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Jewish World Review March 1, 2000/ 24 Adar I, 5760


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Down to the Wire -- WE'RE LIVE at the MUGGER War Room, ready to play Who Will Be the Next President? The first contestant is Maureen Dowd, the witty op-ed columnist for The New York Times, better known in these parts as The Old Gray Lady, or The Paper of Record. You know, Mo, I almost lost it when you flattened Gov. Bush the other day, in that brilliant column "Hey, Big Spender..." When I read, "W. is in his room, curled up with his feather pillow and video golf game," I thought to myself, no wonder she won a Pulitzer; who else can dream up lines like that.

But enough small talk.

The first question, Mo, for $100, is, "Who is the most honest man in the 2000 presidential campaign?"

A. Sen. John McCain.
B. Vice President Al Gore.
C. McCain strategist Mike Murphy.
D. Pat Buchanan.
"Well, MUGGER, that's almost impossible to answer, given that the subject is politics. But it has to be A, John McCain."

Final answer?
Oh, I'm sorry, Mo. The correct choice was C, Mike Murphy. But as a consolation prize please accept a copy of Gail Sheehy's Hillary's Choice.

Candidates and their handlers habitually lie, or "spin," when they're caught in a contradiction; currently, of those men seeking the presidency, Al Gore is the undisputed champion. Honest John McCain, though, came close last week. In the run-up to the Feb. 22 Michigan primary, some voters received phone calls with the following message:

"This is a Catholic voter alert. Governor George Bush has campaigned against Senator John McCain by seeking the support of Southern fundamentalists who have expressed anti-Catholic views... Bob Jones has made strong anti-Catholic statements, including calling the Pope the antichrist and the Catholic Church a Satanic cult. John McCain, a pro-life senator, has strongly criticized this anti-Catholic bigotry, while Governor Bush has stayed silent."

Before the primary, the McCain staff denied any knowledge of the phone calls. In fact, at a press conference on Feb. 23, McCain said of the calls: "I didn't have anything to do with them to start with." Last Friday however, he told New York Times reporter David Barstow that he "had personally approved the calls," although he strenuously argued that Gov. Bush himself was not called a bigot. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer responded by saying, "This startling revelation undercuts the entire premise of John McCain's campaign-that is, straight talk and that he will never tell a lie."

Last Sunday, on ABC's This Week, McCain dissembled about the phone calls and again denied he intended to label Bush as a bigot. He also defended using the word "gook" to describe his Vietnamese adversaries-a slur that's entirely cricket given the circumstances-but didn't shy away from his nasty joke about
The First Daughter
Chelsea Clinton being the offspring of Janet Reno and Hillary Clinton. He said: "President McCain will use humor whenever he can. Sometimes it will be poorly done and sometimes it will get President McCain in trouble... But the fact is, I will continue to use humor."

Sounds to me like President McCain is now the candidate measuring the drapes in the White House. As well as pulling a Bob Dole by referring to himself in the third person. Maybe that's the reason he ducked out of a debate on March 2 in Los Angeles, even though his staff is divided on the decision. Spokesman Dan Schnur said it was "definitely a mistake... It gives the inaccurate impression that we're not contesting the state." Another mouthpiece, Howard Opinksy, claimed that the Senator was too busy-he had a campaign rally scheduled in New York that night. But it was a dumb move: Bush, if he's smart, should ask McCain for five more debates in the next two weeks. So what if some reporters will say he's desperate? It aggressively puts the onus on McCain.

Bush finally had to make a statement on the Bob Jones University nightmare, and so last Friday he sent a letter to New York's Cardinal John O'Connor. The letter read, in part: "Some have taken-and mistaken-this visit as a sign that I approve of the anti-Catholic and racially divisive views associated with that school. As you know from a long friendship with my family-and our own meeting last year-this criticism is unfair and unfounded. Such opinions are personally offensive to me, and I want to erase any doubts about my views and values."

How much damage control was achieved by the letter is unknown, but at least Bush's competitors can't claim that he was silent on the matter any longer. But it also gave the Governor another opportunity to slam McCain for his relentless hypocrisy. At a Seattle press conference on Feb. 27, Bush tore into the Senator for the Michigan phone calls. He said, in describing McClinton's, I mean McCain's, slippery explanation of the smear tactics: "That's not plain talk; that's parsed talk. This is a man who said, 'I'm going to tell the truth and run a positive campaign.' If the facts are what they are, it sounds like he might have violated both."

It'll be interesting to see how the Gore campaign uses the Bob Jones appearance against Bush in the fall should he be the GOP's nominee. Already, Sen. Joe Biden has said, in a prelude to an inevitableadvertising barrage, "I'm offended as a Catholic, I'm offended as a supporter of civil rights, I'm just flat-out offended. It should haunt them. And it will haunt them." Biden, of course, voted to acquit an impeached president who admitted to lying to the nation and in a legal deposition. We'll see whose ad consultant can create the most effective negative tv spots.

And The Economist has this tidbit in its Feb. 26 edition: "The McCain campaign admitted, then denied, telephoning supporters and entering their donations online. Internet experts now question whether the senator's record $4m, raised via his website, resulted from high-tech genius and a spontaneous groundswell of support or just good old-fashioned glad-handing."

MUGGER to Bush: Attack!

Bush has to change the narrative of this campaign; it's not about money anymore, but rather who can defeat Al Gore in November. He has to drive home, again and again, that besides McCain's POW status, the Senator has accomplished almost nothing in Washington in 17 years, as opposed to the fundamental changes Bush has made in Texas in not even two terms as governor.

When Bush comes to New York during the next week he must act like a street warrior, take the subway, and escape from the George Pataki bubble (New York's governor has been useless in this campaign). He should challenge McCain every day, something along the lines of: "Okay Luke Skywalker, Capt. America, Batman, or whatever your nickname is today; let's debate the real issues at Katz's Deli. Let's talk about you claiming to be a Reagan Republican when at the same time you brag that Bill Gates doesn't need a tax cut. Let's put it all out on the table: tell everyone how you're a Democrat in Michigan and then suddenly an ardent conservative in California."

Last Sunday, the New York Post ran an incoherent endorsement of McCain, stressing the Senator's "life story" over his plans for a possible presidency. The editorial wrongly claims that McCain is a tax cutter-his proposal is Clintonesque-and laughably states that he's "one of the most respected voices on Capitol Hill." The Post disagrees with McCain's centerpiece-campaign finance reform-but lets him off the hook by saying, "But an anti-establishment posture is part of McCain's charm." No it's not. It's an assault against the First Amendment.

Obviously, Post owner Rupert Murdoch is covering all bets. If McCain loses to either Bush for the GOP nomination or Gore in the fall, he'll still have McCain in the Senate, where as chair of the powerful Commerce Committee he could return Murdoch the favor. If McCain somehow does win the presidency, Murdoch can expect to spend a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, telling dirty jokes with Honest John.

That doesn't explain the preoccupation of Murdoch's Weekly Standard with McCain-he's on the cover again this week-but my respect for editor Bill Kristol forbids me from thinking ungenerous thoughts. Kristol has gone out on a limb for McCain; if he's the next president, rewards will be doled out. In a Bush administration-it's known in Washington that there's bad blood between Kristol and the Bush family --- he's a goner.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2000, Russ Smith