Part 2—The death of The First Honest Man: Before Bill Clinton came on the scene, the novelized tale of The Last Honest Man wasn’t a major part of campaign coverage.
In 1984, President Reagan sought re-election, challenged by Walter Mondale. In 1988, Reagan’s vice president squared off with Michael Dukakis, who refused to punch Bernie Shaw in the nose and looked dumb in that tank, with that funny cap on his head.
The campaign coverage was often quite foolish, especially in the 1988 race. But in neither campaign did the press corps insist that one of the candidates was The Last Honest Man while the other was The World’s Biggest Liar.
Even in the 1992 general election, the mainstream press corps didn’t play that rather improbable card. Consider the opportunity on which they took a pass:
In that year’s general election, one of the candidates had totally flipped concerning the right to abortion. He had adopted the policies he had once derided as “voodoo economics.” And good lord! Just two years earlier, he had abandoned the perfervid pledge around which he built his prior campaign—the sacred pledge in which he swore that we could “read his lips.”
In 1992, the press corps could have made portrayed that candidate as The World’s Biggest Liar, though that would have been stupid too. But that card was never played. Bill Clinton had arrived on the scene, and The Ballad of the World’s Biggest Liar was going to tilt in a different direction.
From this point on, Democrats would be cast as The World's Biggest Liars. People who opposed these liars would be cast as The Most Honest Men.
Starting in 1992, a succession of Most Honest Men have taken part in White House campaigns. When Paul Ryan was selected by Romney, he joined the list of these fictional fellows—and he started issuing whoppers, as most of the others had done.
Indeed, the press corps has had some very bad luck with the folk they’ve ordained as The Last Honest Men. Consider Paul Tsongas, who received that designation years later from Chris Matthews, shortly before the loud cable talker fully repurposed himself.
In January 2008, Matthews was still fighting the last war, the war against both Clintons and Gore. Helped along by David Shuster, he recalled the first of The Last Honest Men:
SHUSTER (1/19/08): I thought it was just brilliant the way that the Clintons took advantage of a trap that maybe Barack Obama set for himself when he mentioned Ronald Reagan and talked about the Democrats not having relatively new ideas the last 15 years, which of course covers the Clinton administration. How do you rate the way the Clintons jumped down his throat on that?In Matthews’ formulation, Tsongas had “talked about modifying the entitlement programs.” By definition, this now made him one of The Last Honest Men.
MATTHEWS: Well again, you don't have to like it, but you have to observe it. We're not talking about what is good and what is bad here, but of course we all have our observations about this kind of politics.
Inevitably, the Clintons find themselves running against a kind of an outsider politician, someone trying something new. In 92 it was Paul Tsongas who talked about modifying the entitlement programs, doing some things with Social Security that may be sacrificing some benefits but basically saving the system.
They just wait for the other side to do that and then they jump on them. They play the safety, they play in the pocket, they let the other guy scramble. Or in the Middle East, they talk about an even-handed policy and they jump on them.
They're very effective at letting the other guy do something that exposes him and then jumping on him.
Needless to say, “the Clintons” had “jumped on” Tsongas for this. It was part of “this kind of politics.” Earlier that month, Matthews had told the same story, in which the masters of spin took down the honest truth-teller.
On that occasion, Matthews spoke with Rep. Paul Hodes, an Obama national co-chairman:
MATTHEWS (1/7/08): Let me tell you, the Clintons are masters at spin, as we all know. You can like them or not, but we all agree they’re masters.Bill Clinton, a master of spin, lost New Hampshire to the great Paul Tsongas, a guy who was dying. As they continued, Hodes said that New Hampshire voters “are tired of spin and division, and that’s why Obama is going to win this election.”
Bill Clinton lost the New Hampshire primary up here in 1992 by 8 points to a guy who was dying, Paul Tsongas, the great Paul Tsongas.
MATTHEWS: And he lost by—after being way, way ahead. He lost a huge lead and he lost by—and then called himself “The Comeback Kid."
In fact, Obama lost the New Hampshire primary. That said, if Granite Staters were tired of spin and division, they had surely stopped watching the baldly dishonest Matthews a good many years before.
At any rate, there was an irony to Matthews’ remarks about the great Paul Tsongas, who was dying at the time the masters of spin took him on. As far as we know, Tsongas was a thoroughly decent person—although no one's as pure as The Last Honest Men of the press corps’ serial novel.
In fact, the great Paul Tsongas was apparently deceiving the public about the state of his health when he won the New Hampshire primary in 1992.
Alas! The press corps has had a lot of bad breaks with the people they pick as The Last Honest Men. Tsongas’ apparent failure to be open and honest is one of the most striking cases.
For that reason, the chances are good you’ve never heard this tale.
As far as we know, Paul Tsongas was, on balance, a thoroughly good, decent person. He was elected to the Senate in 1978. Later that year, he was diagnosed with cancer. He retired from the Senate in 1984.
When Tsongas ran for president in 1992, he insisted he had no health concerns—but he refused to disclose his full health records. In February of that year, a reporter for the New York Times described one of the events Tsongas staged to demonstrate his good health.
In this case, Tsongas also displayed his mordant wit:
DOWD (2/16/92): Mr. Tsongas, whose doctor says he has been free of cancer for five years, knows questions are raised about his health when he keeps light schedules. But he has his own way of dealing with the health issue, and it is, as usual, straightforward.As usual, Tsongas was being straightforward, this well-scripted journalist chose to “report.” She floated the notion that Ailes might mislead us about this straightforward man's health.
He has entered the national Masters and Y.M.C.A. swimming competitions with the strenuous butterfly stroke, not a stroke he usually swims, as "a political statement."
