David Broder called an emergency meeting to order this morning in the main lounge at the University Club in Washington. He'd sent an urgent message to central committee members by pager, and everyone had dropped what they were doing to rush over. Howie Kurtz of the Washington Post arrived still conducting an interview on his cell phone for a forthcoming book on metro columnists. Sam Donaldson dashed over from ABC with his tromp l'oeil hair only half-finished. Jack Germond was carried in on a stretcher. Johnny Apple still had his lobster bib on and a wooden mallet in his hand. But the way you could tell the meeting was really important was that Broder, the universally respected "Dean" of the Washington press corps, had cut short an interview with a shop steward from Steamfitters Local 43 in Maryland on the question of how PNTR was going to affect his re-election campaign.
It was all going so well, Broder said, shaking his head. The plan we had devised at our Republican convention meeting for narrowing the race to "within the margin of error" had worked brilliantly (for minutes of previous meetings, click here, here, and here). Broder said he'd been especially impressed with the way the "Gore good week" and the "Bush bad week" subcommittees had worked together. The latter group's decision to start reporting the Texas governor's actual comments, which made it seem as if he'd suddenly lost 30 IQ points, was an especially inspired idea.
But there was a dark cloud on the horizon. Broder grimaced as he described what he called a "catastrophic breakdown" in cooperation among members of our conspiracy. For decades, we had operated on the premise that nationally televised debates, carried on all the networks, were good for all of us. But this year, news organizations were operating unilaterally, trying to score debate exclusives at the expense of the collective. Our statutory obligation to maintain an appearance of competition was turning into the real thing. It had become every man for himself, and the Dean was none too happy about it.
Tim Russert was looking sheepish. "I never thought Dubya would try this," he said, referring to Bush's offer to debate on Meet the Press as a substitute for the three encounters proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates. "A candidate who's afraid of debates can't duck debates. I thought Bush would play the expectations game. Maybe he really is a moron."
Andrew Heyward of CBS said that Russert had dug us all into this hole through his hypercompetitive behavior. Now he would have to dig his way out of it, by rescinding his invitation to Bush. Larry King, whose debate offer Bush had also accepted, would have to do the same thing.
Tom Johnson of CNN said that wouldn't work. Russert could be compelled to rescind, but as a nonmember of the conspiracy, King didn't have to comply with our decision. And in any case, Johnson didn't see how King could back out at this point. Having encouraged Bush to think CNN would give him a platform to make his point that Gore was backing away from his acceptance, King couldn't now just withdraw his offer. Besides, King had already booked Sharon Stone, Puff Daddy, and Tucker Carlson as celebrity questioners.
Things were starting to get heated when Apple spoke up to revisit what he described as the "unforgettable" 1976 Carter-Ford debate in Philadelphia. After it was over, he dined at Le Bec Fin, where the meal began with a sauté de foie gras sur chutney de pommes paired with a '45 Lafite. For main courses, he'd ordered paupiette de lotte au homard sauce and grenouilles parfumées au raifort accompanied by a jeroboam of Romanee-Conti (18)71. It was one of only three occasions in his life when he had actually skipped dessert, opting to mop up the snail butter with brioche instead. As Apple was beginning an ode to fromage, Broder interrupted.
"What happened in the debate?" the Dean asked.
"I couldn't tell you a thing about it," Apple said.
John McCain, who had just rushed in late from a commerce committee hearing he was chairing on pets that kill, brought the discussion back to the problem at hand. He proposed that Russert claim his offer to Bush had always been contingent on Bush accepting the commission debates. "Tim, you've been nice enough to Dubya to get away with calling his bluff on this one," McCain said.
Al Hunt said he had an even better idea. Russert could explode his offer to Bush, by letting Karl Rove know that the guest moderator for the special evening edition of Meet the Press was going to be one Adam Clymer.
Russert loved that idea. So did everyone else. And Tom Johnson said he thought he could convince Larry King to produce the same result by inviting all of Bush's old fraternity brothers to show up and share funny stories from Yale.
As usual, Steve and Cokie Roberts spoke in unison. They said that sabotaging the invitations was a good plan. They predicted that Bush would back down and accept the three commission debates. "But Bush needs a way to back down without completely losing face," they said.
"Move the Boston debate somewhere else!" Donaldson exclaimed. "And let me get back to makeup before somebody sees me!"
Everyone seemed to think that was a fine idea, so Broder gaveled the session to a close. He apologized for the urgent summons and said he'd try to give us more warning before the next meeting.