PHILADELPHIA- Any observer of political convention coverage would have noticed once again this week that it seems there's no way for the Republicans to win with the press. Their every move comes with a certain damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't curse.
When the GOP does nothing obvious to underline their minority outreach, they're broadsided by the press as the exclusive party of plutocratic pale males. When they do make an effort to present a palette of many colors, they are condemned for pandering. When they invite casual citizens into the convention with gimmicks like classroom speeches, or when they offer gospel choirs for entertainment, they are criticized for not offering substance. If they offer substance, the substance is attacked for its right wing stridency and lack of compassion.
Perhaps the funniest juxtaposition came on Wednesday night, when Dan Rather promised that CBS reporter Ed Bradley would dig into the "big money" core of the GOP, but after this commercial message by Benadryl. If the media stars truly believe in this socialist notion that political speech paid for by corporate money is automatically corrupt, then isn't their reliance on greedy advertisers to enable them to broadcast their message equally wrong?
Which is not to say that the GOP was not guilty of some pretty flagrant pandering, though. For example, they found time for a trade speech by openly gay Rep. Jim Kolbe, only because Jim Kolbe is gay. Their reward was to have Kolbe pressed by CNN to address if he's an "outcast" and when the Republicans are going to be "ready" to evolve into the inevitable and absolute acceptance of homosexuality. They gave a prime-time slot to liberal media pinup boy John McCain. But at the same time, their diversity plan did not extend to spellbinding speaker Alan Keyes, or even a mention of Steve Forbes, the party's most knowledgeable expert on economics.
Conservatives were nowhere to be found, but the GOP did find time for "The Rock," the professional wrestler who generously took time from his ultra-violent sideshow of beating up men - and women - on television. His introduction of House Speaker Dennis "Vanilla Ice" Hastert was so hokey and ill-contrived I expected Hastert to come out in a leotard and hit someone in the head with a chair.
All that said, however, either by careful design or sheer luck (probably both), the Bush campaign may have pulled off the convention of a lifetime.
Start with the strategic decision to stay positive, with a minimum of specificity, for more than the first half of the convention. In the hallways and private receptions many conservatives were privately grumbling about the lack of substance, but I think the Bushies - for once - were right. In the dynamic of this moment in history, in an era when the media constantly berate "smash-mouth" politics as unpopular (and polls now suggest it is), this convention delivered a powerfully effective message, with heavy doses of upbeat message, imagery, and symbolism. This was in sharp contrast to their Houston debacle in 1992 when they offered nothing at all and let the press set the anti-Republican agenda. That year, network reporters questioned the negativity of Republicans an amazing 70 times; this year that line was virtually non-existent.
In the big white tents of the media elite here, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the dreadfully boring Up With People tone. Pundits like CNN's Jeff Greenfield publicly agreed with Pat Robertson in lamenting the lack of traditional attacks on the Other Party. By the time Dick Cheney let loose with a few slices of partisan "red meat" (as the media's stylebook must demand), even the reporters looked relieved.
Ironically, the other stroke of good fortune for the GOP was the TV networks' "severe cuts" in coverage (to use their kind of language about social programs). Historically the networks have been merciless in trashing Republicans' messages in their post-speech "analysis." We remember the media's assault on Buchanan after his '92 address; we recall how one network that year had the audacity to cut Ronald Reagan off before he even finished, so eager was it to slam him. But this year anchormen had nowhere near the same amount of time. Between the need to air enlightening television like "Survivor" and the scheduling genius of the Bush team, the media analytical attack squad was virtually defanged. It was amusing to watch Cheney's speech end at about 10:58 p.m. and see the network anchors trying to get in some note of negative spin in the last 120 seconds.
And when they did have the time to analyze - after George W.'s speech - they did something thoroughly unique. They - ready? - praised him. CBS called it a "surprise ... a very good speech ... very presidential." From NBC we heard it was "pretty skillful ... an extremely well-written speech ... presidential." On ABC they were calling it "a very successful speech ... Anybody was bound to be moved. Even my colleagues here in the press felt that way."
Score an "A-" for the GOP Convention braintrust.