USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro says he went to the Iowa straw poll "for one reason: to denounce it. You're there only to record the wretched excess of a process gone completely mad."

Says Roger Simon of U.S. News & World Report, phoning from an Iowa bus: "We get to be disdainful of it--how silly it is, how unrepresentative, how meaningless--and yet a week from today you'll read stories about 'Candidate X, badly damaged in the Iowa straw poll, blah blah blah.' It's the stop-us-before-we-kill-again syndrome."

Some news organizations spent the week issuing ritual disclaimers. "One of the most undemocratic functions in American politics," said the Boston Globe. "Takes the implausibility to new heights," said the Weekly Standard.

But they all had to be in Ames for Saturday's GOP straw vote, unable to resist the media's favorite pastime: playing the expectations game. Since everyone knew George W. Bush would win the thing, the only questions were: Would he win by a sufficiently impressive margin (in the all-important estimation of the pundits)? And which candidates would flop badly enough that they would be forced out of the presidential race? Indeed, reporters kept pressing Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle on just when they would quit.

By yesterday morning's television spinfest, the commentators were declaring Alexander and Quayle (who finished sixth and eighth, respectively) to be toast. Alexander admitted on "Meet the Press" that he might well drop out, the only candidate to profess anything but delight at his showing, while Bush, the winner, continued to stay off the Sunday shows, sending out communications director Karen Hughes instead. (As part of the media's latest obsession, the journalists kept quizzing her on those unsubstantiated rumors about Bush and cocaine.)

Bush's 31 percent win was described as a "convincing victory" by the Associated Press but "less than a ringing endorsement" by The Washington Post. "I don't think Bush can lose this unless he does something extremely bad," Fox's Bill O'Reilly declared.

Steve Forbes's second-place finish was deemed "solid but somewhat disappointing" by the AP, with CNN's Tucker Carlson calling him "one of the big losers." (Didn't he beat everyone but Bush?) Yet Elizabeth Dole, in third place, was "the biggest winner out of all this," said ABC's George Will, and "the surprise of the night," in the New York Post's estimation.

The straw poll is inherently unrepresentative, a test of whether campaigns can bus in enough Iowa residents, lure them with barbecue and entertainment and pay their $25 voting fee. It takes place in the fourth whitest state in the nation among participants who are better educated and more politically attuned than the average citizen. And the results--unlike the Iowa caucuses next February--are nonbinding.

Fittingly, the Ames poll was certified as a big deal by media hype in 1975, says former Des Moines Register editor James Flansburg, who admitted to The Post that "my only real interest was getting a news story that no one else had."

Whatever the degree of journalistic inflation, Saturday's poll assumed genuine importance because it will almost surely produce real casualties. And the press has the advance obituaries all but written.

Shapiro sees another motive: "Reporters are like Rotarians; we haven't had a good convention for a while. This becomes a de facto convention for the talking heads."

Footnote: Before the poll, Quayle was asked about comments by former aide Bill Kristol that his campaign is in danger of collapse. "Well, he's not working for me," Quayle told CNN. "I tell you what: If he was working for me, he would not make any kind of statements like that."

In the Hood

For Brent Larkin, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's editorial page editor, a free trip to the All-Star Game turned into a major-league embarrassment.

Larkin accepted a ride on the private jet of developer Richard Jacobs, a longtime friend who owns the Cleveland Indians. During the flight, Jacobs donned a makeshift Ku Klux Klan hood and made his way down the aisle. The guests laughed, including Larkin and George Forbes, president of the Cleveland NAACP and an outspoken Klan opponent.

Larkin did not report the incident to his paper, which interviewed him for a story 18 days later after a columnist got an anonymous letter that accused the Plain Dealer of covering up the matter.

"It's a tough question," Larkin says. "I'd be lying through my teeth to say I don't think about it.

"I chose to put what happened on that plane in the context of something that took place between two very, very close friends," Jacobs and Forbes. Larkin says he felt comfortable laughing at the Klan imitation "since Forbes didn't seem to be offended by it."

As for the propriety of accepting a free trip from a local businessman and team owner, Larkin says: "I'm not going to apologize for being on the plane, but I can certainly understand people who say maybe I shouldn't have been. I'm a big boy, and I understand that."

Editor Doug Clifton says he would have preferred that Larkin informed the paper of the incident "so we can evaluate it as a potential news story." As for the free trip, "I'd rather we not do that, but I don't see it as a major problem with his objectivity or his dealings with the team."

Stop the Tape!

Lisa Caputo is lucky the show wasn't live. The former Hillary Clinton spokeswoman was holding forth on CNBC's "Hardball" when she declared--falsely--that Charles Bakaly, a former aide to Kenneth Starr, had been indicted, convicted and was serving time in jail. When other panelists expressed skepticism, Caputo said she hadn't read about it herself but had been told this by a good source.

Someone had been feeding her misinformation. Bakaly, while under scrutiny in a federal leak inquiry, has not been charged with anything.

"I was totally misinformed," Caputo says. "I made a mistake, and I feel horrible about it. I didn't check all my facts."

"Hardball" Executive Producer Rob Yarin says he halted the taping because "no one had heard of this whatsoever. She had someone behind bars who as far as we knew was not. We decided that had to come out of the show."

After the Fall

Patricia Smith says her journalistic fabrications broke up her marriage.

Breaking her silence with an article in Essence magazine, the former Boston Globe columnist says her eight-year marriage "buckled under the weight" of her disgrace in being forced to leave the paper last year. "The strain caused by strangers dissecting our life brought preexisting problems into sharper, painful focus," she says.

Smith describes a nightmarish aftermath to the scandal in which "I no longer wanted to be seen in public. I drove to the grocery store in the dead of night when there would be fewer chances I would be recognized, whispered about, pitied." But Smith also castigates former colleagues who kept "pounding nails in my coffin."

Portraying herself as a black "scapegoat," Smith accuses Eileen McNamara, a white Globe columnist, of writing a "vitriolic and racist column, dubbing me what affirmative action hath wrought." (McNamara actually said it was "the worst kind of racism that kept us from confronting the fraud we long suspected.") And Smith says the Chicago Tribune's Rick Kogan "sold out our 20-year friendship for a scoop." (He wrote it was "sadly stunning how some people took delight in Smith's troubles.")

"I can certainly understand why Pat is hurt, but we didn't make this happen," Kogan says.

CAPTION: Meaningless ritual? George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, Steve Forbes and Orrin Hatch at the Iowa straw poll.

CAPTION: Although the results are nonbinding, the Iowa straw poll provides excellent fodder for the media on the futures of these nine Republican candidates.