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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Sister Act

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2004; 12:00 PM

NEW YORK--I don't want to be unfair to Jenna and Barbara. Growing up in a fishbowl isn't easy.

But to paraphrase what Jay Leno said to Hugh Grant after his little escapade with a street hooker: What the hell were they thinking?

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The Post's Ann Gerhart discusses Jenna and Barbara Bush's appearance with The Today Show's Matt Lauer.
Video: Jenna and Barbara Bush
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And what was the person who vetted their speech thinking?

Sex jokes about former first lady Barbara Bush?

I've been covering conventions a long time, and this might have been the weirdest moment since George McGovern gave his acceptance speech at 3 a.m.

I mean, it looked like a video you would make in your basement, and then show only to your closest friends. To judge by the reaction of the scribes around me, already pumped up by Arnold, it was cringe-inducing. Maybe they were trying to appeal to the Paris Hilton crowd. Imus says he took his hearing aid out until the twins had left the stage.

Fortunately, their mom gave a nice speech to round out the evening.

I thought I must have been living on a different planet when Fox's Chris Wallace started gushing over how the young women had been funny, sexy, intelligent and so on. The reviews were not so kind on the other channels, or in the morning papers.

Take the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush daughters, fresh from their booing this week at the MTV Video Music Awards in Miami, came onstage at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night and introduced a new strategy in the war on terrorism: giggling. . . .

"The strategy Tuesday, apparently, was to have sisters Jenna and Barbara humanize and soften the grim-faced Politburo image that dogs the Bush-Cheney campaign, which hasn't made much of an effort to court those young Americans who call it a good day if they've remembered to TiVo 'The Simple Life.' So here they were, girlie and giggly and glammed-up (Jenna in some kind of Juicy couture-looking track suit top over white pants, Barbara in a black cocktail dress).

"They told slightly off-color jokes, apparently to drive home the point that, supporting a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage aside, their parents weren't totally freaked out about S-E-X. Her grandmother, Jenna said, 'thinks "Sex in the City" is something married people do but never talk about,' getting the show's name wrong. Barbara said, 'Jenna and I are really not very political.' She's the one who graduated from Yale.

"The Republicans, you were reminded, are really good at chest-thumping and flag-hugging, but they ought to stay away from showcasing their privileged, Prada-wearing first daughters until the campaign is over. After the speeches were over, even CNN's talking heads seemed to be struggling to make sense of the sisters' sister act. Judy Woodruff stammered, 'I'm not sure what that was about,' while an incensed Jeff Greenfield called the appearance a 'frankly discordant moment.'"

The New York Post, which likes the Republican convention better than it liked the Democrats'--"CONAN THE AMERICAN" is today's banner headline--finds no socially redeeming value in the daughters' shtick:

"The Bush twins made their national television debut last night -- with a string of weak one-liners that drew cringes from the crowd and at one point brought a soft rebuke from their grandparents.

"The twins, Barbara and Jenna Bush, had the job of introducing President Bush, who in turn introduced First Lady Laura Bush.

"For much of their brief time on stage, the twins seemed to amuse themselves more than the crowd."

The coverage, of course, was dominated by Arnold, as this New York Times story reflects:

"The bodybuilder turned movie star turned politician, who won his latest role as California governor in a recall vote last year, took center stage to lend his moderate image, his immigrant-made-good story, to a convention seeking to define the G.O.P. once again as a big-tent party. . . .

"Mr. Schwarzenegger's immediate job in speaking to the convention was to help promote the re-election of President Bush. But his appearance could not help but pump up his own political prospects.

"Conventions provide a chance to preen before the party faithful, an especially valuable opportunity for moderate Republicans like Mr. Schwarzenegger. And he wasted no time in trying to burnish his Republican credentials with biting partisan remarks. 'Speaking of acting, one of my movies was called "True Lies,"' he said. 'And that's what the Democrats should have called their convention.'"

Slate's William Saletan is impressed, but only to a point:

"Arnold Schwarzenegger gives one hell of a speech. It's the best speech I've seen at either of this year's conventions. I bet he persuaded a lot of people who share some Republican attitudes but feel uncomfortable with the party's hard core -- people like me -- to think seriously about voting for President Bush. If you're one of those folks, I'd like to talk to you about why a Schwarzenegger Republican shouldn't support Bush."

