Jewish World Review June 16, 2004/ 27 Sivan, 5764


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Have You Heard of John McCain? Kerry Continues to Grovel | My friend Alex Cockburn, who lards his iconoclastic writing with mischievous blarney, couldn't resist contributing to The Nation's pernicious "The Real Legacy of Reagan" issue currently on newsstands. Cockburn's mellowed since the early 1980s when he stuck pins in his voodoo doll of Reagan for the Village Voice; moving to rural California where he rides horses instead of making the rounds of media circle jerks in Manhattan, will do that to a jolly man advancing in years.

Still, like nearly every journalist in the United States, Cockburn wanted his say and so summoned up some vitriol he'd stored in a time capsule to recall the 40th president as a man with "no moral sense about truth or falsity" and a "terrible" orator. Nation readers, long dismayed by Cockburn's contrarian views that often collided with the Gospel According to the Upper West Side and Paul Krugman, must've rejoiced upon reading his latest column, thinking that their hero was back.

As anti-eulogies go, Cockburn's was fairly predictable, a greatest hits of his oft-repeated opinions about Reagan, but the most curious passage was the conclusion. It read: "As Reagan shambled toward the stairway of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on Inauguration Day, 1989, Bryant Gumbel [remember him?] mused to Tom Brokaw that this seemed to him 'quite remarkable.' It turned out that Gumbel was mightily impressed that the 78-year-old Reagan had not sought to stave off retirement by mounting a coup d'etat. All around the world, Gumbel said, leaders 'cling to power.' James Baker, the man who, with Paul Volcker, ran the world for Reagan, probably could have done it. The press would have gone along. As it was, Baker just bided his time for twelve years."

Personally, I think Alex was just waxing nostalgic as he wrote those words, maybe nursing a glass or two of California red, pretending he was speaking at an alternative Reagan funeral. Cockburn's feuding partner, Christopher Hitchens, who, unfortunately, left the Nation a couple of years ago after distressing readers with his intellectually brilliant broadsides against the Clintons, and then, support for the Iraq War, was similarly moved to inveigh against Reagan in a June 7 Slate posting.

Reagan, wrote Hitchens, was "dumb as a stump. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with an obvious phony and loon."

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The L.A. Weekly's John Powers, a fine film critic who's increasingly focused on politics, was another journalist who sought to do battle against the mainstream media's— crocodile tears, anyone?— maudlin revisionism of Reagan. Powers has prospered in the past 24 years, despite all those treacherous Republicans in Washington, but says that even Bill Clinton was diminished by Reagan's aura, leaving "precious little legacy beyond a talented wife." I'd say that Clinton's grudging acquiescence to welfare reform was the highlight of his dismal eight years in office, but if Powers has a boner for Hillary, more power to him.

I suspect that when President Bush's nine lives are extinguished, he'll receive a majestic funeral (especially if he's reelected), but for the time being the incumbent is, not surprisingly, measured unfavorably against the late Californian. Powers writes: "Although George H.W. Bush followed Reagan into the Oval Office, George W. Bush is his true successor. He pushes the irresponsible conservative agenda that The Gipper stood for all along, only without the same good grace or pragmatism. Twenty years ago, I never thought I'd live to see the day when I'd feel even a moment's nostalgia for Reagan and his doltish presidency. Thanks to churlish Dubya, I now do. But only for a flickering moment. Then all the stupid facts and unpleasant memories start washing over me, and I recall what it actually felt like to live through the Reagan Years."

What malarkey. I could say the same about living through the Carter and Clinton Years, but it would be dishonest. Despite my disgust with both disgraceful presidents, life went on, with the usual ups and downs, just as it did for Powers.

Cockburn's fanciful notion of a coup in '89, and then the Eric Alterman-like jibe that George W. Bush's 2000 election was engineered by Baker, in cahoots with the Supreme Court, naturally, is silly, but a gusher of hyperbole, from both sides of the partisan stalemate, bursts forth when a national figure, especially one as major as Reagan, dies.

Less ridiculous, however, is the coup Sen. John McCain slyly engineered four years ago when, as a presidential candidate, he captured nearly the entire U.S. media. It's testament to McCain's tenacity that his mind-control over the alleged Great Minds that tap out editorials and op-ed columns in-between checking stock portfolios and looking for summer homes, continues to this day.

The most recent example in the schoolgirl desire for McCain to team up with John Kerry against Bush this November— sort of like writing a love letter to Davy Jones or Bobby Sherman in the 60s— was David Ignatius' na´ve essay in last Friday's Washington Post.

