Alex Massie

Does Mark Halperin Have What It Takes?

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Mercy me. Mark Halperin makes a lateish run for Most Incriminating Column of the Year with this entry, published in today's New York Times in which he laments how terrible it is that the media have confused campaign froth with the stuff that might actually indicate whether or not a politician is capable of performing the duties custom and the constitution assigns to the President of the United States of America.

Halperin, formerly Political Director at ABC News, argues that:

Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win.

For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world.

But now I think I was wrong. The “campaigner equals leader” formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.

Well, this is, of course, true. But who helped make it so? Well, media bigwigs such as Mark Halperin himself. To read this preposterous column you might think that Halperin was but an innocent bystander rather than a major player in a media climate he did as much to foster as anyone else. Really, it would take a village to do this nonsense the justice it merits, but someone needs to make a start...

Mr Halperin continues:

Case in point: Our two most recent presidents, both of whom I covered while they were governors seeking the White House. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are wildly talented politicians. Both claimed two presidential victories, in all four cases arguably as underdogs. Both could skillfully serve as the chief strategist for a presidential campaign.

But their success came not because they convinced the news media (and much of the public) that they would be the best president, but because they dominated the campaign narrative that portrayed them as the best candidate in a world-class political competition. In the end, both men were better presidential candidates than they were presidents.

First thing to note here is the massaging of the historical record. Show me someone who thinks Bill Clinton was the  underdog against Bob Dole and I'll show you someone whom I'll welcome to my poker game. Equally, George W Bush may have done his best to destroy the advantages of incumbency in his tussle with John Kerry but it's still quite a stretch to suppose that he was the underdog. 

Note too, the requisite Washington Wisdom that Clinton was a failed President. Well, as Enoch Powell said (and he would know) all political lives end in failure, but you'd have had few takers for that proposition when Clinton left the White House. He was, after all, such a failure that it's quite clear that he'd have been elected to a third term had it been available to him. But no, this sort of piffle requires one to posit that they're all as useless as each other. (Of course, I'd say they are, just in way that the likes of Halperin will never understand.)

But no!

For instance, being all things to all people worked wonderfully well for Bill Clinton the candidate, but when his presidency ran into trouble, this trait was disastrous, particularly in the bumpy early years of his presidency and in the events leading up to his impeachment. The fun-loving campaigner with big appetites and an undisciplined manner squandered a good deal of the majesty and power of the presidency, and undermined his effectiveness as a leader. What much of the country found endearing in a candidate was troubling in a president.

When George W. Bush ran in 2000, many voters liked his straightforward, uncomplicated mean-what-I-say-and-say-what-I-mean certainty. He came across as a man of principle who did not lust for the White House; he was surrounded by disciplined loyalists who created a cheerful cult of personality about their candidate.

As with Mr. Clinton, though, the very campaign strengths that got Mr. Bush elected led to his worst moments in office. Assuredness became stubbornness. His lack of lifelong ambition for the presidency translated into a failure to apply himself to the parts of the job that held less interest for him, often to disastrous effects. The once-appealing life outside of government and public affairs became a far-less appealing lack of experience. And Mr. Bush’s close-knit team has served as a barrier to fresh advice.

Whatever else this is, it ain't an especially rigorous analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Bush and Clinton respectively. Or rather, it's an analysis that pays no attention to - and cares not a whit about - what either man actually did in office, but that is obsessed with psychologically analysing their shortcomings.

In other words, it makes exactly the same mistake Halperin chides himself (oh, how noble you are for doing so Mark!) and the media for making in the first place. Even in this post-mortem you can see that image matters more to Halperin than substance. It's comfy of course to ascribe mental shortcomings - If only Bill didn't like blowjobs! If only Dubya could pay attention! - to what should more properly be considered policy failures, but that's a media problem all of its own. (And, in any case, one might note that while we can guess what Halperin thinks are Bush's policy mistakes he makes no mention of what Clinton's were. Perhaps it was Monica that made Arafat be a fool at Camp David and Taba. Who knew?)

So what should we do now? Never fear, the intrepid Halperin is here to offer the sagest kind of advice:

Well, we pause, take a deep breath and resist. At least sometimes. In the face of polls and horse-race maneuvering, we can try to keep from getting sucked in by it all. We should examine a candidate’s public record and full life as opposed to his or her campaign performance. But what might appear simple to a voter can, I know, seem hard for a journalist.

If past is prologue, the winners of the major-party nominations will be those who demonstrate they have what it takes to win. But in the short time remaining voters and journalists alike should be focused on a deeper question: Do the candidates have what it takes to fill the most difficult job in the world?

Does it really need to be said that this is exactly what Mark Halperin has never done? To the extent that Mr Halperin is famous it is because he was the force behind ABC News' super-insidery The Note.

This newsletter, originally only available by email, purported to offer the inside scoop on the 2004 Presidential race. Disdaining anything as boring or old-fashioned as policy, let alone notions of who might, you know, actually make the better President, The Note was a daily update on campaign gossip and Way-Inside-the-Beltway scoopiness that traded on its Insidery status and knowing, It's-All-A-Ridiculous-Game-But-What-Can-You-Do? cleverness. It was entertaining, for sure, and smug as all hell with it's loving fixation on The Gang of 500 journalists who, in The Note's world, would actually decide the election for all you poor rubes out there. There were some regrets at ABC, I believe, when The Note was eventually offered to the great unwashed. It was never about how things are, always about how they'll play.

Halperin was so ashamed of this way of covering the campaign that he reluctantly acquiesced to a long and flattering New Yorker profile that suggested, if memory serves, that he was the most influential journ alist in Washington.

Surprisingly, none of this is mentioned in his NYT op-ed.

Not that the bold Halperin was done there. Not by a long-shot. His next project was a book entitled How to Win which put The Note's thesis into book form. According to his book's own publicity:

The Way to Win takes a lively and irreverent approach, but Halperin and Harris also show the disturbing ways that American politics has become a Freak Show–their name for a political culture that provides incentives for candidates, activists, interest groups, and the news media to emphasize ideological extremism and personal attack. For the first time, Halperin and Harris describe how Freak Show campaigns orchestrated by the likes of Internet pioneer Matt Drudge forced Al Gore and John Kerry to lose control of their public images (with considerable help from the candidates’ own ineptitude) and lose the White House.

On the brink of what will be one of the most intense, most exciting presidential elections in American history, The Way to Win is the book that armchair political junkies have been waiting for. Filled with peerless analysis and eye-opening revelations from the trenches, it is a must read for everyone who follows American politics.

All this of course happened in a vacuum. Nobody in the media, bless us all, ever had anything to do with creating a "Freak Show"?

Now, I'm more tolerant of the circus nonsense but even I take exception to this self-promoting idiocy. I have no idea what the NYT is thinking publishing this self-serving tripe without pointing out Halperin's role in helping create the very situation he so innocently deplores but there you have it. Rules for Big and Important People are not the same as they are for mere mortals who are, occasionally, required to acknowledge and even take some measure of responsibility for their actions and mistakes.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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