(Double) standard operating procedure: why "America's Mayor" isn't "America's ex-husband"
Two weeks ago, we noted that ABC News' Charlie Gibson asked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton if she would be in a position to be a "credible" candidate for president were it not for her husband. We wrote at the time:
The justification for Gibson's question of Clinton is presumably that she would not have the national profile that enables her to run for president if not for her husband. Given Sen. Clinton's own accomplishments, that's a debatable premise.
This week, McClatchy Newspapers chief political correspondent Steven Thomma responded:
Does anyone honestly believe that New York Democrats would have cleared the primary field for their open Senate seat in 2000 for a woman from Arkansas -- even an accomplished lawyer with a record of working on children's issues -- if she weren't first lady?
"[R]idiculous"? It's ridiculous to suggest that maybe -- maybe, not definitely -- Hillary Clinton might have been a credible presidential candidate if she'd never met Bill Clinton?
(And, by the way, Thomma is cheating by changing the question. Gibson didn't ask, "If you weren't married to Bill Clinton, were an accomplished lawyer with a record of working on children's issues, would New York Democrats have cleared the field for you in 2000, allowing you to become a credible presidential candidate today?" Gibson asked, "[W]ould you be in this position were it not for your husband?" Who knows what would have happened if Hillary had not married Bill? Maybe she would have been a senator from Illinois 20 years ago, or a judge. Maybe she would have been elected president in 1992. Maybe she would be a small-town lawyer nobody had ever heard of.)
Thomma is, of course, entitled to his opinion that there is no way a woman like Hillary Clinton could possibly have accomplished enough to be a credible presidential candidate without marrying well. We disagree, but he's entitled to that opinion. What we find more troublesome is that Thomma completely ignored the next paragraph, in which we wrote:
But if you accept the premise, then shouldn't Gibson also ask if McCain would ever have been elected to the House of Representatives if he hadn't left his first wife for the wealthy and connected Cindy Lou Hensley?
The problem we identified with Gibson's question two weeks ago wasn't only that he asked an impossible hypothetical; it was that the very same question could easily be asked of Sen. John McCain -- and yet it hasn't been, and we'll be shocked if Gibson ever asks it. There's a clear double standard at play here.
But this isn't simply about Gibson.
Thomma thinks it is "ridiculous" to even suggest that Hillary Clinton might be a credible presidential candidate even if she'd never married Bill Clinton.
So we look forward to Thomma's upcoming column in which he either explains how "ridiculous" it would be to suggest that John McCain would be a credible presidential candidate had he not married into wealth and political connections -- or explains why it is ridiculous to make that suggestion about Clinton, but not McCain.
Of course, this isn't the only way Clinton is held to a standard her (male) Republican counterparts don't face. MSNBC's Chris Matthews appears downright obsessed with Hillary Clinton's marriage, and her husband's faithfulness. Twice in the last three weeks, Matthews has grilled a senior Clinton adviser about whether Bill Clinton will "behave" during the campaign to avoid being a "distraction."
As Bob Somerby has noted, Matthews hosted Clinton adviser Ann Lewis on the February 2 edition of Hardball, during which he badgered Lewis, repeatedly asking her if Bill Clinton would "behave himself" and warning that "he better watch it." (Transcript below.)
In all, Matthews asked six questions about whether Bill Clinton will "behave" and twice suggested that he better "watch it." And, as Somerby noted, Matthews took it upon himself to "warn" the Clintons. From Somerby's February 5 post on The Daily Howler:
Second, note how Matthews construes the New York Times story in which Patrick Healy told us how often the Clintons spend the night together. To Matthews, this wasn't a news report. This was the New York Times saying, on its front page, that Bill Clinton "better watch it." It seemed to be a news report. But Matthews says it was a warning.
Third: Note how Matthews explains his own session with Lewis. He isn't trying to gain information or get her opinion. Instead, he's trying to get Lewis to "spread the word that [Clinton] better watch it." Chris isn't gathering information. Playing the role of public nanny, he's sending his betters a message.
Finally, note the talker's plea at the end. Why does Matthews want Clinton to "behave himself?" So that he, Chris Matthews, won't get distracted! Lewis suggests that Matthews should just shut up and stop distracting himself -- should simply talk about things that matter. But it's no use! Stop him before I get distracted again! this talker sadly implores.
But Matthews was just getting started. On February 8, he hosted Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe, picking up where he had left off with Lewis. Matthews demanded to know if Bill Clinton would "distract our attention from his wife by misbehavior" and whether he would be a "good boy." (Transcript below.)
