. The left will just resume its bashing of a reelected President Bush, and the right would probably start trying to undermine President-elect Kerry.

I could be wrong about this, in an age of red and blue media, but I suspect that the public's view of journalism will sink even lower if we are perceived as aiding and abetting the continued partisan warfare without missing a beat. Iraq and all these other divisive issues will still be out there, but a new president--even a narrowly elected one--deserves a chance to make his case.

As for when we'll know who that person might be, here's what you need to know.

New Hampshire polls close at 7 ET.

Ohio at 7:30.

Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania at 8.

Minnesota and Wisconsin at 9.

Iowa at 10.

But expect the networks to be very, very cautious about making projections.

After typing the lead to this column, I happened upon this piece by the Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray:

"If George W. Bush wins, many Americans will see it as a triumph of deception. He won, they will argue, with his lies -- convincing a gullible public that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when in fact he wasn't. And if John Kerry wins, just as many will see it as the work of a corrupt liberal establishment. He won, they will argue, with the help of an elite media, peddling false stories in an anything-goes effort to get their man elected.

"Either way, the fissures deepen."

The New York Post had an all-pro-Bush op-ed section yesterday: its usual columnists (John Podhoretz, Dick Morris, Ralph Peters) plus guest columns from Rudy Giuliani, former NYC police commish Bernard Kerik and state police union prez Frank Ferreyra. And today the paper's headline is a star-spangled D-DAY with a full-page shot of Bush.

And for those keeping track of Clinton's campaigning, a Nexis search of just the past week finds 114 stories mentioning both "Bill Clinton" and "rock star." Bruce Springsteen, move over.

Now we discover that Kerry is a lot more superstitious than anyone realized. The Boston Globe describes him campaigning in Wisconsin with his lucky Red Sox hat--he does look far more relaxed in recent days, as if he's finally enjoying himself, or maybe it's just beating the Curse--and more:

"First he introduced his daughter Alexandra, fresh from campaigning in Hawaii, where, the senator said, 'rain is a blessing.' Then he welcomed Governor Jim Doyle, noting that he is Wisconsin's 44th chief executive and is trying to make Kerry the 44th president of the United States.

"In the next breath, Kerry hailed the Green Bay Packers for going to Washington and beating the Redskins on Sunday, telling the crowd that the outcome of the last Redskins home game prior to Election Day has augured the outcomes of presidential races since 1936 (with a Redskins loss spelling the loss of the incumbent). . . .

"Elsewhere on the trail, he pulls out his lucky buckeye on nearly every stop in Ohio, and still carries a four-leaf clover given to him as he bounced back in Iowa caucus polls to a surprise victory."

Josh Marshall has some absentee estimates:

"According to Gallup's mega-final-ultra poll out Sunday evening, 30% of registered voters in Florida have already voted, either through early voting or by absentee. Of those who have already voted, Kerry leads President Bush 51% to 43%.

"According to the Des Moines Register poll out late Saturday evening, 27% of Iowa adults have already voted. And among those Kerry leads 52% to 41%.

"Both numbers seem good for Kerry -- though they may mean a lot of different things."

Oh, and Bush is leading in today's voting, the AP reports:

The nation's first Election Day votes were cast and counted just after midnight in a pair of mountain hamlets, with 35 votes for President Bush besting challenger John Kerry's 21. Ralph Nader received one vote.

One part of the battle is already under way:

"With a final round of opinion surveys showing the contest a dead heat - closer than the polls on election day 2000 - the two sides mobilized hundreds of thousands of volunteers and professional organizers to coax their supporters to the ballot booth," says the Los Angeles Times.

"Adding tension to the tightness of the contest, both sides accused the other of malicious mischief. In Lansing, Mich., some voters received calls falsely claiming that Kerry would legalize gay marriage. In New Jersey, Republicans complained that voters were getting phone calls touting a phony endorsement of Kerry by retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

"An army of lawyers, Democrat and Republican, was also deployed across the country, poised to litigate at the first sign of a dimpled chad."

Here's a Supreme subject that would be getting 100 times more attention if it hadn't happened in the campaign's final week:

"Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist disclosed Monday that his thyroid cancer was being treated with both chemotherapy and radiation, and he did not return to work despite his previously announced plan to do so," the New York Times reports.

