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.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), fighting for his career amid allegations that he did not respond properly when told of Foley's e-mails, has gone to conservative media outlets to make his case. On Rush Limbaugh's radio show, Hastert agreed when the host said the Foley story was driven by Democrats "in some sort of cooperation with some in the media" to suppress turnout of conservative voters before the Nov. 7 elections.
Limbaugh offered no evidence. But the same accusation was leveled in Hastert's interview with Hugh Hewitt, another prominent conservative radio host and blogger, who said the speaker is a "target right now of the left-wing media machine."
Those comments are a reminder that a changed media culture that creates new perils for politicians also provides new forms of refuge. For a full generation on the conservative side, and more recently among liberals, ideologues have created a menu of new media alternatives, including talk radio and Web sites. New media have also elevated flamboyant political entrepreneurs such as Ann Coulter on the right and Michael Moore on the left to prominent places in the political dialogue. New media platforms make criticism of traditional "mainstream media" part of their stock in trade.
This development usually ensures that any politician in trouble can count on some sympathetic forums to make his or her case. It often ensures that any controversy is marked by intense disagreement over the basic facts or relevance of the story, and obscured by clouds of accusation over the opposition's motives.
Clinton benefited from this phenomenon during his recent showdown with Fox News. Appearing on a network that many liberals regard as enemy terrain, he said interviewer Chris Wallace and his bosses were distorting his terrorism record to carry water for conservatives.
Kerry advisers think the most important factor in his loss was the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which attacked his war record. The group initially received scant attention in old media outlets, but its accusations were fanned by the Drudge Report, Fox News and other new media platforms. By the end, the accusations dominated coverage in both old and new media.
Each time a similar episode occurs, it is often covered as an isolated and even eccentric event. But Clinton, in an earlier interview, said his party should understand that the ideological and financial incentives among politicians and media organizations mean that every election cycle will feature such episodes -- and it should plan accordingly.
But he said Democrats of his generation tend to be naive about new media realities. There is an expectation among Democrats that establishment old media organizations are de facto allies -- and will rebut political accusations and serve as referees on new-media excesses.
"We're all that way, and I think a part of it is we grew up in the '60s and the press led us against the war and the press led us on civil rights and the press led us on Watergate," Clinton said. "Those of us of a certain age grew up with this almost unrealistic set of expectations."
Few conservatives would make a similar miscalculation. Many of the first generation of new media platforms, including Limbaugh's show and Drudge's Web site, first flourished because of a conviction among conservatives that old media were unfair.
All this has given Republicans a comfort and skill at using new media to political advantage that most Democrats have not matched. At the Republican National Committee, leaking items to the Drudge Report is an official part of communications strategy.
During the 2004 campaign, current and former RNC staff members said, opposition research nuggets on Kerry were almost always leaked first to the Web site. Sometimes they were trivial -- such as the fact that Kerry got expensive haircuts at the Christophe salon -- other times they were controversial quotes from his days as a Vietnam War protester. All together, these and other items contributed to Kerry losing control of his public image.
Ken Mehlman, the RNC chairman and head of Bush's reelection campaign, said his operatives leaked to Drudge because it inevitably drove wider coverage, including to old media organizations: "He puts something up and they have to follow it."
Last year, a delegation of RNC officials flew to Miami Beach, where Drudge lives, for a dinner at the Forge steakhouse to introduce the Internet maven to Matt Rhodes, the party's new opposition research director.
One of those who salutes the changing landscape -- with as much passion as Clinton deplores it -- is Cheney, who said he considers the breakdown of what he called an old media "monopoly" as among the most favorable trends of his years in politics. He said the change requires politicians to grow a thicker skin. Once while shaving, he heard Imus referring to someone as "Pork Chop." Only after a few minutes did he realize the host "was talking about me. I'm Pork Chop. And I laughed like hell."
"Sometimes it's pretty trashy," he said of new media's rise. "But I guess I'd put the proposition that there's more time and opportunity for policy discussions and debate than there used to be."
The next several weeks -- in which Republicans will bear the heat of an intense media-driven scandal in the Foley case -- may test Cheney's faith in that proposition.