Reading editorials in The New York Times is an occupational hazard for this writer, as I suspect it is for those who also find the daily’s noblesse oblige tone insufferable. Undoubtedly those on the other side of the political divide find The Wall Street Journal’s editorials equally objectionable. Reacting to the Oct. 2 Sarah Palin-Joe Biden vice-presidential debate—which left me unimpressed with both candidates, perhaps owing to the stifling format that has completely devalued the word “debate”—the Times was unstinting in its criticism of both Palin and John McCain. That’s not surprising, of course, since the Times, probably feeling the need to be more vitriolic than ever as the newspaper industry crumbles, has dispatched all of its (affluent) foot soldiers, also known as reporters, out on the campaign trail to pay homage to Barack Obama.
The Times’ Oct. 3 edit led: “We cannot recall when there were lower expectations for a candidate than the ones that preceded Sarah Palin’s appearance [at the St. Louis debate with Biden]. After a series of stumbling interviews that raised serious doubts even among conservatives about her fitness to serve as vice president, Ms. Palin had to do little more than say one or two sensible things and avoid an election-defining gaffe. By that standard, but only by that standard, the governor of Alaska did well.”
How charitable. I guess Biden’s remark last week that during the stock market crash of1929 FDR had immediately addressed the nation on television to reassure Americans—Hoover was president then and the first televised presidential statement was still in the future—doesn’t qualify as an “election-defining gaffe.”
In any case, although many of the Times’ editorial voices from Olympia have rotated over the years, I find it hard to believe that the current sages do not “recall” the ridicule heaped upon George H.W. Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle in 1988. Why, isn’t that what a newspaper’s archives are for? A reminder: on the day of the Quayle-Lloyd Bentsen debate 20 years ago, the Times edit began: “All the advance sarcasm makes tonight’s Vice-Presidential debate sound like a trivial TV game show. Can Dan Quayle walk and chew gum at the same time?” Two days later, the Times gave its verdict: “Mr. Quayle met his handlers’ modest goals. He did not stumble or fall. Keeping his exuberant campaign style in check, he delivered rehearsed, measured answers… [Bentsen] seems more presidential now, if only because Mr. Quayle seemed so far out of his depth.”
Fairly damning, but mild compared to the paper’s editorial conclusion for this year’s veep debate. “Mr. McCain made a wildly irresponsible choice that shattered the image he created for himself as the honest, seasoned, experienced man of principle and judgment. It was either an act of incredible cynicism or appallingly bad judgment.”
Americans will make their own decision in just over four weeks, but let’s be clear: the Times had forced McCain to walk their well-appointed plank months before he chose Palin. On Feb. 21 of this year, a front-page story in the Times—with four bylines—headlined “For McCain, Self-Confidence n Ethics Poses Its Own Risk,” implied that the Arizona senator had an extra-marital relationship with Vicki Iseman, a lobbyist for telecommunications companies. After the story appeared, the Times was roundly criticized, and not just by conservative journalists, for its salacious suggestions. So it seems that McCain, at least on trial before the Times’ judges, was deemed guilty of breaking the conduct of principle and honesty before the vast majority of Americans had even heard the name Sarah Palin.
Might Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., should his company be sold in the next year or two, find a new career in an Obama administration?