Matthews appears plain obsessed with whether Bill Clinton -- the candidate's spouse -- will "behave" and whether he will be a "good boy" and avoid embarrassing "distractions."
If potential infidelity by the candidate's spouse -- not the candidate -- gets Matthews this worked up, this afraid of being "distracted," he must really be concerned about John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
After all, in their case, the candidates themselves have a history of infidelity. McCain, of course, left his first wife then married into a wealthy and politically connected family shortly before running for Congress. And Giuliani? While serving as mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani actually moved out of the mayor's mansion and lived with a gay couple while cheating on his wife. At one point, Giuliani's wife sought a restraining order to prevent his mistress from entering the mansion.
On the "distraction" scale, that would have to rate pretty darn high.
Surely, then, Matthews is beside himself, wondering nightly if Rudy will be a "good boy" and "behave" so as not to be a "distraction"?
Instead, Matthews touts Giuliani as the "perfect candidate" to replace Bush, declares that Giuliani "looks like president to me," compares Giuliani to JFK, and gushes over Giuliani's "street cred." Rather than questioning whether Giuliani's personal indiscretions will be distracting, Matthews simply questions how Giuliani got "that pee smell out of the subway."
As we wrote last May:
[I]f the media are going to put candidates' personal lives on the table, it's time they do so for all candidates. If common decency and the shame that should accompany behaving like voyeuristic 10th-graders aren't enough to convince the David Broders and Chris Matthewses and Tim Russerts of the world that the Clintons marriage is none of their damn business -- or ours -- then basic fairness dictates that they treat Republican candidates the same way. Because the only thing worse than a bunch of reporters peering into bedroom windows of candidates is a bunch of reporters peering into the bedroom windows of only one party's candidates.
You constantly hear about the Clintons' personal lives on television; you read about it in the newspaper. John McCain doesn't get the same treatment; nor does George Bush or Rudy Giuliani. Intrusive, irrelevant tabloid-style coverage of candidates is wrong. Intrusive, irrelevant tabloid-style coverage of some candidates, while others are afforded an appropriate zone of privacy is even worse.
In Matthews' case, the double standard is even more stark: He is obsessing over the infidelities of Hillary Clinton's spouse, while ignoring Rudy Giuliani's own infidelities.
We've focused in recent weeks on double standards in the media's coverage of Hillary Clinton only because there have been such glaring examples lately -- Chris Matthews alone provides new fodder nearly every night.
But, of course, this isn't unique to Sen. Clinton, as we explained last June. It's a regular feature of media coverage of progressives and conservatives.
Journalists and pundits can't stop speculating about whether Americans will vote for a woman for president (Hillary Clinton), or a black man (Barack Obama).
So, where is the speculation that the nation may not be ready for a candidate who has been married three times so far, whose first marriage was to his second cousin, whose second wife sought a court order to keep his mistress away from their (taxpayer-funded) home, and whose own staff wrote that his "personal life raises questions about a 'weirdness factor' "? A new USA Today/Gallup poll suggests that may be a more valid question -- 94 percent of respondents said they would vote for a black presidential candidate, 88 percent said they'd vote for a woman -- but only 67 percent said they'd vote for someone who had been married three times.
Whenever some thuggish bigot like Bill Donohue (Actual quote: "What's wrong with a gook joke?") criticizes a Democratic candidate, the media fall all over themselves obligingly retyping his words ... and when religious leaders attack a Democratic candidate for his policy views, a media firestorm erupts, complete with suggestions that the candidate is a "bad Catholic."
Yet when religious leaders get arrested for holding a peaceful protest against the policies of conservative politicians, they are all but ignored by the national news media. And it should go without saying that there haven't been many news reports suggesting that politicians who support budget cuts for programs that help the poor are "bad Christians."
The game, as we wrote last week, is simply rigged: right-wing partisan Bill Donohue needs only issue a press release critical of a progressive to garner major media attention. Yet religious leaders can organize peaceful protests against Republican policies, at which more than 100 participants are arrested -- and they are ignored.
Why do progressive candidates struggle to win support from religious voters? Some suggest it is because Democratic candidates have been in the "closet as believers." That's nonsense; the overwhelming majority of Democratic office-seekers, at all levels, are people of faith, and openly so. That's simply the truth, no matter what Tim Russert tells you.
