Matching the Obama campaign spin, the network reporters and analysts were upset by John McCain, at one moment in the second presidential debate on Tuesday night, referring to Barack Obama as “that one.” CBS's Jeff Greenfield asserted “there is going to be clearly a major headline soundbite” and insisted “those two words are going to be what the water cooler conversation is tomorrow. Was it demeaning? Was it an insult?” Katie Couric turned to a group of “undecided voters” for their reaction to the phrase. One man “thought it was a little bit childish” and another “undecided” man declared: “I'm really tired of the last eight years of for us or against us and to me that showed that side of McCain coming out and the picky and childish and we've had eight years of that.”
On CNN a little past 11 PM EDT, reporter Suzanne Malveaux compared it to Bill Clinton's characterization of Monica Lewinsky: “It's like 'that woman,' you know, that we've heard 'that woman,' I mean a lot of people are saying that was the kind of language that was very condescending.” A few minutes later, Democratic hack Paul Begala slimed Sarah Palin as a racist, citing the Associated Press and how “they said her attack on this whole Bill Ayers thing was 'racially-tinged.' That's not what a Democrat said, that's what the Associated Press said.” There's a difference? MSNBC viewers heard Chris Matthews pleased by Obama's “wonderful smile” before he charged McCain's smile “has a somewhat menacing quality.”
Audio: MP3 audio (1:25, 450 Kb) which matches the video above of CBS's "undecided" voters.
In the post-debate 25 minutes on NBC, Brian Williams relied on Internet chatter as he contended “John McCain took some heat from a lot of people” for “ when he referred to his Senate colleague, an opponent in this race, Senator Obama, as, quote, 'that one.' That line got a lot of response on the Internet.”
Asked by Williams at the end of NBC's coverage for one moment or utterance “that lives on” from the debate, both NBC political director Chuck Todd and correspondent Andrea Mitchell cited Obama campaign talking points: the “that one” from McCain and how wonderfully Obama summarized his “change” message. Todd conceded the Obama campaign push on “that one” will make it reality:
Well, I think clearly the Obama campaign is pushing this “that one” moment. They're pushing it hard. They've already e-mailed it around a half dozen times to reporters. So whatever -- whether it should be the moment or not, they're pushing it and that matters. If a campaign pushes something, that's how these post-spin wars happen, but I wonder if the Dow today dropping 500 points ends up being more influential on how people view this debate tonight than anything that happened on stage.
WILLIAMS: And Andrea Mitchell, a few seconds left to get you on the record, same question. What lives on after this evening?
ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, it may be Barack Obama's closing statement about change because he wrapped it all up in the few seconds that he had and that may be the impression left with the voters and the viewers.
Chris Matthews, on MSNBC just before 11 PM EDT, as caught by the MRC's Brad Wilmouth:
Barack Obama is gifted in his birth by a wonderful smile. He has a wonderful way of disengaging or disarming attacks on him, even when they’re ferocious. John McCain, when he smiles, has a somewhat menacing quality. It may not be purposeful, but when he smiles, you wonder what he’s really thinking. For whatever reason, Barack Obama comes off as debonair, even under attack, and I think tonight, given the fact of the way this thing started, with Barack in the lead, I think he’ll stay in the lead after tonight. There was not a game changer.
In a humorous aside on ABC, reporter Jake Tapper quipped about how moderator Tom Brokaw had taken over the “town hall” format, so to McCain's detriment it wasn't much of one: “The town was taken over by the mayor” and “the town hall, that Senator McCain does excel in, kind of broke down.”
Just as with the first presidential debate and the VP debate, those surveyed by CBS and CNN said the Democrat won. The CBS News/Knowledge Networks poll of 500 “uncommitted voters” found 39 percent thought Obama won with 27 percent picking McCain and 35 percent considering it a tie. The CNN/Opinion Research “flash poll” had Obama as the winner by 54 to 30 percent.
More on the CBS and CNN post-debate coverage:
CBS News, with "ten undecided voters" at the CBS News studio in New York:
COURIC: What did you think of this one? What struck you?
JEFF GREENFIELD: First it was what didn't happen. The dogs did not bark in the night. After all the talk about taking the gloves off, no mention of Bill Ayers, no mention of Tony Rezko, the Chicago financier. No mention of Jeremiah Wright. I think Bob's [Schieffer] right, in part, because of the format. But there is going to be clearly a major headline soundbite. Sometimes there none. And it came when John McCain was going after Barack Obama for voting on what he considered a pork-laden energy bill, and I think we ought to listen to this.
COURIC: In 2005, and let's take a listen to that.
JOHN McCAIN, IN DEBATE: There was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies. Billions for the oil companies and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me.
GREENFIELD: Katie, I think that those two words are going to be what the water cooler conversation is tomorrow. Was it demeaning? Was it an insult? And I just have a feeling that that focus is going to be a major part of the conversation. As was the part where Obama constantly, as Bob said, kept his eyes on McCain and McCain seemed to be kind of wandering around. You remember the last debate there was talk about him not paying attention.
COURIC: So this is cosmetic stuff for the most part, Jeff, attitudinal stuff. Did you think there was no real winner in terms of substance?
GREENFIELD Well, I thought what was interesting, and if we have time we'll play this bite, was that Obama came here with one goal: relentlessly focus on the middle-class. The middle-class, the middle-class, the middle-class.
