Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
The first night of the Republican's hurricane-delayed convention didn't matter--thanks to John McCain's decision to place Sarah Palin on his ticket. By choosing the little-known Alaska governor, who a short while ago was mayor of a small town and who has come to the national stage with soap opera in tow, McCain made Palin the story of this shortened week. There's more anticipation for her acceptance speech (on Wednesday night) than for his (Thursday night). George W. Bush, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani—forget about 'em, only Palin truly counts.
But the first night did reveal what McCain's strategists are thinking—or worrying—about. The speakers focused over and over on McCain's experience as a Vietnam prisoner of war and devoted little time to his 21 years in the Senate. It was almost as if McCain's two-and-a-half decades in Congress were a dirty secret. And one of the main speeches of the night—delivered by former Senator Fred Thompson—was full of 1980s-styled Republican red meat. (Democrats support abortion rights and will raise YOUR taxes.) It seemed as if the convention planners were so concerned about the Republican base that they had to go back to the future and plagiarize the Reagan playbook. And throughout the night, there was practically no acknowledgment there's any economic pain in the world outside the Xcel Energy Center. The McCain people say, this election is about character, not issues. Tonight really proved that: McCain doesn't need to feel voters' pain; they need to feel his.
The Republicans were somewhat fortunate they only have three evenings to program, due to Hurricane Gustav. How many times can McCain's "service" be praised before a well-behaved, not-very-excited crowd of well-dressed, older and predominantly white Americans who sit in neat rows beneath an electronic billboard bearing the phrase "Country First" and who hold on their laps placards that proclaim, "Service"? And how many Teddy Roosevelt references?
McCain may be the top of the ticket, but Palin has been the main attraction. After the news of her teenage daughter's pregnancy emerged—and smothered rumors that Palin had faked a pregnancy to cover up a supposed earlier pregnancy—the convention seemed to freeze. At receptions, during panel discussions, and in hotel lobbies, there was no talk of Bush's speech, which was first canceled and then rescheduled (as a video address on Tuesday). And no talk of what would be in McCain's speech. The one question is, how will she do?
Alaska's getting pretty crowded...with investigative reporters and scandal-chasers. Last night, at receptions, hotel bars, and restaurants, journalists covering the Gustav-delayed Republican convention were chewing on nothing but the Sarah Palin soap opera and discussing which reporters had been deployed to the northernmost state to dig for more dirt on John McCain's not-so-vetted running-mate. What might be most frightening for the McCain camp is that the National Enquirer reportedly has dispatched a scandal SWAT team to Alaska. Given the tabloid's success with the John Edwards scoop (and its ability to pay cash for tips and information), should Palin fans be biting their nails?
It is, of course, possible for Palin to rise above all the recent unpleasantness by wowing the convention--and the viewing public--with a heckuva speech on Wednesday night. It will probably be the most anticipated vice presidential acceptance speech in decades. But there will still be another ritual for Palin to go through: her first press conference with the national media.
In past elections, controversial veep picks have not fared well during these coming-out sessions. In 1992, Dan Quayle raised more doubts about himself after his first grilling by the national press. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro flopped during a press conference that focused on her husband's controversial business dealings.
it was late into the night of September 2, 2004. I was in the near-empty bar of the Essex House hotel in New York City. George W. Bush had just delivered his acceptance speech at the gop convention at Madison Square Garden. Before a pumped-up crowd, the president had declared that Iraq had been "a gathering threat" before he launched the invasion. He blurred the line between the terrorists responsible for 9/11 and the insurgents in Iraq. He described John Kerry's vote against war funding as a vote to leave US soldiers unprotected. He claimed, "Our strategy is succeeding." As I sat in the bar writing my piece, the tables next to me slowly filled with senior reporters and top editors from the Washington Post. Typing away, I could hear them deride Bush's speech as a collection of misrepresentations. Their consensus was clear: Bush was trying to pull a fast one.
Okay, which obvious point do you want regarding Babygate? Or is it Babygate II? As you probably know, on Labor Day, the McCain campaign released this statement from Sarah Palin, McCain's running-mate, and her husband Todd:
We have been blessed with five wonderful children who we love with all our heart and mean everything to us. Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned. We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents. As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support.
Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family. We ask the media to respect our daughter and Levi's privacy as has always been the tradition of children of candidates.
The Palins sacrificed their 17-year-old daughter's privacy themselves in order to smother a fast-spreading rumor (or conspiracy theory) that Sarah Palin's fifth child, born this past April, was really Bristol's child. So how to process all this...bizarreness?
