Before that first debate: Let's understand the potential role of the mainstream press in what happens tonight.
Potentially, it doesn't matter what happens tonight. Potentially, what matters more is the way the mainstream press corps presents what happened later.
The best example of that effect occurred in October 2000, in the aftermath of the first Bush-Gore debate.
Candidate Gore was judged the winner of the debate in all five overnight polls, by an average margin of ten points. Then, the press corps got busy spinning and rearranging what had occurred.
They convulsed over minor errors by Gore, ignored gigantic howlers by Bush. Most significantly, they constructed a tape which supposedly showed Gore's constant annoying sighs. They played this tape on a loop, with the sound jacked up.
Yesterday, with the volume jacked way up, Chuck Todd was still playing videotape of those alleged sighs. These life-forms live for their silly group tales about key moments in past debates. They're still actively trying to nail down the claim that Candidate Gore annoyed the public, and defeated himself, through his constant outrageous sighs.
In fact, Gore "won" that first debate on all five overnight surveys. But uh-oh! After several days of press corps propaganda, the original winner of the debate had lost roughly ten points in the national polls!
It's unlikely that any such thing will happen this week. (It's unlikely, but not impossible.) The mainstream press corps doesn't like Trump. Meanwhile, the conservative press will fight to help Trump win.
That said, it's important to keep this dynamic in mind. Claims the press corps pushes post-debate can, in theory, be more important than the debate itself.
That first debate between Bush and Gore changed the course of history. Gore entered the debate with a lead in the national polls, then proceeded to "win" the debate in all the overnight surveys.
Despite these facts, press corps reaction sent Candidate Bush into the lead. Gore spent the remaining month of the campaign recovering from his "victory" in that first debate.
Yesterday, by happenstance, we looked at MSNBC's pre-debate program from October 2000. We were struck by some of what we saw. We thought you might be intrigued by some of the punditry too.
Brian Williams hosted the hour. Here's the way he started:
WILLIAMS (10/3/00): In Boston, Massachusetts, in one hour, Al Gore and George W. Bush will face off against each other for the first time, two men going 90 minutes in front of a nationally televised audience that may go as high as 90 million viewers at some point during the hour and a half, coming as it does during an interesting time in this race, with our MSNBC/Reuters NewsMSNBC's tracking poll had Gore ahead by six points. Brian was actively playing that down, saying Gore was "just barely" ahead. After Matthews' opening remarks, this exchange quickly occurred:
Agency/Zogby tracking poll showing Al Gore cracking through the margin of error, but just barely, 46 to 40 against George W. Bush.
Good evening to you. I'm Brian Williams. I am joined by the host of Hardball Chris Matthews.
WILLIAMS: I know you were laughing during Hardball tonight that expectations for George W. could not be managed any lower by his surrogates.We were struck by the several standard narratives Matthews folded into that brief oration about Candidate Gore, who was said to be "almost crazed" at times. For starters:
MATTHEWS: I believe that they put out a brilliant spin tonight that the man is lucky to be able to get through tonight without drooling, when in fact he's quite capable of doing a spectacular performance tonight. Anyone who's spent any time with George Bush knows he has one big advantage over Al Gore. He is always the same George W. Bush.
If you met him on an airplane and kidded around with him, he wouldn't be much different than the guy we're going to see on television tonight. Al Gore has many Al Gores to choose from in his wardrobe. There's the serious policy wonk, there's the almost crazed zealous populist, who's out for the little people against the big people. There's the defender of his current establishment, the administration. He was a great defender of Bill Clinton's.
Jack Kennedy once said in a very unkind way, he said he felt sorry for his opponent, 40 years ago, Richard Nixon, in the great debates as they were called then, because there were so many Richard Nixons he didn't know which one to be on any particular occasion. I think it's an easier job for Bush tonight. He knows who he is.
Ever since Gore's formal announcement in June 1999, mainstream pundits had been sliming him with serial comparisons to Nixon. (At that time, Roger Simon started one branch of the trend, saying this: "Al Gore may have the heart and soul of a moderate Democrat, but his sweat glands are positively Nixonian.")
The comparisons to Nixon had been fairly frequent. Given the endless discussions of Candidate Gore's deeply troubling clothes, we'll also guess that Matthews used the term "wardrobe" with a bit of a narrative purpose.
Most striking, though, was Matthews' instant scripted claim: Unlike the highly authentic Candidate Bush, Al Gore doesn't know who he is!
This standard scripted claim dated to the fall of 1999, when the press corps spent a month pretending to be disturbed about the fact that Naomi Wolf was a paid adviser to Gore.
Wolf's role in the Gore campaign was revealed on October 31, 1999. On that morning's Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume started a trend:
HUME (10/31/99): We learn now, today, that Mr. Gore has as one of his advisers, at $15,000 a month, at least for a while, Naomi Wolf, who is sort of an interesting young woman who is tribune of sort of modern feminist psychobabble, who is said to have advised the vice president that he is the beta male to Bill Clinton’s alpha male in that relationship, and that it’s very important that he somehow reverse that in some way. And then we read from the Los Angeles Times that he’s casting himself—I mean, this all sounds a little strange.Was Naomi Wolf "some exotic consultant from the feminist psychobabble movement?" In fact, she was a best-selling author with a strong academic background.