COURIC: We'll play that soundbite in a moment, because I'm curious. I know when we heard John McCain say "that one" you all responded. It was really one of the few times that, you know, you said "wow, that was interesting." What did that, how did that strike you, Michael?
MICHAEL, FROM MARYLAND HEIGHT MISSOURI, ONE OF TEN 'UNDECIDED VOTERS' IN CBS'S MANHATTAN STUDIO: I thought it was a little bit childish. I thought it was aggressive. I expected John McCain to, this is his home turf, this type of debate and I expected him to come into this a little more reserved than I saw tonight.
COURIC: Anybody else have strong opinions about that comment?
ROSEMARY, FROM LANCASTER OHIO: It just wasn't respectful. Most of the debate, I think, was civil and, but that comment was not.
GREGG, FROM HENNIKER NEW HAMPSHIRE: Yeah. And I think this debate actually put me over the top. I, I'm really tired of the last eight years of for us or against us and to me that showed that side of McCain coming out and the picky and childish and we've had eight years of that.
COURIC: So you are saying you've gone from uncommitted to committed now?
GREGG: You know, I thought Senator Obama really did present himself well. I liked his approach. Again, I listened to this time and time again with dealing with not only our friends but our enemies. And we've gotten into circumstances that we just alienate everybody, including some of our own citizens.
CBS then went to an ad break without airing any comment from a pro-McCain "undecided voter."
CNN, 11 PM EDT half hour, with Begala's racist charge, to which the MRC's Melissa Lopez alerted me:
JEFFREY TOOBIN: It suggests that John McCain really will have time to get that hair transplant. He is just not doing very well in these debates. I don't mean to belabor this point, but that moment when he called, when he said "that one" and referred to Obama that way. I think that's going to be memorable and I don't think that's going to be a happy memory.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX: It's like “that woman,” you know, that we've heard “that woman,” I mean a lot of people are saying that was the kind of language that was very condescending, very patronizing and even at the end, they talk about the fact that he, McCain, left early. There wasn't a hand shake between the two wives.
JAMES CARVILLE: But if you stop and contemplate this country if Obama goes in and he has a consistent five point lead and loses the election, it would be very, very, very traumatic I think.
GLORIA BORGER: I think about age, also, demographics plays into this tremendously. Because if you get a youth vote, race is going to be much less important and this is what the Obama people believe and this is what a lot of pollsters believe. It really affects older voters much more than younger voters.
ANDERSON COOPER: Paul, you were going-
PAUL BEGALA: This is why what Sarah Palin is doing is so dangerous. You know, I love, love, love attack politics, I love it, but she has -- at least in the views of the Associated Press, they said her attack on this whole Bill Ayers thing was “racially-tinged.” That's not what a Democrat said, that's what the Associated Press said. And it harkens back to, at the convention, she had this quote in her convention speech, kind of anodyne quote about how small towns are good. Well Bobby Kennedy Jr looked it up and it was from a guy named Westbrook Pegler, who Kennedy describes as a fascist, avowed racist who wrote this about Bobby's father, Senator Kennedy. “Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies” Now, why does this Governor have such an affinity for such a hatemonger to quote him in her speech. Why is she now saying things that at least the Associated Press says is very divisive, “racially-tinged”?
On the AP, Begala was citing a particularly sleazy AP story from Sunday. The October 6 MRC CyberAlert recounted:
The AP's Douglass K. Daniel, in a Sunday "news analysis," alleged "her attack was unsubstantiated and carried a racially tinged subtext that John McCain himself may come to regret." Daniel asserted that "in a post-Sept. 11 America, terrorists are envisioned as dark-skinned radical Muslims, not the homegrown anarchists of Ayers' day 40 years ago" and thus "portraying Obama as 'not like us' is another potential appeal to racism."
An excerpt from the October 5 AP dispatch by the Washington bureau reporter:By claiming that Democrat Barack Obama is "palling around with terrorists" and doesn't see the U.S. like other Americans, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin targeted key goals for a faltering campaign.
And though she may have scored a political hit each time, her attack was unsubstantiated and carried a racially tinged subtext that John McCain himself may come to regret....
Palin's words avoid repulsing voters with overt racism. But is there another subtext for creating the false image of a black presidential nominee "palling around" with terrorists while assuring a predominantly white audience that he doesn't see their America?
In a post-Sept. 11 America, terrorists are envisioned as dark-skinned radical Muslims, not the homegrown anarchists of Ayers' day 40 years ago. With Obama a relative unknown when he began his campaign, the Internet hummed with false e-mails about ties to radical Islam of a foreign-born candidate.
Whether intended or not by the McCain campaign, portraying Obama as "not like us" is another potential appeal to racism. It suggests that the Hawaiian-born Christian is, at heart, un-American.
Most troubling, however, is how allowing racism to creep into the discussion serves McCain's purpose so well. As the fallout from Wright's sermons showed earlier this year, forcing Obama to abandon issues to talk about race leads to unresolved arguments about America's promise to treat all people equally.
John McCain occasionally looks back on decisions with regret. He has apologized for opposing a holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. He has apologized for refusing to call for the removal of a Confederate flag from South Carolina's Capitol.
When the 2008 campaign is over McCain might regret appeals such as Palin's perhaps more so if he wins.