"A carefully worded statement released by his office shortly before the other eight justices began hearing arguments gave no indication when, or whether, the 80-year-old chief justice might return to the bench.

"That silence invited immediate speculation that he would soon retire. The doctors who are treating him have not made any public statements. But medical specialists not connected with his case said his course of treatment strongly suggested that he could be suffering from a rapidly progressive type of cancer that had already spread and might now be inoperable. This would make it unlikely that he could complete the court's current term."

Which could be the first political battle of 2005.

Those who believed that Howell Raines was biased against Bush when he was executive editor of the New York Times will be fascinated by this piece in the St. Petersburg Times--which include whacks not only at W. but at Fox and the Internet:

"If George Bush wins the presidential election, Americans can mark it down as a triumph of thug politics. If John Kerry wins, as I believe he will, that conversely will not mean that thug politics will be finished as the dominant style of modern American presidential campaigns. . . .

"The 'anything-to-win' mentality, while always a feature of hard-fought democratic elections, has been perfected by the Bush family into a monumentally amoral strategic doctrine. . . .

"The most dangerous trait of the Internet is not merely its speed, but its creation of demand and credulity for unverified information. Perhaps for the first time since invention of the printing press, a new information technology has become more efficient at spreading disinformation than knowledge.

"Propaganda, speculation and rumor once traveled in compartments of the print and broadcast world. Now all move with viral speed through all venues of communication. The decline of critical powers among the generation conditioned by this information environment has been viral, as well.

"In another amazing shift, a foreigner, Rupert Murdoch, and his handpicked chairman of Fox News, the campaign strategist Roger Ailes, have become the most important standard setters in the nation's political journalism. . . .

"THE BUSHES: My generation of political reporters bear some responsibility for this ethically bankrupt dynasty. . . .

"Who could have guessed that such a proud, powerful know-nothing as George W. Bush would be a scion of the great Industrial Age fortunes and a graduate of our second oldest university?. . . .

"The Bush-Cheney-Rove technique of treating any reasoned response as an opponent's attempt to divide America has proven so effective that momentous issues - the dismantling of federal environmental enforcement, Halliburton's war profiteering, the Vietnam-like disenchantment of professional military officers - are inadequately addressed on the stump or in campaign coverage."

Of course, this doesn't mean Raines couldn't put aside his opinions as editor, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some online blowback.

Helen Thomas is a columnist now, not a UPI scribe, and she shares her opinions:

"George W. Bush should not be reelected.

"Among them is the dominance of the radical right in his advisory councils, who are taking the United States down the wrong road at the start of the 21st century.

"The road could lead to more mindless wars abroad and a widening gap between the rich and the poor in this country.

"There will be only one way to read the election results if Bush wins: The world will see his victory as an affirmation by the American people of his disastrous preemptive war policy, which led the United States to invade Iraq without provocation."

The Economist regards this as a choice "between two deeply flawed men: George Bush, who has been a radical, transforming president but who has never seemed truly up to the job, let alone his own ambitions for it; and John Kerry, who often seems to have made up his mind conclusively about something only once, and that was 30 years ago." But the editors have weighed in for Kerry, saying their confidence in Bush has been "shattered."

Why should you care? "The Economist's weekly sales in the United States are about 450,000 copies, which is three times our British sale and roughly 45% of our worldwide total. All those American readers will now be pondering how to vote, or indeed whether to."

Fred Barnes is worries about anti-Bush animosity:

"The scariest thing about this election is not the prospect of a contested outcome with no winner declared for weeks, just as in 2000. No, the most scary thing is the sense of entitlement that many Democrats and their allies have about Tuesday's election. It goes like this: Bush stole the presidency four years ago, then proceeded to act as if he had a mandate, so now we're entitled to do whatever it takes to defeat him, to say whatever we want.

"You see it in the bumper stickers that call for the 're-defeat' of President Bush. You see it in the destruction of Bush yard signs and posters all across the country. You see it in the harassment, at least in blue states, of anyone wearing a Bush pin or button. You see it in the hatred of Bush by his opponents, who think they're only venting righteous indignation.

