Schmooze or Play Hardball?

New D.C. Gang Poses Media Dilemma

Whenever there's a transition of power in Washington, the new administration and the local media embark on a honeymoon, determined to treat each other like kings and queens. But even now, as the newlyweds are joined at the hip, the pairing could be no more than a fatal attraction, presaging an angry split.

Since Bush took over, The Washington Post has offered plenty of harmless gossip, from Dubya's kind of restaurant (a Chinese dive in a Virginia strip mall) to the nature of the security around his transition headquarters ("burly men" walking "equally burly dogs" in the falling snow). But the honeymoon will end if Dubya's handlers go on stonewalling reporters. Indeed, finding out what Dubya ate for lunch is like "attempting to dig up a state secret," a Daily News reporter recently told the Post.

For a study in media etiquette, frustrated reporters should consult the January issue of The Washingtonian, which managed to switch covers from a triumphant Gore to Bush at the last minute. The Bush coup gave the mag a chance to do what it does best, which is to paint a detailed and nonjudgmental mural of the city's social and political elite. In addition to sorting out who dines where (guess what? Vernon Jordan is ubiquitous), the mag's inaugural section introduces a roster of names that are likely to occupy "the New 'A' List" in D.C.

The importance of high society in a new regime is evidenced by the fact that a very similar piece ran on the front page of The New York Times SundayStyles section on December 24, after The Washingtonian had been sent to subscribers. Like The Washingtonian, the Times identified the top new D.C. hostesses as Julie Finley (a/k/a the Republican Pamela Harriman) and Buffy Cafritz, who stages a traditional pre-inaugural party for "everybody who is anybody."

But The Washingtonian has the best dirt. The mag notes that McLean may be the new hot zip code and that Virginia is connected to "the new Republican regime like lizard skin on a dude's cowboy boots." After hailing Dubya as "the city's new trendsetter," the magazine reminds his minions that the permanent establishment is composed of some powerful lobbyists, publicists, policy wonks, and scribes (who are all waiting to have their asses kissed). It also notes that Ed Meese has "been quietly advising" the Bush transition team and that the White House comes equipped with a high-air-pressure room in case of biological attack.

Meanwhile, the Post has been sending the Bush camp intermittent mash notes. On December 16, the Style section's Roxanne Roberts turned in a puff piece on "The Nation's Most Prominent Political Dynasty," the first sentence of which read, "If politics is, in fact, in the blood—then George Walker Bush was born to be a great politician."

The Post began an instructive round of profiles on December 23. The day after Bush unveiled some new cabinet choices, the Post praised OMB pick Mitchell Daniels for his "political savvy" and EPA pick Christine Whitman for being just conservative enough. On December 24, the paper revealed that VP Cheney is a classic CEO who will enjoy rare, unlimited access to Bush—and who doesn't hesitate to fire people for insubordination. Two days later, Howard Kurtz delivered a flattering profile of 32-year-old National Review editor Rich Lowry. Seemingly assigned to curry favor with the GOP, the piece left the distinct impression that Lowry is a clever toady whose claim to fame is being "very clearly ambitious" without giving off "an ambitious vibe."

Very nice. But the first clear sign of the honeymoon souring was the media's reaction to Bush's choice of John Ashcroft as attorney general. The Post immediately dubbed Ashcroft a "longtime hero to the Christian Right," and by the end of last week, the national media had discovered a laundry list of reasons to trash him: Ashcroft loves Confederate heroes, the death penalty, and mandatory drug sentences, and hates abortion, drug treatment, and activist liberal judges. He opposed the nomination of a black Missouri judge to the federal court, accepted an honorary degree from Bob Jones University, and rented his fundraising list to Linda Tripp.

On December 23, the day after Ashcroft was nominated, The New York Times had already gone on record against him, stating that the pol's "hard-line ideology and extreme views" require a "searching examination at his confirmation hearing." The same day, a Washington Post editorial dubbed Ashcroft a poor choice and urged the Senate to examine whether his "particular brand of conservatism is best suited" to the job.

By last week, the consensus had hardened in a series of editorials nationwide. On December 27, The Baltimore Sun urged that Ashcroft should "endure some sharp questioning" because of his stance on civil rights and abortion, and The San Francisco Chronicle said his views are "completely contrary to established national standards." The next day, The Boston Globe suggested he was a zealot who "should not be waved through because of senatorial courtesy." The Los Angeles Times said his efforts to thwart a black federal judgeship" should trouble all Americans."

The counterspin showed up on December 28. That day, an Atlanta Journal editorial bore the headline "Whining From Left Shouldn't Sink Ashcroft's Nomination," and concluded that" he will make a fine attorney general." The Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed by right-wing mouthpiece Ted Olson, headlined "Why Target Ashcroft for a Public Flogging?" Olson praised Ashcroft's "integrity" and accused libs of engaging in the "politics of personal destruction," simply because the wannabe AG is "too conservative" and "too religious" for their tastes. Meanwhile, Robert Novak used his column to defend Ashcroft against charges of racism which Novak dubbed smears, and predicted melodramatically that any opposition from the Senate would turn the man into a "cripple."

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