Rand Paul vs. Media: Humor Tips From Reagan and JFK

Rush Limbaugh, as is frequently the case, was right.

The other day, after a media kerfuffle surrounding Senator Rand Paul’s announcement and a rash of stories about the Senator’s televised go-rounds with NBC’s Today host Savannah Guthrie and an earlier one with CNBC’s Kelly Evans, Rush pointed out the obvious.

Illustrating by pointing to the Guthrie interview - as seen here - Rush said as follows:

She showed open disrespect.  She had no interest whatsoever in the substance of what he was saying and tried to prevent him from saying or contributing any substance.  She's the one that scores. Savannah Guthrie says, ‘I got a Rand Paul interview!’ Rand Paul, he's seen arguing with a reporter, not being treated with respect, not being treated as she treats everybody else -- as though we're buds and friends.

He's treated as an oddball, practically an alien.

Why do this?  I don't get it!

One thing we've learned is there's nothing to gain.  I mean, the old line of thought has been, ‘You've gotta go to the lion's den.’  

The next day, Rush returned to the subject after all manner of people on the tube had discussed, most of those discussions raising the specter that…but of course!…Rand Paul has a woman problem.

“Okay, so Rand Paul goes on the Today Show yesterday, and he's interviewed by Savannah Guthrie, who is considered this harmless female anchor at the Today Show, when she is every bit the partisan firebrand that anybody else on the left is.  She's the NBC White House correspondent, or has been. She had her own show on PMSNBC with F. Chuck Todd.  She a radical, like they all are.

My point is there's nothing in the middle about her. There's nothing moderate. There's nothing objective or any of that.  She is a left-wing journalist on NBC, okay?  So Rand Paul does battle with her, and doesn't accept some of her premises, some of her questions, and talks over her and so forth.  This has caused a controversial reaction.”

Rush is right, of course. The Today Show is the morning NBC kick-off in the daily push of the liberal media. Ms. Guthrie is also married, again as Rush pointed out, to longtime Democratic operative Michael Feldman. Mr. Feldman is a founding partner in the Glover Park Group, a “strategic communications group.”

The Glover Park web site boasts that Feldman served “as Senior Adviser and Traveling Chief of Staff to Vice President Al Gore and as a liaison between the Clinton-Gore White House and the United States Congress ( and he) …Worked for the Democratic Leadership in the United States Senate as a Floor Staff Assistant.”  Suffice to say one can reasonably suspect that conservatives are not well thought of in the Guthrie-Feldman abode.  

But the fact is that this is always going to be the case. Guthrie today and some other liberal media interviewer the next day. It is impossible to run for president and not have to deal with these people in some capacity. Yet there is a way to do this and not generate all the baloney headlines that Senator Paul, one of the genuine nice guys in American politics, launched by taking on Guthrie.

And, but of course, Ronald Reagan is one place to look for some wisdom on the subject. So too with John F. Kennedy. It is no accident that of all of the presidents in the last half century or so the two favorites with the American people have been the Republican Reagan and the Democrat JFK. As always there are doubtless a lot of reasons for this, but without question one of them is that both men had a well-developed sense of humor that was always on display when dealing with the media. When the press bored in, Reagan and Kennedy would respond with humor, making Americans laugh.  Examples?

In 1985, Reagan had hired a new chief of staff, Treasury Secretary and ex-Wall Streeter Donald Regan. There were controversies on Regan’s new watch, among them a controversy over a Reagan appearance at a German cemetery where, it turned out, Nazi soldiers had been buried. As the controversies built up steam, the media began badgering about staff changes and in-fighting inside the White House. In a Q&A with reporters, the umpteenth hostile question about firing Don Regan was launched again at the President.  He handled it this way:

Q. Are you going to fire Don Regan?

A. (Laughing.) Are you talking about the Redskins football player?

Q. Not quite. I’m talking about the Post articles on the schism in your hierarchy.

A. If I fired anybody, it would be the Post.

During a presidential press conference in the 1982 recession, ABC’s Sam Donaldson told Reagan that the president had blamed others for the recession but didn’t he have responsibility? To which Reagan replied: “Yes, because I used to be a Democrat.”

And with a grin, Reagan was on to the next thing. Reporters were constantly doing to Reagan what Savannah Guthrie was doing to Rand Paul. And they were constantly frustrated. He never gave them what they wanted. He never bit, never took the bait.

The famous occasion in New Hampshire during the 1980 GOP primary  - when Reagan grabbed the microphone during a debate with George H.W.Bush and furiously barked “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” was in response to a visual and audible everyone had heard - the newspaper moderator of the debate (whose last name was actually Breen) - commanding “will the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan’s microphone off.” It was a considerable provocation - and  Reagan grabbed both the microphone and the moment, his dramatic move not only winning the debate but clinching the primary. But he not only had the crowd both in the debate and in the larger television audience with him, the moment stood out because it was a side of Reagan that was rarely on display. Could he get mad in private? Sure. On occasion the half glasses would come off his nose and get slammed on a table. But display this in public? To the media? Not a prayer. There was always a smile and usually a joke to go with it - and in fact it drove the media crazy.

