Correction to This Article
An Oct. 6 article incorrectly said that a 2005 dinner in Miami Beach was held to introduce Internet publisher Matt Drudge to Republican National Committee research director Tim Griffin. The dinner was held to introduce Drudge to Matt Rhoades, who was moving into the research position. Griffin, who was also at the dinner, preceded Rhoades in the job.

New Media A Weapon in New World Of Politics

Vice President Cheney says he considers the breakdown of an old media
Vice President Cheney says he considers the breakdown of an old media "monopoly" as among the most favorable trends of his years in politics. (By Alex Wong -- Associated Press)
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2006

At first glance, three uproars that buffeted American politics in recent weeks have little in common.

Former congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla.) ended his political career over sexually charged e-mails to former House pages. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) stumbled over his puzzling use of the word "macaca" and his clumsy response to revelations about his Jewish ancestry. Former president Bill Clinton had a televised temper fit when an interviewer challenged his terrorism record.

All three episodes, however, were in their own ways signs of the unruly new age in American politics. Each featured an arresting personal angle. Each originally percolated in the world of new media -- Web sites and news outlets that did not exist a generation ago -- before charging into the traditional world of newspapers and television networks. In each case, the accusations quickly pivoted into a debate about the motivations and alleged biases of the accusers.

Cumulatively, the stories highlight a new brand of politics in which nearly any revelation in the news becomes a weapon or shield in the daily partisan wars, and the aim of candidates and their operatives is not so much to win an argument as to brand opponents as fundamentally unfit.

In interviews, figures as diverse as Clinton, Vice President Cheney and White House strategist Karl Rove spoke about their experiences navigating the highly polarized and often downright toxic political and media environment that blossomed in the 1990s and reached full flower in recent years. Their comments, and those of their associates, underscore just how dramatically changes in media culture have influenced the strategies and daily routines of leading political figures.

Cheney said he often starts his day by listening to radio host Don Imus, whose trash-talking style has given him legions of fans and made his show a frequent stop of politicians. Cheney's wife, Lynne, people close to her say, is an avid consumer of Matt Drudge's online Drudge Report, which often either breaks or promotes stories with a salacious angle and in recent days has bannered every new disclosure in the Foley case.

Rove said he has benefited on occasion from the new-media echo chamber. When he gave a speech last year saying liberals want to give terrorists understanding and therapy, he delighted when Democrats howled in protest. This guaranteed that the story would stay alive for days. "I was sort of amused by it because it struck me, well, they're just simply repeating my argument, which was good," he said.

Clinton -- who regards Rove with a mixture of admiration and disdain as the most effective modern practitioner of polarizing politics -- said in an interview that he has become fixated on the problem of how Democrats can learn to fight more effectively against the kind of attack President Bush's top political aide leveled. Associates of the former president said he thinks that Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) in 2004 lost the presidency because they could not effectively respond to a modern media culture that places new emphasis on politicians' personalities and provides new incentives for personal attack.

While the Foley and Allen episodes burned Republicans, Clinton said in an interview earlier this year that he thinks the proliferation of media outlets, as well as the breakdown of old restraints in both media and politics, on balance has favored Republicans. Without mentioning Gore or Kerry by name, he complained that many Democrats have allowed themselves to become unnerved and even paralyzed in response.

"All of this is a head game, you know. . . . All great contests are head games," Clinton said. "Our candidates have to get to a point where they don't allow other people to define them as either people or as political leaders. Our people have got to be more psychologically prepared for it, and there has to be more distance between them and these withering attacks."

Associates said he regards this as his most important advice to his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), if she runs for president in 2008.

In any generation, the disclosure of Foley's sexual overtures to teenage boys would have been a big story and ended his public career. But it was the confluence of new media trends and a trench-warfare mentality pervading national politics that turned the story into a round-the-clock furor.

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