First, isn't it curious that a rumor about a secret pregnancy was squelched by the disclosure of a real pregnancy? What are the odds? I'm not suggesting the above statement from the Palins is a lie. This could well be a case of reality being far more strange than fiction. But it is darn weird. At a luncheon for journalists and politicos on Monday afternoon, several prominent journalists were shaking their heads in disbelief that the first day of the convention was being dominated not by Gustav and the cancellation of the nighttime program but by the Palin family soap opera.
Second, imagine if any thing of this sort had happened on the Democratic side. Wouldn't social conservatives be expressing frothy outrage? Or at least implying outrage? I'm reminded of how Newt Gingrich used to try to exploit whatever was in the news to depict the Democrats as the party of family and societal dysfunction. During the 1992 convention, he said, "Woody Allen having nonincest with a nondaughter to whom he was a nonfather because they were a nonfamily fits the Democratic platform perfectly." And then there's the time in 1991, after a South Carolina woman named Susan Smith killed her two daughters, that Gingrich said, "I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. The only way you get change is to vote Republican."
An out-of-wedlock birth ain't murder; still, it does not take much imagination to conceive how right-wingers would use such a family matter should it happen to a Democrat.
Third, bloggers and webbies will, no doubt, continue to pursue the original rumor. Fine. But they ought not dump unproved allegations onto the Internet. There is a place for decency on the Internet--even if the overall mission is aimed at undoing the work of an administration that misled the nation into war. Meanwhile, reporters and political ops sitting around doing nothing in St. Paul, realizing that the Palin family is also embroiled in another dicey matter (an investigation into whether Sarah Palin applied pressure to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from his job as an Alaskan state trooper), are wondering what else might come out about Palin and her family. After all, the convention has three more days to go.
Hurricane Gustav is threatening the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf coast. It is also threatening the Republican convention in St. Paul, where John McCain will be nominated this week. Or is it helping McCain?
On Sunday afternoon, President Bush announced that due to the hurricane he would skip the GOP convention, where he and Dick Cheney were scheduled to speak on Monday night, and the McCain campaign said it would cancel most of the convention program for that day. (Cheney, too, is taking a pass on St. Paul.) Instead, Bush will head to Houston to be near hurricane rescue efforts. As if his presence there is going to matter. Bush is wisely not going to New Orleans, for a presidential visit there would surely disrupt rescue operations.
But is Bush's absence from St. Paul a win or loss for McCain? Certainly, he could do hurricane-like damage to the McCain campaign if a split-screen television shot on Monday night showed Bush addressing the GOP delegates and Gustav slamming into New Orleans. Any junior image-manipulator would know that such a thing must be avoided at all costs. Even without a hurricane, Bush's appearance at the McCain-fest in St. Paul could have been dicey. The Obama campaign is doing all it can to tie McCain to the most unpopular president in decades. No doubt, some of convention planners would have liked from the start to have a Bush-less program. But had they not invited the president, they would have created a major issue that would have dominated the convention. Now they can say, Thank God for the weather. And Bush has a good excuse for staying clear.
There is a cost. Hurricane Gustav is damn powerful reminder of Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration's abject failure. So whether Bush is at the convention or not, the ghost of Katrina will hover over the proceedings--even if the convention planners get their thousands of delegates to eschew the parties and do volunteer work to help Gustav victims. Moreover, Gustav may rob media time and attention from the GOP effort to define--that is, delegitimize--Barack Obama. Fewer hours of convention equals fewer hours of Obama-bashing. And if there is a crisis under way, a hyper-partisan attack might seem untoward.
Gustav ought to be also a reminder of McCain's own failure to lead during the Katrina disaster. As Jonathan Stein noted in April (when McCain toured the hurricane-damaged areas of New Orleans):
But McCain's record on Hurricane Katrina suggests that he was part of the problem, not the solution. McCain was on Face the Nation on August 28, 2005, as Katrina gathered in the Gulf Coast. He said nothing about it. One day later, when Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, McCain was on a tarmac at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, greeting President Bush with a cake in celebration of McCain's 69th birthday. Three days later, with the levees already breached and New Orleans filling with water, McCain's office released a three-sentence statement urging Americans to support the victims of the hurricane.
Though McCain issued a statement the next week calling on Congress to make sacrifices in order to fund recovery efforts, he was quoted in The New Leader on September 1 cautioning against over-spending in support of Katrina's victims. "We also have to be concerned about future generations of Americans," he said. "We're going to end up with the highest deficit, probably, in the history of this country."
Here's a visual reminder:
It's a shot that ought to be circulated widely this week--whether or not Bush is in St. Paul.