Jewish World Review August 1, 2001/12 Menachem-Av, 5761


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Pickin' up the pieces -- CORNPONE TEXAN Molly Ivins is one the country's more deranged journalists-along with her buddy Jim Hightower-but I did get a kick out of her August 6 Time column about President Bush. She wrote: "For years I have been trying to persuade people that George W. Bush, although no Einstein, is not stupid. Now comes word he is returning to Texas for most of August. He could have gone to Kennebunkport, Maine, instead. I give up. If you put his brain in a duck, it would fly north for the winter."

I like ducks; watching them in the water and served up for dinner. But here's a bone I have to pick with Mr. Bush: Why in the world, sir, would you waste an entire month talking to cows and clearing brush when all your enemies are playing golf, taking taxpayer-provided international junkets and holding the occasional town meeting in their home states?

Work while the rest of the world naps. Bush, rather than tuning down, ought to embark on an extensive tour of the United States, pushing his political goals to tremendous crowds. Lash out at Tom Daschle for holding administration nominees hostage. Attack the trial lawyers who dictate much of the Democratic agenda. Explain your vision of tax and Social Security reform. Raise money-both hard and soft-to help Republican candidates who can help take back the Senate and increase the GOP majority in the House. Own the front pages of daily newspapers.

A massive blitz of presidential appearances would not only give Democrats the jitters, it would set Bush up for the contentious autumn he faces.

1. All McCain, All the Time. In Slate-ville, number-two editor Jack Shafer plays Boo-Boo to Michael Kinsley's Yogi Bear. Shafer must've committed some heinous sin in a prior life to arrive at this station; still, the ex-Washington City Paper chief has qualities that are unique to the Microsoft-owned website: a midsize set of balls and a biting sense of humor. Even when Shafer completely misses the mark, he's good for a laugh or two.

On July 27, Shafer completely blew it in his short piece "The Return of McSwoonery," a stab at Newsweek's Matt Bai for his July 30 "heart-shaped pillow" delivered to that magazine's model of everything that's noble about politics in particular and the United States in general. Making fun of Bai's over-the-top story about John McCain visiting Teddy Roosevelt's boyhood home here in Manhattan, which read more like the sycophancy of his colleagues Howard Fineman or Jonathan Alter, Shafer wrote: "Any guy who's fallen in love will understand Bai's double-standard: My girl is red-hot, your gal is doodly-squat. When other politicians take the press on visual field trips, they're photo-op whores, but when McCain does it, he's America's Sweetheart."


Rib-tickling, but I don't know where Shafer's been living the past year if he thinks that the media's star-struck glorification of St. McCain has been in remission. He writes: "The New York Times' tendencies toward McSwoonery were charted twice in this column during the campaign, but after a year of cooling, the embers of the press corps' love glow once more."

Flat-out wrong, Jack: maybe you ought to get your beak out of the Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley bios and pay attention to the crimes against the Constitution in DC. "A year of cooling?" Uh, no. Was Shafer in Costa Rica last spring when McCain was deified, day after day (most flagrantly by the Times), during his successful stewardship of a campaign finance "reform" bill in the Senate? Didn't he notice, after sexagenarian James Jeffords discovered his true political gender, that journalists immediately turned their attention to McCain, who was pouting for lack of attention? McCain entertained Tom Daschle in Arizona, setting up a guaranteed spittle over whether McCain'd be the next Republican to switch parties.

And there's been an embarrassing paper trail of stories wondering if McCain will challenge President Bush for the GOP nomination in 2004, or more likely, emulate T.R. and launch an independent bid. The Keating Five Mavericks would be a fitting name, although I wouldn't rule out the predictable lift of the Bull Moose Party.

Newsweek's Bai doesn't even rate in the Top 10 of McCain butt-smoochers: aside from Alter and Fineman, he loses out to Time's Margaret Carlson, the entire staff of The New York Times, Slate's Jacob Weisberg, Salon's Jake Tapper, The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt, NBC's Tim Russert, Hardball's Chris Matthews, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, E.J. Dionne and Richard Cohen, and The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol and David Brooks.

Matt Bai is actually one of the better mainstream reporters. His July 15 New York Times Magazine article-"Running from Office: Why Max Kennedy's Congressional Run Never Took Off"-was a terrific read, offering more than the cursory brush-off the rest of the media gave RFK's ninth child. The standard take was that Max just didn't have it; he was goofy, too fond of Hawaiian shirts and yoga, and unable to embrace the decades-long boot camp a Kennedy has to endure before starting a campaign.

Bai charts the days before Max Kennedy was set to announce his intention to seek the Massachusetts House seat vacated by the late Joe Moakley. One of his tutors was Doug Hattaway, a loathsome spokesman for Al Gore last fall (although not a patch on the oily team of Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani).

He writes: "The speech Kennedy held in his hands had been written by Bob Shrum, the fabled wordsmith who had served Max's uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, in every campaign since 1980. Shrum had also been a key adviser to Al Gore, and this, Kennedy decided, was the problem with the speech. 'I sound like Al Gore,' he sighed. 'I sound like a caricature of Al Gore. Look, I love Al Gore. I worked my tail off for him. I like his whole family. But I don't want to sound like him.'"

Deeper into the story, Bai recounts conversations with Kennedy before the potential candidate's miscues piled up. "Max knew the campaign would take all his energy, but he seemed to approach the idea of running with his usual breezy style. 'I've just got to be myself, bro,' he said. 'It's going to be fun.' He and I had become friendly, and I asked him how he gauged his chances for winning. 'Lately, I've been getting into astrology,' he said thoughtfully. Then he exploded into laughter. 'It's all about my horoscope, baby!'"

I'm not a fan of the Kennedy clan's despicable noblesse-oblige politics, but if Max decides to run again at a later date, without the baggage of millionaire hacks like Shrum and the inevitable interference of First Hagiographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr., he might be the most interesting, if flaky, public servant the family has produced.

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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© 2001, Russ Smith