HUME: I think what it suggests about Al Gore is—a man we all have known in one way or another for a very long time, but never any of us really known, who’s always had this disconcerting difference between the public self and the rather easy-going private self, or at least personal self—that this may be a man who doesn’t know who the heck he is, doesn’t have any idea who he is, and is trying to find who to be.
Now all politicians make adjustments continually on issues and positions and attitudes for political suitability. That’s all within the realm of reasonableness, but when you have somebody who brings in some exotic consultant from the, you know, feminist psychobabble movement, who’s trying to teach him about alpha male and beta male stuff, you wonder if Al Gore has any idea who he is.
Two of her three books had been selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Her first book, The Beauty Myth, had been selected by the Times as one of the hundred most influential books of the century.
Her advice to the 1996 Clinton campaign had been lavishly praised by none other than Dick Morris. But now, the fact that Gore was taking advice from Wolf meant something very troubling. According to Hume, the troubling news meant that Candidate Gore "doesn't have any idea who he is."
(So said Hume, as he complained about Wolf's psychobabble.)
Hume's psychobabble stuck! The claim that Candidate Gore "doesn't know who he is" became a pundit corps standard. Throughout the ensuing Month of Wolf, a number of pundits joined this memorized claim to the standard claim that Gore, who didn't know he was, had "hired a woman to teach him to be a man."
An array of smutty claims followed. The liberal world sat and stared.
The smut was endless and well scripted. On Sunday, November 28, The Month of Wolf was nearing its end. In a column for the Washington Post's magazine, Marc Fisher took Hume's psychobabble all the way to this level of screeching:
FISHER (11/28/99): [W]hen Al Gore sneaks around and spends $15,000 a month to hire an oddball like Naomi Wolf…we have two choices: We can say Gore’s a good man who’s been duped by over-eager aides, or we can say this is a man who does not know himself, a man who is unknowable, unreadable and therefore not fit to be president.Admittedly, the suit in question was brown, or perhaps a shade of olive. By now, though, Fisher had reached a point of hysteria which led him to say that Gore's (perfectly normal) suit was "alien to virtually every American."
A person who makes her living by writing pop philosophy about sex tells a man who would be president of the United States that he must be a different kind of man, that he must be more assertive, that he must wear a brown suit of a sort that is alien to virtually every American. And he says, “Okay.”
And oh yes! "We can (possibly) say this is a man who does not know himself" and is "therefore not fit to be president!" So recited Fisher, as the press corps neared the end of its astonishing Month of Wolf.
The Chaits, the Marshalls, the Dionnes, the Alters, all sat still for this lunatic conduct. Eleven months later, before that debate, you-know-who was still reciting that psychobabble for Brian:
George W. Bush knows who he is! Like Nixon, Gore does not!
The clowning by these terrible life-forms continued for the full hour before that first debate. Before long, Brian couldn't help himself. He talked about Gore's phoniness, as could be seen in his clothes:
WILLIAMS (10/3/00): Hey, Claire, we just saw some tape coming in from just outside the building tonight in Boston. Al Gore, who watches his movements and personal style very carefully, because he's been taught to, not walking with his Secret Service agents but running toward the crowd, not wearing suits during the week but wearing a polo shirt. A lot has become very studied about this very staid man.Throughout the campaign, Brian Williams, The Great Dissembler, never stopped talking about Gore's revealing clothes.
SHIPMAN: It is studied, and it's practiced. And that is the way Al Gore learns everything.
As the hour continued, Matthews mentioned, several times, that Gore sweats a lot, like that guy named Nixon. Roger Simon's hook had stuck! We'll offer two examples:
MATTHEWS (to Doris Kearns Goodwin): Let me ask Doris about a totally cosmetic matter, but it has come up in these debates. As Brian pointed out, they've agreed on a 65 degree Fahrenheit room temperature. That was a compromise because apparently the Gore people wanted it down to 55, which is incredible. That's where the Nixon people tried to get it at one point.Did Matthews know who he was that night? We will guess he knew he was a $5 million per year servant to Jack Welch.
Al Gore was sweating like mad in the picture we just saw of him entering the studio. He got a sunburn, which a lot of people know when you get a sunburn, you start sweating a lot in the next couple of days. I'm serious, dead serious about this, if he starts dripping out there tonight, is this going to make him the Nixon of the night? You're a student of this.
MATTHEWS (to David Maraniss): What about this sweat thing? I know I go back to it again, but it's certainly odd. He was profusely sweating just a few minutes ago. He went down there [to Florida] and got a tan. It seems to me that's the other reason he went down to Florida. I am focusing on cosmetics because all of us grew up in the Kennedy era and it's a big part of debate prep. Nixon did not have a tan, Kennedy did. Is this part—do you— I'm being honest here, let me tell you, let me ask you a question.
MARANISS: Well, this—
MATTHEWS: Did he get a tan on purpose?
This is all history now, of course. And the real press corps propaganda only started after the debate, when pundits began instructing the public in what they had actually seen.
Jumping ahead to tonight:
Over the course of the past few years, Candidate Clinton has been thoroughly "defined" by the mainstream press corps. Some journalists are worried about this now, but it's much too late to change what has been done.
Reading through that old transcript, we were struck by the way Matthews went straight to that year-old talking-point: Al Gore doesn't know who he is!
Make no mistake. These are terrible, devious people. People are dead all over the world because they behaved like this for two years, while the Chaits, the Dionnes, the Riches and Robinsons all carefully stared into space.
Today, the children have started to push back a bit. They're bravely arriving at the scene several decades too late.