Howell Raines Unplugged - Please

In his monthly column for Conde Nast Portfolio magazine, deposed New York Times executive editor Howell Raines salutes his own acuity for arguing a completely unoriginal line about how the Republicans will scour Obama in the fall with his own snotty statements about bitter clingers to guns and the sermons of Reverend Wright. Raines attempted to claim that black politicians have their ministers held against them much more severely than white politicians. Isn't a little odd on the cusp of the fifth anniversary of the Jayson Blair scandal that ruined his reputation, that Raines would be arguing the media's anti-black, instead of bending over backwards to appear "progressive"?

Raines wrote about his service on an April 8 panel discussion for The Week magazine, where he squabbled with former Bush strategist Karl Rove about Obama's need to distance himself further from Rev. Wright's poisonous sermons. Rove said yes. Raines said no. He also accused Bill Clinton of insinuating about Obama, "Hey, this guy is black." As if no one noticed? Raines described the scene from his corner:

All this crystallized for me when Rove went into a rant about Obama's minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I set Rove off by observing an obvious fact, for me anyway, of American elections: White candidates can get away with sleazy associations, and black candidates can't. Both John and Robert Kennedy met politely with Alabama governor George Wallace during his Stand in the Schoolhouse Door phase. Ronald Reagan opened his fall campaign in 1980 by appearing as an honored guest at the Neshoba County Fair, in Mississippi, where Governor Ross Barnett in years past gave his annual race-baiting speech-a festive event held only a stone's throw from the muddy grave where Barnett's constituents buried three bullet-riddled civil-rights workers in 1964. As recently as this year, Times columnist David Brooks naively assured his readers that the ­Gipper didn't mean any harm by his richly symbolic appearance at a location closely linked to segregationist politics.

This, to be blunt, is liberal pseudo-history, designed to make Reagan look like a cynical player offering Bubba bait for racists. As Brent Bozell wrote after Reagan's death in 2004,

The weird thing about this is that we've almost never seen this anecdote in all the liberal screeds of the 1980s and 1990s. You won't find it much in old TV news transcripts or news magazine stories. The main purveyor of this spin line over the last twenty years is....Jesse Jackson.

But every reporter who recycled Jesse's old tale left out several crucial facts. First, Reagan wasn't speaking in code to the KKK. He was dead serious about granting federal powers back to the states, period. One of his primary initiatives was a "New Federalism" that would reverse the trend of centralizing all government power in Washington, returning it to states and localities with block grants.

Second, on the day after the supposedly racist-encouraging Mississippi speech, Reagan traveled to New York for a speech to the Urban League, where the Washington Post reported on August 5, 1980 that Reagan declared, "I am committed to the protection of the civil rights of black Americans. That commitment is interwoven into every phase of the programs I will propose." Adviser Martin Anderson explained Reagan would uphold ongoing "affirmative action" programs. Do those sound like code words for Southern racists? That might explain why the story didn't become much of a left-wing legend back in the 1980s.

After describing Reagan as a panderer to Klan types, Raines unfurled his theory of the media's inherent journalistic discrimination against black leaders:

Black candidates are held to a different standard in regard to their associates and not just by party apologists like [David] Brooks. The mainstream press can be depended on to demand that any black candidate, for sheriff or president, disown every controversial thing said or done by every black man since Nat Turner's rebellion. Rove, of course, pointed out that tolerating a racist preacher, as Obama did, is different from cozying up to racist politicians, and he's right. Wright has never had the legal authority to block state prosecution of Klan murderers, as Wallace routinely did back in his days of hobnobbing with presidents. Rove ridiculed Obama at length for suggesting a moral equivalence between black and white racism. "We're all morally equivalent to a guy who says 'Goddamn America' and AIDS was a virus concocted by the government as a genocidal tool," Rove said. To make matters worse, he added that Obama "then concludes by suggesting that the morally equivalent black and white anger ought to find its outlet against the real enemy, which is corporate America."

Isn't that an incredibly sloppy argument by Raines, that any black candidate would have to renounce "every black man" who's said something controversial? It doesn't exactly gibe with Al Sharpton running for the Senate, or running for president, when the Times treated him as a serious figure, as a "civil rights leader," and not as a racial huckster.But Raines isn't done unfurling his supposedly original analysis:

Rove's outburst was notable, I told the audience, "because you've just heard the Republican campaign in a nitroglycerin tablet," should Obama get the nomination. Actually, I was dazzled by the cogency of Rove's case against Obama. Clearly, if perhaps unintentionally, he had outlined a G.O.P. swift-boat game plan, updated for the 2008 general-election campaign. Obama's crazy preacher and the candidate's sociological observations about guns, religion, and working-class bitterness have given the G.O.P.'s video pistoleros all the fodder they need for the television commercials you'll see after Labor Day.

Within 24 hours, two seasoned campaign survivors-one a veteran correspondent for a Northeastern newspaper, the other a battle-scarred Republican consultant-assured me that my analysis was basically right. Rove's remarks might easily serve as a blueprint for the anti-Obama television ads in the fall campaign. Of course, John McCain and the Republican National Committee will condemn those ads. Even so, the commercials will run relentlessly, funded by Republican "527s"-the supposedly independent groups named for the section of the federal tax code that allows these officially "independent" groups to stab the other party's candidate without their guy's getting blood on his hands. And throughout the fall, the press will dutifully publicize one of the great fictions of American campaigning: Our presidential nominees-one of whom will go forth to negotiate with the Chinese, the Russians, and the Arabs-actually lack the persuasive skills to get their own supporters to withdraw the "independent" commercials the candidates supposedly detest.

So if anti-Obama advertising emerges, it should all be blamed on McCain. He should have the executive capacity to shut down any independent advertising that might impair Obama's historic stroll into the White House.This is an amusing piece of cynicism, coming from a man who took next to no blame as an executive for the Jayson Blair scandal, who blamedMetro editor Jonathan Landman for failing to put him in the loop on Blair's serial plagiarism and phony datelines - after Raines had talked up Blair at a National Association of Black Journalists event. (See Clay Waters.) Despite his embarrassing performance, Raines still feels qualified to mock bloggers as pimply teenagers who can't quite compete with the real media elite:

The coexistence of the panelists and our Beltway peers in the audience symbolized nicely the poisoned symbiosis between old politics and old media, the nature of which is summed up in the title of Matthews' program, Hardball. And what of the blogs and the rest of new media, freighted as they are with the potential to democratize information in a revolutionary way? Alas, they seem for the moment a gigantic, pimpled, teenage version of the old hardball world, with its glorification of prediction as fact, assault as entertainment, and anger as the baseline emotion.

That's a third-rate copy of the Bilge Moyers stylebook. If our media culture truly valued the old-fashioned journalistic virtues like honesty, accuracy, accountability, and fairness, Howell Raines would not be granted a soapbox to mock any other media outlet for any form of media malfeasance.