Ignatius, who for the sake of the country, endorses Kerry's selection of the pompous Arizona senator for his running mate, was, I suppose, one of the hundreds of journalists who gabbled with McCain aboard the "Straight Talk Express" four years ago, sharing a cup of coffee, donuts and quality time with the Keating Five oracle.

He writes: "Despite McCain's public demurrals, he has been privately deliberating how things might work if he ever did agree to run as Kerry's vice presidential candidate. The bitter political divide in America worries McCain, especially when the nation is at war. He knows that for many Americans, he has become a symbol of bipartisanship that could overcome these divisions— and bring Red and Blue America closer together. That call to duty is powerful for McCain. He'll be 68 later this summer, and he knows that his time to shape American public life is now."

There's been a lot of nonsense on this subject, especially in the past fortnight, but the foul aroma of Ignatius' brown-nosing is the worst yet. He claims that Moses McCain could unite "Red and Blue America." It makes one ill just to consider the holes in Ignatius' argument. McCain, unless he's lied the past several months, always a possibility, has insisted in countless statements (including several in the last four days) that he likes Kerry but their political views aren't sufficiently compatible to make such a scenario plausible. It's true that the Senator hasn't exactly bolted the door shut, but that's probably a function of his need for publicity and attention, a disorder that's dwarfed only by Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer.

McCain correctly fears that he'd function largely as a Kerry ornament, a ruse to win the election, and then pitched in the dustbin of ignored vice presidents. And it's not as if, should such a team get elected, that McCain will run for the top job eight years from now. Ignatius does acknowledge McCain's concern that he'd be "put on ice" in a Kerry administration when he opposed his boss. No kidding, John.

But that doesn't deter the civic-minded Ignatius, who writes, "Advocates of the national-unity approach [translated: a Kerry win], like me, argue that the fact that Kerry and McCain disagree if the whole point of their running together. They would each have to give ground on issues that matter to them, for the sake of the larger issue of the country's welfare. And they would have to work out a governing formula that allowed McCain to remain a Republican and be faithful to his values while working alongside Kerry."

Bear in mind that Ignatius is not a goody-two-shoes just graduated from a prestigious university recently arrived in Washington with a Jimmy Stewart sensibility about rolling up his sleeves and, Jiminy Cricket, get this country moving again! The very notion that Kerry, once elected, would be forced to "give ground" on any issue to McCain is ludicrous, and Ignatius ought to be embarrassed for committing such a thought to print.

But until Kerry does choose a veep candidate, the McCain Watch will continue and unless I'm mistaken, it'll become more desperate and disingenuous and dopey as Boston's Democratic Convention draws near. Hard to tell whom exactly the next dupe will be, but before Kerry picks Gephardt or Edwards or Nunn or Mark Warner, there's no question the New York Times editorial page will make its own pitch, again, on behalf of the country.

Lame-duck Times executive editor Bill Keller might even dictate the plea himself, with editorial page chief Gail Collins taking steno, despite what reporter David M. Halbfinger wrote last Saturday. In conversations with the standard "people close to both men," Halbfinger's lead paragraph was definitive on the Great McCain Question, at least for this week. He said: "John Kerry, the presumptive nominee for president, has repeatedly and personally asked Senator John McCain, the independent-minded Arizona Republican, to consider being his running mate, but Mr. McCain has refused, people who have spoken to both men said Friday."

There's only one way McCain will get close to the Oval Office. Say Bush is assassinated during the campaign— these are dangerous times and any number of nuts could be the culprit, a bin Laden fanatic, say, or a deranged member— and the GOP is without a candidate. Party leaders would immediate turn to McCain, who's been lightly vetted by the press, and possibly persuade Jeb Bush to run with him.

But there's another possible fusion ticket in the offing. Should Kerry continue to spurn the more popular Edwards (North Carolina senate candidate Erskine Bowles says in Monday's Times that Kerry would be "nuts" not to pick the trial lawyer) he may ask Nancy Reagan, making stem cell research the centerpiece of his campaign. Seeking to capitalize on his onetime foe Ronald Reagan's death, Kerry last Saturday sought to stake out a position as the nation's Physician-In-Chief. He said that Mrs. Reagan "told the world that Alzheimer's had taken her own husband to a distant place, and then she stood up to help find a breakthrough that someday will spare other husbands, wives, children and parents from the same kind of heartache."

It's not a bad gambit. Kerry can spin the booming economy any way he wants, but by November it won't have much traction. His views on Iraq aren't all that different from Bush's, demonizing John Ashcroft only goes so far, the Enron scandal is largely forgotten, and so eradicating disease might be his best shot.

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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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