As Maddow recalls the Dean scream: Sometimes, we find ourselves asking a basic question. If it weren’t for bogus stories about our elections, would we have any stories at all?
Is any part of American life more driven by stories which someone dreamed up and everyone else quickly memorized? When it comes to our White House elections, it’s narrative all the way down!
This thought came to mind when we read Kathleen Parker’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post. We were struck by her love for the Bushes and her snark at the expense of the Clintons—and by a famous old tale:
PARKER (1/17/15): [M]y favorite [candidate in Campaign 1988] was George H.W. Bush, who was courtly, kind, handsome and, most important, treated me as if I were his equal. This was more than a paternal gesture; it spoke to his quality, character and class—the thread that runs through my more than 30 years’ exposure to and experience with the Bush family.Parker is rarely poisonous. In our view, that basic fact makes this column especially striking.
By the time the senior Bush was elected president in 1988, I was writing a different sort of column, more lifestyle than politics, and was busy with motherhood. But his defeat four years later by Bill Clinton, thanks largely to the chart-happy vote siphon Ross Perot, signaled a turning point in American culture and, therefore, in my column and my politics.
Lifestyle and politics suddenly collided.
After the national trauma of the Clinton years, during which mothers like me were forced to shield our children from the president’s deeds, it was a relief to see George W. and Laura Bush move into the White House. If nothing else was certain, at least no one would have to worry about blue dresses, knee pads and cigars.
I became familiar with these Bushes, as their years in office coincided with my own migration to Washington. I remember a comment George W. Bush made to me during a one-on-one, in-flight interview. He said the toughest moment of his life wasn’t what to do after 9/11 but seeing his father—“this fine, fine man”—defeated by Clinton. I thought for a moment he might cry, but of course he wouldn’t.
I also got to know Laura Bush when she invited Greta Van Susteren and me to travel with her to the Middle East to launch a breast cancer awareness program in four countries. People say you can learn about a person’s character by playing golf with them. The same is true about traveling together, especially under challenging conditions. It wasn’t like dodging bullets in Bosnia, mind you, but sharing close quarters with Secret Service snipers provides its own sort of bonding tension.
Regarding the Clintons, she manages to get it all in, including “the blue dress” and “dodging bullets in Bosnia”—and, of course, the notion that President Clinton reached the White House “thanks largely to the vote siphon Ross Perot.”
In November 1992, the exit polls said that Perot took votes from Candidates Clinton and Bush in equal amounts. But for Bush adherents, this alternate story is more pleasing. It was quickly invented, and it has never died.
That’s how Bill Clinton reached the White House. How about Richard Nixon? Just this week, perhaps for the first time, we encountered the claim that Candidate Nixon never said he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.
Could that be an urban myth too? Based on a quick review, it seems that President Carter never said “malaise” and Candidate Nixon never said he had a “secret plan!” In September 2000, William Safire gave this account of the origins of the familiar story:
SAFIRE (5/21/00): In the 1968 primaries, candidate Richard Nixon was searching for a way to promise he would extricate the U.S. from its increasingly unpopular involvement in Vietnam. The key verb to be used was end, though it would be nice to get the verb win in some proximity to it.Sadly, it sounds all too possible.
One speechwriter came up with the formulation that "new leadership will end the war and win the peace in the Pacific." Nixon made it part of his stump speech, and the juxtaposition of end and win—though it did not claim to intend to win the war, but only the peace—drove his major opponent for the G.O.P. nomination, Gov. George Romney of Michigan, up the wall.
When a U.P.I. reporter pressed Nixon for specifics, the candidate demurred; the reporter wrote that it seemed Nixon was determined to keep his plan secret, though he did not quote Nixon as having said either secret or plan. But this gave Romney a chance to slam back at his opponent's promise. In what became the centerpiece of his stump speech in the snows of New Hampshire, Romney demanded to know, “Where is your secret plan?” That question skillfully presupposed an assertion of not just a general promise but also a detailed plan, and soon it became widely accepted that Nixon had said, "I have a secret plan to end the war.”
Years later, when a New York Times columnist attributed that direct quote to Nixon, a White House speechwriter challenged him to find the quote in anything taken down by pencil or recorder at the time. The pundit searched high and low and had to admit the supposed remark was unsourceable. (Look, the Nixon speechwriter was me and the columnist was my current colleague, Tony Lewis; I didn't have to research this.)
Is there any story about our elections that someone didn’t invent, embellish, dream, massage or imagine? On Monday night, the analysts screamed in pain when they heard Our Own Rhodes Scholar recite the tired old tale from 2004 about stupid old Candidate Dean.
Needless to say, she was clowning about something Candidate Bush had said in his formal announcement speech that day. Still, she repeated the tired old tale about stupid old Candidate Dean and his ridiculous scream.
Warning! Clowning ahead!
MADDOW (6/15/15): There was this one moment today where [Bush] was a little owly.As usual, Maddow was a) clowning extremely hard and b) talking about herself and her day. But she didn’t fail to ridicule Candidate Dean for the “embarrassing thing” he did when he “screamed” on the night of the Iowa caucuses.
Yes, “owl-ish,” I guess, is the way you say that. I didn’t expect the little owl noise. It was really great.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: So, here’s what it comes down to. Our country’s on a very bad course. And the question is, what are we going to do about it? The question for me—the question for me is, what am I going to do about it? And I’ve decided, I’m a candidate for president of the United States of America!
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: I did not see that coming. This is not an embarrassing thing that Jeb Bush did. This is not like Howard Dean with a scream in Iowa. This is not Jeb’s brother doing that “you’ve got to put food on your family” thing.
This is not bad. This is not something he has to live down. I don’t mean it that way. It was just unexpected. It was a very unexpected thing.
We made a little loop of it today. I’ve been watching it all day.
[Histrionically leans her head on her hand]
BUSH (videotape): Woo! Woo! Woo!
MADDOW: He’s got a little touch of the owl. Woo! And I say that as an owl fan. Woo!
(In the background, tape of Dean's famous “scream” appeared on the screen.)
She does this night after night after night. Can you possibly see why the analysts screamed Monday night?