Ticking off the highlights, and noting the tale of how the new immigrant was inspired by Richard Nixon (the only time, I predict, that the disgraced ex-president's name will be heard in the Garden), Saletan writes: "I agree with every one of these things. I can see myself as a Schwarzenegger Republican. But I can't vote for Bush.

"Why not? Let's start with that Humphrey-Nixon story. It conveys that Schwarzenegger's understanding of the two parties is frozen in 1968. That's a long time ago. Both parties have changed a lot. The Democrats under Bill Clinton rediscovered a centrist philosophy they had abandoned. They became more attentive to public safety and more friendly to free enterprise. The Republican Party also shifted -- not to the center, but to the right. If you liked where Nixon stood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you're more likely to find similar policies 30 years later not in the administration of George W. Bush, but in the administration of Bill Clinton and possibly the administration of John Kerry."

Remember how the media loved the fact that the Dems limited their assaults on Bush in Boston? You don't hear much media chatter about the same issue in New York, but the Washington Times makes the point:

"The word to Republican speakers at the national convention is that bashing Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry is fine.

"Unlike Democrats, who put out word that they were editing speeches to tamp down on harsh criticism of President Bush at their convention in Boston in July, the Republicans are not shying away from full-throttle engagement. Headlining Monday night's action, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani referred to Mr. Kerry a dozen times, at one point saying the Massachusetts senator might even subjugate U.S. interests to the will of other nations."

Salon's Eric Boehlert, starting off with the swift boat attacks, laments the state of Kerry's rapid response:

"The nasty tricks have some Kerry supporters frustrated by the Democrats' inability to hit back hard -- and to take control of the news cycle by doing so. It hasn't always been this way. Two generations ago a Massachussetts Democrat, John F. Kennedy, beat the dirty-tricks politics of Richard Nixon by playing hardball himself. And in 1992, Bill Clinton defeated a nasty Bush campaign that had eviscerated Michael Dukakis four years earlier, by running a tough campaign war room and aggressively fighting the Bush attempts at smears. So far the Kerry campaign hasn't been able to master the same instinct for the jugular.

"'The response to the Swift Boat controversy was not at a level it should have been,' says Paul Alexander, director of "Brothers in Arms," a new documentary about Kerry's Vietnam days.

"'The question should be, what about Bush's military record? That's the response. Not that there were 12 bullet holes on the side of Kerry's boat in Vietnam. The only way to beat Karl Rove and that level of viciousness is to hit back harder. If Democrats don't understand that . . . well then, you can finish that sentence."

"Frustration also simmers around the press, and the double standard it seems to have adopted toward the candidates. 'Bush has run the most issueless, negative campaign in modern politics,' notes Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network. 'Yet nothing is written about the fact that a sitting president is offering no agenda for his second term.'"

Well, not exactly nothing, but . . .

"Nowhere has that that double standard been more apparent than when contrasting the way the media has covered the two parties' conventions. Compare the coverage of Bush's colossal blunder on Monday -- telling NBC's Matt Lauer that he didn't think the war on terror was winnable -- with Teresa Heinz Kerry's trivial 'shove it' remark during the Democratic Convention in Boston last month. So far, Bush's gaffe has garnered far less coverage than Heinz Kerry's."

It hasn't been buried, but Bush's rhetorical retreat has certainly gotten a fraction of the Teresa coverage.

I write elsewhere in The Post about Kerry beefing up his message team, as I quoted James Carville predicting in this space on Monday. But the New York Daily News gives it a little more drama:

"Sen. John Kerry is angry at the way his campaign has botched the attacks from the Swift boat veterans and has ordered a staff shakeup that will put former Clinton aides in top positions.

"'The candidate is furious,' a longtime senior Kerry adviser told the Daily News. 'He knows the campaign was wrong. He wanted to go after the Swift boat attacks, but his top aides said no.'"

Excuse me? Who exactly is in charge of the campaign? Shrum?

I've spent part of the last three days hanging out with Tom Brokaw as he covers his last convention, and if you're interested in how network news does these things, here's my dispatch from the skybox.

More static on McCain, this time from the New Republic's Jonathan Chait:

"McCain's most implausible attempt to cozy up to Bush has been his explanation of how he fundamentally agrees with Bush. 'Well I mentioned the transcendent issue [terrorism], but there's a variety of other issues: free trade, fiscal conservancy, economic policies that will stimulate growth,' he said. Let's see. Bush has boosted agriculture subsidies and imposed tariffs on steel, shrimp, and other products, while Kerry actually has a strong pro-free-trade record. Fiscal 'conservancy'? McCain has railed against the spending that has swollen under Bush, who has got to be the least fiscally responsible president in modern history. Economic policies to stimulate growth? Bush's policies include tax cuts and plenty of them, weakened environmental regulations, and opposition to a patients' bill of rights (which Bush claims would have led to an explosion of business-strangling lawsuits). Too bad McCain opposed Bush on every single one of those issues.