So too was this John F. Kennedy’s style. JFK had it easier than Reagan, of course. The media loved him. He was a Democrat. He was also movie-star handsome, sophisticated and possessed of a considerable sense of humor. And that sense of humor was, as with Reagan, repeatedly on display when dealing with the press. As seen here.

In the summer of 1963, JFK was starting to struggle a bit in the polls. The Republican National Committee pounced - and sure enough, a reporter tried to prod Kennedy into going after them. The exchange went like this:

Q. The Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution saying you were pretty much of a failure. How do you feel about that?

A. I assume it passed unanimously.

When told that there was a demand on Capitol Hill for a “watchdog committee” he replied: “ To watch Congressmen and Senators? Well, that will be fine if they feel they should be watched.”

The press corps dissolved in laughter, with JFK - straight-faced at first, finally breaking into a grin.

What does this have to do with Rand Paul? The same thing it has to do with every Republican candidate. The media is overwhelmingly out to get conservatives.  Rush has it exactly right. They may or may not be married to a top Democratic operative as is Savannah Guthrie, but rest assured the liberal sentiments are shared.

To give perspective? Former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger recalled that when  Reagan was running for governor of California an editor of the Sacremento Bee told the paper’s political reporter that every single story about Reagan that appeared in the paper had to appear with this beginning descriptive: “Ronald Reagan, the Goldwaterite candidate for governor…”. Goldwater had lost California in 1964 by a million votes, so the assumption was that by repeatedly attaching the “Goldwaterite” label it would paint Reagan as a far right extremist. Reagan wound up winning California by a million votes in 1966. Oops. There was, in other words, no question that the liberal media of the day was out to trip Reagan up - but he never played in to their hand because he repeatedly deployed his sense of humor.

Is there any Republican that she could actually get behind who was actually a woman? Wouldn’t that be interesting to know? I bet I know the answer!

On one occasion, while governor, Reagan was attending a regents meeting of the University of California - of which he had been a serious critic for its riots and “student unrest.” Student protestors made certain to line each side of the sidewalk he was scheduled to use to get in the building where the meeting was being held. They were pointedly stone silent - and the television cameras were there to record it all. Reagan could have gone to another door and slipped inside unnoticed but he refused. With the cameras running, he smilingly walked between the two lines of silent protestors, went up the stairs to a waiting open door - then turned around, smiling, and put his index finger to his lips, saying as loud as he could: “Shhhhhhhhh!” Californians loved it.

Years later, running for re-election as president in 1984 he had not had a good first debate with Democrat Walter Mondale. The press filled with stories that he was losing it, that he was too old to be president. At the second debate the question came politely but bluntly. Was he too old for the job? With a nod and a twinkle, Reagan responded straight-faced (as seen here) “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.” The studio audience burst into laughter, the media panelist laughed - and most devastatingly of all the camera caught Mondale laughing. Reagan stayed straight-faced with the hint of a smile - but the eyes twinkled. He’d gotten them all again. A 49-state victory lay immediately ahead.

It is always amazing to watch the supporters of the Romney’s and McCain’s of the world  assuring in primary season that their candidate’s moderateness is a winner because the media loves moderate Republicans. Only to watch in horrified disbelief when, as their candidates begin to emerge as a potential nomination winner, they see the liberal media suddenly turn on them. McCain whose “base” was said to be the media suddenly found himself the subject of this front-page New York Times story asserting- but not proving - that he had a lobbyist mistress. Romney was suddenly on the front page of The Washington Post as a bully for having been part of a group that had beaten up a suspected gay classmate - in high school. The New Yorker jumped in with this story titled simply: "Mitt Romney: Bully."

Hello? What is being done to Rand Paul right now is what will happen - times 1,000 - to Paul or whomever emerges as the GOP nominee. No matter who it is or where on the scale of conservative-to-liberal that person is placed. And if he or she (Carly Fiorina) actually wins the election? This business will keep right on going, as it did with Reagan.

So could Rand Paul have handled this better? Sure. Is he anti-woman? Of course not. But if in fact Hillary Clinton announces her candidacy as she is expected to do shortly, every single Republican male candidate is going to be set up as anti-woman. Rand Paul may be the first of the group to be tarred and feathered with this claim, but he is most certainly not going to be the last. And newsflash? If in fact the GOP nominates Carly Fiorina for either spot on the Republican ticket? Like Sarah Palin expect her to be dumped on by the media as not very bright and, really, not actually a real woman.

Reagan’s way of dealing with this was to use humor in a style that told the viewer he, Reagan, knew what was up. And he he knew they - the audience - knew what was up too. He knew what the liberal media game was, he knew what liberalism was all about in painting him as some kind of - in those days - racist/sexist/extremist/aging nut. And with a toss of the head, a twinkle of the eye, he would communicate - once literally in his debate with Jimmy Carter and most of the time leaving it unspoken that, “well, there you go again.”  

And they - the media - will in fact go there again. Count on it. The question, for Senator Paul and every other Republican candidate now in this race or thinking about getting in this race, is how will they handle it.

There is no perfect answer. But the best answer is with a smile and a twinkle.

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