On Thursday at the Concord Y.M.C.A., Mr. Tsongas allowed the cameras and reporters to come with him while he went swimming.
An embarrassed Mr. Tsongas took off his sweat suit, stripped down to his bikini Speedo, and did a few laps while boom microphones hung over his head and reporters tried to ask questions without falling in the pool.
What if Roger Ailes, the conservative political consultant, and the Republicans spread rumors about his health? he was asked.
"I've issued a challenge to Roger Ailes: 50 yards of the butterfly, kiddo," Mr. Tsongas said, as he stood at the end of the pool.
When one reporter suggested that such a challenge might finish off the Falstaffian Mr. Ailes, Mr. Tsongas shrugged, saying, "If it happens, it happens."
(At the time, Dowd was still a reporter. This was a news report.)
Without question, Tsongas had a droll wit, as he showed in his quip about Ailes. He also had a medical condition that, or so it later seemed, he wasn’t fully disclosing. By November of that election year, Tsongas was back in the hospital—and he acknowledged that he had mishandled this issue on the trail.
Lawrence Altman, a physician not a clown, reported this event for the Times:
ALTMAN (12/1/92): Confirming that he is facing a new battle with cancer, former Senator Paul E. Tsongas conceded today that his Presidential campaign had mishandled questions on his health, and he called on President-elect Bill Clinton to set up a commission to determine what medical information candidates must disclose.Tsongas died in January 1997, two days before the end of Clinton’s first term. Altman reported this matter in more detail:
Although some news organizations reported that he had suffered a recurrence of cancer in 1987, less than a year after he had undergone a bone marrow transplant, his campaign should have made the point clear, Mr. Tsongas said. Instead, during his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination earlier this year, the former Senator from Massachusetts said that he had conquered cancer and that his doctors described him as "cancer free," suggesting the transplant had been a success.
"We certainly have paid a price for that," Mr. Tsongas said today, referring to criticism that he had not fully disclosed the history of his cancer treatment.
If he had it to do again, he added, he would handle the issue differently.
ALTMAN (1/21/97): Tsongas's Legacy: Checking Health of CandidatesBy now, you couldn’t write a report like this without imagining a blessed event, in which someone had managed to beat Bill Clinton. But if you read that highlighted text, you’ll see that the press corps got a bad break with this, their first Last Honest Man.
On this Inauguration Day, the death of former Senator Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts on Saturday night from complications of treatment for cancer recalls how important it is for candidates for elected office to make full disclosure of their medical information.
When Mr. Tsongas ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in the 1992 Presidential campaign, he made an issue of his survival from a form of cancer known as non-Hodgkins lymphoma. But Mr. Tsongas and his doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Ronald W. Takvorian and George P. Canellos, repeatedly said he had been cancer-free when he had not. In so doing, they implied that the cancer was cured when indeed it was not curable.
If Mr. Tsongas had been elected President, his illness might have changed history. The nation might have been grimly preparing for his state funeral while a new President was being sworn in.
Or, if the full facts had been known about the recurrence of his cancer earlier in 1992, another candidate might have won the eight primaries or caucuses that Mr. Tsongas captured and that candidate, not Bill Clinton, might have emerged as the nominee.
“A President Tsongas probably would have had to resign the office for health reasons,” Altman wrote as he continued. “Even if he stayed in office, the lack of stamina resulting from the second transplant makes it unlikely that a President Tsongas could have campaigned for re-election.”
If Altman’s medical reporting is accurate, Tsongas had engaged in a serious bit of non-disclosure—perhaps in an active piece of deception. But so what? Eleven years later, he was one of The Most Honest Men as Matthews kept reading the script.
Was Senator Tsongas a dishonest person? We certainly wouldn’t say that. We would assume that he believed the political themes on which he ran for the White House. We would assume that he was sincere in his “budget hawk” work for the Concord Coalition, which he co-founded in 1992, along with two Republicans (Warren Rudman, Pete Peterson).
We’ll assume he was sincere in 1994, when he flirted with the creation of a third party within which Colin Powell, another of The Last Honest Men, would run against Clinton. We won’t condemn the work of the Concord Coalition, although some of that work extended the massive confusion about Social Security which has driven a great deal of modern politics.
As far as we know, Paul Tsongas was a good, decent person. But people who run for the White House tend to be very ambitious. If they get pimped as The Last Honest Man, there is every chance that they will take advantage.
This awkward turn of events has occurred, again and again, with the various people the press corps has pimped as Last Honest Men. In 1999 and 2000, Bill Bradley basically lied in the press corps’ faces as he tried to defeat Biggest Liar Al Gore. Unless Altman’s medical reporting is wrong, Tsongas had played a dangerous game during his own campaign.
Was Paul Tsongas one of The Last Honest Men? To some extent, he was treated that way during in 1992—and as the Clinton years unfolded, everyone who ran against Clinton or Gore would be accorded that status.
The press corps was happily typing a silly dime novel, a dumbfoundingly stupid tale.
The tragic recurrence of Tsongas’ cancer should have served as a warning sign concerning this stupid dime novel. But nothing was going to make the “press corps” suspend its inane, stupid novel.
In recent years, brave honest Paul Ryan has been widely anointed as one of The Last Honest Men. The existence of this stupid press novel explains How He Got To Be Honest.
Brave honest truth-telling Paul Ryan has been one of The Last Honest Men! And as before, so too in this case: The Last Honest Man began issuing whoppers when he hit the trail.
Tomorrow: Other warning signs the mainstream “press corps” ignored
Coming: The kissing of keister by liberal leaders. Also, The Last Honest Women (“education reform” subdivision)