So maybe progressives struggle to win support from religious voters in part because the news media badly skew their coverage of religion and politics. Because Tim Russert falsely tells viewers that Democrats don't talk about their faith. Because whenever Bill Donohue issues a press release attacking a Democrat, the media reprint it -- but when religious leaders organize a peaceful protest criticizing Republican policies, the media ignore it. Might that glaring double standard have a little something to do with conservatives having an advantage with religious voters?
Likewise, the media routinely portray progressives as "elitists" -- even seizing on John Kerry's choice of leisure activity (windsurfing) as evidence. Yet multimillionaire George W. Bush can ride his $13,000 worth of bicycles around his estate, and the media portray him as a regular guy.
$13,000 worth of bicycles!
Imagine -- just imagine -- the field day the press would have had with that if it was John Kerry or Al Gore.
Then again, imagine what the media would have done if Al Gore had lied about the cheese he eats.
From the February 2 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:
MATTHEWS: Is Bill Clinton going to be a problem in this campaign?
LEWIS: Absolutely not.
MATTHEWS: Is he going to behave himself?
LEWIS: Bill Clinton has been around -- in the first place, he's been around the world saving lives. You know that.
MATTHEWS: Is he going to behave himself?
LEWIS: He is going to do what he does best.
MATTHEWS: Is he going to behave himself --
LEWIS: Yes, he is.
MATTHEWS: -- not cause a publicity that gets her embarrassed?
LEWIS: Well, he goes out -- you go ask Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel how often they ask Bill Clinton to go out there and campaign for Democratic candidates.
MATTHEWS: I know he does a lot.
LEWIS: He did it --
MATTHEWS: He's a multitasker.
LEWIS: He did it 'cause people want to see him.
MATTHEWS: -- 'cause he's a multitasker. He's going to behave himself, right? No bad publicity. Did you see that story in the big -- in The New York Times, though, a couple months back about Bill Clinton better watch it, front page, top of the fold -- he better watch it?
LEWIS: You couldn't miss it. And I was interested to see that that was the most important news that The New York Times could have, was to try to write a story about people's private lives.
But you know what? At the end of the day, you read the story, it said there's no there there. Guess what? That's the story, folks. There's no there there.
MATTHEWS: So, do you think The New York Times is going to stop writing about this?
LEWIS: No. I think Bill Clinton's going to continue doing his work, going around the world, saving lives.
MATTHEWS: So, he's going to behave himself.
LEWIS: He's going to be out on the campaign trail -- and we're -- you'll be --
MATTHEWS: And he's going to behave himself so that Hillary can be the first woman president.
LEWIS: You're all going to be applauding --
MATTHEWS: I think it'd be great for the country if this --
MATTHEWS: -- if we were not once again distracted --
LEWIS: So do I.
MATTHEWS: -- by what you call private life. And I think the way to avoid getting distracted is to have nothing there to distract us.
LEWIS: Well, I agree with that. But we just spent how many minutes of this segment, three minutes, talking about there should be nothing to distract us? Why don't we stop talking about it and talk about the issues?
MATTHEWS: Well, because I want to have some assurances from people that I trust and like to spread the word that --
LEWIS: Why don't you watch what he's been doing?
MATTHEWS: -- he better watch it.
LEWIS: Why don't you see what he's done for the last seven years?
MATTHEWS: I'm watching, unfortunately. Anyway, thank you, Ann Lewis.
From the February 8 edition of Hardball:
MATTHEWS: Is your friend Bill going to be part of this campaign? He's going to be busy with the campaign, not get any distractions going with other things?
McAULIFFE: He's going to be very busy.
MATTHEWS: No distractions?
McAULIFFE: He's writing a book. He's got a distraction right now. He's writing a book for the next two months.
MATTHEWS: No, will he distract our attention from his wife by misbehavior?
McAULIFFE: No, sir.
MATTHEWS: He won't? He's going to be a good boy?
McAULIFFE: His wife is running for president. He's going to do everything --
MATTHEWS: He's going to have -- good. That's good news.
McAULIFFE: Chris, I know this kills you, but he's the most popular man in the world today.
MATTHEWS: No, it doesn't kill me. No, it doesn't kill me if he doesn't distract from this campaign. If we get back tonight --
McAULIFFE: He's the most popular man in the world.
MATTHEWS: You do not want to go back to 1998. Some people do.
McAULIFFE: I think 1998 in the congressional elections we actually picked up seats, beat the six-year itch. Is that what you're referring to?
MATTHEWS: If that's how you keep score. I keep score: he got impeached.