This afternoon I attended a top-secret meeting of the media conspiracy's central committee. Being there was very exciting for me, because I've heard about this organization for years without ever being invited into its inner sanctum. It was also an honor for Slate, because we are apparently the first online publication to be included in one of these sessions.
The committee gathered in a private room in back of the bar at the Savery Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa. Present were all the legendary figures in political journalism. David Broder is the chairman of the central committee--though he's known as "The Dean" to all and sundry. The Dean takes his journalistic responsibilities very seriously. He has spent the last three years living on a hog farm outside of Cedar Rapids in preparation for this year's caucuses. The Dean is also apparently working on another very big book--and this is very hush-hush--on the role of certified public accountants in Washington policy-making.
Anyhow, the Dean called the meeting to order and explained that the conspiracy had only a few hours to choose the winner of the debate. He said he thought the committee had made the right decision in handing the previous two debates to John McCain and in portraying George W. Bush as the new Dan Quayle. He added that he thought the committee was making healthy progress toward its medium-range goal--apparently established in meetings on Martha's Vineyard last summer--of creating a tight, two-person race in the Republican primaries.
William Safire--I get to call him "Bill" now--responded to the Dean by saying that he was getting bored with the Bush-as-Quayle line and wanted to say that Bush had improved. Safire didn't go so far as to propose that Bush win tonight's debate, but he wondered whether Bush might be criticized for something other than being a lightweight.
"Such as what?" Jeff Greenfield asked.
Well, Safire explained, Bush blows up whenever he reads anything negative about himself in the newspaper. Why not order up a question designed to provoke him--and then raise the issue of whether he has a thick enough skin to be president?
Cokie Roberts didn't like Safire's idea. She reminded him of the rule of pre-existing conditions (Al Hunt leaned over and explained this rule to me. It's the one that says all new evidence has to confirm established personality traits.) Stupidity is already Bush's liability, Cokie said, and while the committee might decide that this was not a serious problem later in the campaign, it couldn't suddenly give him a new drawback without any advance notice.
Besides, Tim Russert added, casting Bush as a hothead would tread on McCain's pre-existing condition, namely his temper. Two candidates running against each other in the primaries couldn't very well have the same character flaw.
Safire agreed with all of this but wondered whether Bush couldn't at least show some improvement in tonight's debate. He said that some groundwork needed to be laid for a "CWR" (this stands for conventional wisdom reversal, Hunt explained to me) once it became clear that Bush was going to get the GOP nomination. Johnny Apple bristled at that comment, accusing Safire of "eating my lunch." This was not a literal reference to the capon carcass resting on the platter in front of him but a metaphor for "invading his journalistic turf." Apple sees it as his sole responsibility to establish the conventional wisdom and rejects any attempt by the rest of the media conspiracy to assist him.
Judy Woodruff had a compromise. She proposed that Bush simply be "underwhelming," making one moderately serious gaffe to fuel concerns about his preparedness for office while also "exceeding expectations." She said members could have a quick caucus during the period set aside for closing statements at the end of the debate to decide what the gaffe had been.
Russert objected again. He said the McCain surge needed to be held back, lest it crest too early--which could have the effect of making Bush the Republican nominee by late February. He said McCain's performance should be judged merely adequate.
So who should win, Greenfield asked? The hour for decision was drawing near.
Liz Drew had a surprising idea--Steve Forbes. While she said that this violated the unwritten code against taking more than two candidates in the race seriously at the same time, she noted that since McCain wasn't running in Iowa, Forbes would be his surrogate as "not Bush." Touting Forbes would hold back the McCain wave. Drew said there would then be an entire week to write off Forbes between the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire.
This proposal initially drew some jeers from pundits whose contempt for Forbes is pretty obvious. It especially upset Jack Germond and Howard Fineman, who said they had already filed their columns declaring McCain the winner. But in the end, Drew's point proved persuasive. Declaring Forbes the surprise victor would aid McCain without showing excessive "media bias" against Bush.
Greenfield then asked about the danger that McCain might actually defeat Bush for the nomination. Everyone agreed that this was not a serious risk, though Greenfield was right to raise it. "The Dean" then adjourned the meeting.