Sunday, November 25, 2007


I hate to interrupt the guest posters, but this morning I read Mark Halperin's New York Times op-ed, and I'm wondering if Halperin understands that the famous "Kick my ass!" scene in Spinal Tap was actually meant to be a joke.

Once upon a time, Beltway insiders and insider-wannabes were in awe of Halperin's daily online political newsletter, The Note; go read the long feature story about him in a fall '04 issue of The New Yorker if you want to see how big a star he seemed to be.

Then last year he co-authored a non-bestseller about presidential politics; this year he published another non-bestseller on the same subject. When the first book failed to take off, he made the rounds of the right-wing media, telling the wingnuts how awful he and his fellow journalists are because they don't kiss the feet of movement conservatives and evangelicals with sufficient frequency (though he insisted he was much better at that than his peers). That didn't help sales -- but in the Times today he's saying "Kick our asses!" again, this time declaring that he and other journalists have long paid far too much attention to the campaigning skills of presidential candidates:

MORE than any other book, Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes," about the 1988 battle for the White House, influenced the way I cover campaigns.

I'm not alone. The book's thesis -- that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office -- has shaped the universe of political coverage....

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....

I believe the technical term for this is "a keen grasp of the obvious."

Any reasonably intelligent person figured this out years ago -- why are we supposed to give Halperin brownie points for understanding it now? What's more, why did he ever believe it in the first place, and why does Richard Ben Cramer get the blame? What It Takes was about the 1988 presidential campaign but didn't appear in print until the summer of 1992. It was certainly obvious to the voters by then that the guy who'd had "what it took" to win the '88 election hadn't been a particularly good president, which is why they resoundingly rejected him at the polls five months later. Why wasn't it obvious to Halperin?

That's why the last paragraph of Halperin's op-ed particularly rankles:

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?

I love that "voters and journalists alike" -- it's as if Halperin, waking up in the gutter after a three-day bender, is looking up telling the people from the Salvation Army, "You know, all of us have to stop drinking so much."

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