"You see it in the religious bigotry against the president, a born-again Christian, and against his conservative Christian supporters. Without any evidence, Bush's opponents accuse him of believing that he has a direct line to God and that God gives him instructions, such as when to invade Iraq, and that any criticism of him is illegitimate. You see the bigotry as well in the belittling of Christians who support Bush as if their political views have no standing or worth because they may have been influenced by their religious faith."

The New Republic's Gregg Easterbrook second-guesses the biggest decision of Kerry's campaign:

"When I look at the electoral map, my eyes are drawn not to Florida or Ohio but Missouri. And that makes me wonder if Kerry made the right decision by choosing John Edwards as his running mate.

"Yours truly is a big fan of Edwards as a person and as a future leader. Like Bill Clinton, Edwards has the gift--he's a rare talent. What Edwards does not have, and was never likely to have, is the ability to deliver North Carolina's 15 electoral votes. Polls show George W. Bush leading in North Carolina by ten points. That Edwards may not be able to bring his own state's vote to the Democratic ticket is no criticism of him, nor does it mean he can't win national office himself. It just means North Carolina has lately been voting Republican in presidential contests--in 2000, Bush carried the state by 13 points--and Edwards was never likely to be able to change that.

"Contrast this to Missouri, where Dick Gephardt is beloved as a favorite son. Bush is leading by a small margin in Missouri; in 2000, he carried the state by three points. The Show Me State has many times demonstrated its love of Gephardt--had he been Kerry's running mate, he might well have been able to deliver Missouri and its eleven delegates. Yours truly is also a fan of Gephardt, who might have brought to Kerry's candidacy not only Missouri's votes but moderate populism, labor ties, bipartisan credentials for his help to Bush in the days after September 11, and none of the negatives associated with Edwards's trial-lawyer calling. If Kerry loses by a margin smaller than Missouri's eleven electoral votes, his choice of Edwards over Gephardt may come to be seen as a historic blunder."

More predictions, this time at American Prospect. Nine of 10 staffers pick Kerry.

Having written a book that starred Mike McCurry, it's interesting to see a new generation of reporters discovering him, as a Kerry adviser.

"McCurry's charmed relationship with the press is certainly a major part of why Kerry has been winning the daily hand-to-hand combat with Bush this week," says the New Republic's Ryan Lizza.

"McCurry has quickly become a beloved figure to Kerry's traveling press. The secret to McCurry's success with journalists is that his operating premise is that he is one of them. Yes, he works for John Kerry, but McCurry lets reporters know that he thinks more like a reporter than a flak. A small but revealing example: Not long ago, during a press conference call, someone asked a question about some internal campaign issue, and McCurry said he didn't have the answer. Then he made some suggestions about how one could call around to campaign officials and dig out the information. It would be unthinkable for a Bush staffer to offer strategic advice about how to pry news out of the administration.

"With Bush's aides there are few winks and nods. There is rarely a recognition of the ridiculous rituals in which both sides engage. But McCurry's approach is to place every piece of spin in a knowing, self-referential context. Instead of force-feeding reporters, he sugars their medicine with tidbits about motives, strategy, and political process."

Finally, when you read this piece in the Charlotte Observer about the Charlotte Observer, does the phrase "selling your soul" come to mind:

"When you walk down your driveway to pick up your Observer Saturday morning, you'll notice something different about the bag it comes in.

"It carries an ad for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Richard Burr.

"The red, white and blue bags will accompany major newspapers across North Carolina. Similar bags will encase newspapers in South Carolina and more than a dozen states across the country, carrying advertising for candidates in close contests for president or Senate.

"The ads are courtesy of the National Rifle Association, which paid $1 million for the nationwide buy. . . . Three days before the election, his picture with the slogan "Freedom First, Richard Burr for Senate," will accompany 220,000 home-delivered copies of the Observer and hundreds of thousands of other papers in the state.

"Aly Colon, who teaches ethics to professional journalists at the Poynter Institute, said some readers could mistake the ad for an endorsement. . . . Observer Publisher Peter Ridder said he doesn't expect that to be a problem. 'I think most people know that it's an advertisement,' he said."

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