"McCain is spouting all this nonsense because, as he hardly even bothers to deny, he'd like to get the Republican nomination four years from now; his speech last night was part of his ongoing audition. I wish him well. If he got the nomination, I'd probably vote for him. (American politics desperately needs somebody to transform the GOP from a patronage party for lobbyists and the rich into a party that advances some semblance of the national interest.) But if McCain thinks that carrying Bush's water this fall will win over the Republican Party faithful, he's utterly deluded.

"McCain's apostasies on the environment, health care, stem cells, the gay marriage amendment, and other issues would disqualify him by themselves. "

What's Ari Fleischer up to these day? I know you've been wondering. The Los Angeles Times checks the box score:

"Now, after a year spent writing his memoirs and making speeches, he wants to coach. Specifically, he wants to be a pitching coach. He believes he can help athletes, coaches, teams and leagues make their pitches to the media, teach them what to say and what not to say, advise them how to handle all those annoying questions. . . .

"He considers himself highly qualified, citing what he calls the 'surprisingly striking and similar' live coverage and daily scrutiny of politics and sports. 'When Bush lost the New Hampshire primary [in 2000], within moments of his loss, the press was asking, "Are you going to fire [campaign strategist] Karl Rove?" When people said Dick Cheney was unpopular, at the beginning of this year, the press was asking, "Are you going to dump Cheney from the ticket?"' Fleischer said. 'In pro football, if your team starts out 0-3, the question is going to get asked: Are you going to fire the head coach?'"

That's funny--people are also asking that about his former boss.

"Hardball," which did the Dems from Fanueil Hall, is set up here at Herald Square, across from Macy's. And as Jay Rosen observes, other networks are following suit:

"I dropped by CNN's Tick Tock Diner, which sits on Eighth Avenue and 34 Street, catty corner from the arena and well inside the security perimeter. It's hard to say exactly what the Diner is during its temporary lease to CNN.

"'It has all the trappings of a diner,' wrote Dante Chinni in the Christian Science Monitor. 'There are chrome stools and booths, and waiters dressed in CNN aprons and shirts. But there's no real diner-- it's more of a VIP/media lounge cum TV-show set.'

"Now according to Sam Feist, senior executive producer for political programming, the idea was to grab a location 'that screamed New York.' And said politics. And this is it, he said, gesturing around-- a true New York Diner. . . .

"The Diner was one of the spaces CNN had designed to bring you and I 'closer to the convention,' a phrase in use in all my conversations at the Tick Tock. From them I confirmed the impression I had shared with PressThink readers. The sky box is dead, its vision outmoded. It is being abandoned as a base for convention coverage."

Yes, but how was the food?

Slate's Julia Turner tried so hard to like the first lady:

"Laura Bush, as prim as she seems, has always been something of a pinup girl for the left. We can't help it: We fantasize about her. Where conservatives see a demure Texan homemaker, we're sure she's a closet liberal, sensible and smart. Like lovesick teens, we pay undue attention to her most insignificant utterances. (One time, she refused to say what she thought about the death penalty. She's probably against it, just like us!) Shared interests seem to offer proof of some ultimate compatibility. (A librarian who loves reading! Doesn't she see? We love reading, too!)

"We've fooled ourselves into believing that she's too smart for her husband, that she's tormented by his brutish policies, that she's a dulcet voice of reason, whispering moderate nothings into the president's ear. But as George W. Bush's re-election campaign rolls onward, the truth becomes increasingly clear: Our fantasies are just that -- fantasy. Laura isn't the woman we thought she was. We've got to stop seeing her like this."

Meanwhile, it seems that Fox News is as popular with the anti-Bush demonstrators as, well, Michael Moore is with the GOP. Some protesters gathered at Fox's Sixth Avenue headquarters yesterday, carrying such signs as "Faux News" and, stealing a page from Bill O'Reilly, "Shut Up!"

But Fox could get the last laugh. Its ratings, as I noted late yesterday, are up 127 percent for the Republicans' first night than for the debut of the Democratic convention, while CNN's are down 39 percent and MSNBC's down 28 percent.


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