Nets Pounce on McCain's 'Housing Crisis,' But Not So Fast with Kerry's '04 Gaffe

Four years ago when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry made his “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” remark, the CBS Evening News instead ran a soundbite of Kerry promising “we're going to build an army of truth-tellers” as it took the newscast six months (!) to finally air the vote for/voted against clip and the NBC Nightly News didn't play it for nine days. Yet on Thursday night, both newscasts led with what NBC's Lee Cowan declared is “John McCain's personal housing crisis.”

ABC, which in 2004 aired Kerry's comment a day later when Dick Cheney raised it, didn't lead Thursday with McCain's failure Wednesday to say how many homes he and his wife own, but devoted a full story-plus to it with Jake Tapper deciding “it could be a seminal moment” in the campaign before George Stephanopoulos relayed how the Obama camp thinks “this is one of those metaphorical moments.” He recalled 1992, “when it seemed like President Bush didn't know what a supermarket scanner was.”

Fill-in CBS anchor Maggie Rodriguez led: “John McCain couldn't answer a question most Americans would find simple, how many homes do you own?” NBC's Brian Williams, back in Manhattan from Beijing, opened with how though “reporters are busy chasing down all available clues” on Obama's VP pick:
This was not the biggest political story of the day. That came from John McCain in response to a question about how many houses he owns. He didn't answer. The actual answer is a sizable number.
CBS's Dean Reynolds maintained that “just as Obama has begun to stress a more populist message he heard news today of an inadvertent and totally unexpected assist in making his point from John McCain in McCain's response to a simple question.”

In relaying the McCain campaign's retorts, Reynolds distorted them. First, he cited the “rapid response ad suggesting Obama purchased his home in a deal with a shady Chicago influence peddler.” That's not a “suggestion” but a fact. Jake Tapper's take on ABC: “The McCain camp was quick to point out that Obama's one home sits on property he received help in financing from political fundraiser Tony Rezko, who has since been indicted for corruption.”

Second, Reynolds reported how the McCain team pointed out that “Obama made $4 million last year and is in no position to complain about McCain's wealth.” Reynolds then treated a joking answer from McCain as a serious assessment: “Except that even by McCain's own definition, $4 million would not make Obama rich.” Viewers saw a clip of Rick Warren, at Saturday's Saddleback Forum, asking McCain to “define rich,” followed by McCain's reply which generated laughter from the audience: “How about $5 million?”

Rewind to Tuesday, March 16, 2004 when, at a campaign event in West Virginia, John Kerry defended himself against a Bush-Cheney ad about his Iraq votes: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” In a Media Research Center Media Reality Check a week later, “Kerry Gaffes in Front of the Press, But They Don't Notice? Only FNC Covered Kerry's $87 Billion Flub the Day He Said It,” the MRC's Rich Noyes recounted the minimal and/or delayed coverage for the ridiculed comment. By network evening newscast:
ABC's World News Tonight: Aired it the next night, March 17, in story by Terry Moran.

NBC Nightly News: Nothing until a story nine days later on Thursday, March 25.

CBS Evening News: Ran a full story March 16 from Bill Plante about the anti-Kerry ad and Kerry's response at the West Virginia event. The soundbite of Kerry CBS/Plante chose to feature:
I'm not going to worry about them misleading because we're going to just keep pounding away at the truth over the course of these next months and we're going to build an army of truth-tellers in the United States of America.
In early September of 2004, a CBS Evening News story included a bite of President Bush saying what Kerry said, but not until the CBS Evening News of Thursday, September 23 did the program actually air the clip of Kerry, and then only in a story aimed at undermining public perception of Kerry as more of a flip-flopper than Bush. As recited in the September 24, 2004 MRC CyberAlert:
JIM AXELROD: If the polls are right, John Kerry's got some gaps to close in the next six weeks.

JOHN KERRY: I'm going to fight every single day.

AXELROD: And none larger than the decisiveness gap -- 75 percent of voters surveyed now see George Bush as decisive compared to just 37 percent for Kerry. Those numbers suggest Mr. Bush has been successful reducing his opponent to two words: “flip-flop.”

NARRATOR IN ANTI-KERRY AD SHOWING KERRY SAILBOARDING: In which direction would John Kerry lead?

AXELROD: Now, while Senator Kerry has certainly supplied some raw material for this characterization-

KERRY AT MARCH 16 EVENT: I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.

AXELROD -the President is not without his own, shall we say, changes of mind. Everything from gay marriage to steel tariffs to the constantly shifting rationale for the war in Iraq....
Back to Thursday night, August 21:

ABC's World News:
JAKE TAPPER: ...But the McCain camp was quick to point out that Obama's one home sits on property he received help in financing from political fundraiser Tony Rezko, who has since been indicted for corruption....

The Obama campaign thinks this gaffe is highly exploitable. It could be a seminal moment in this fight. Often in campaigns even the smallest miscue can take on a life of its own. Perhaps, you remember, Charlie, John Kerry saying he voted for a troop funding bill, before he voted against it.

CHARLES GIBSON: The Obama people did hop on this rather quickly. They may this think is a seminal moment?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Oh, they sure do, Charlie. They think this is one of those metaphorical moments in the campaign. Remember back in 1992, when it seemed like President Bush didn't know what a supermarket scanner was. They said that was metaphoric for him being out of touch. Or John Edwards in the primary campaigns and his $400 hair cut. They think it's going to have that kind of power. The McCain team says no way, that John McCain brand is too well-established. No one will see him as an elitist.
CBS Evening News:
MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ: Good evening. Katie is on assignment. The presidential campaign came down to this today: a question one candidate wouldn't answer and a question the other candidate couldn't answer. John McCain couldn't answer a question most Americans would find simple, how many homes do you own? Barack Obama wouldn't reveal his running mate, though he confirmed he has now made a choice. So that's where we'll begin tonight, with Dean Reynolds covering the Obama campaign.

DEAN REYNOLDS: This afternoon, Barack Obama moved one tantalizing step closer to answering the big question.

BARACK OBAMA: I made the selection. And that's all you're going to get.

REYNOLDS: Campaigning in Virginia with a possible choice, Governor Tim Kaine, at his side, Obama would not say who he's picked but told Harry Smith of The Early Show how he decided.

HARRY SMITH, TO BARACK OBAMA: In the final analysis, did you find it more intellectual or was it a gut check?

OBAMA: I think it's a combination of things. I think you've got to, obviously feel comfortable with the person.

REYNOLDS: But talk of a running mate was almost drowned out by a loud round of charge and counter-charge between the two camps. Just as Obama has begun to stress a more populist message he heard news today of an inadvertent and totally unexpected assist in making his point from John McCain in McCain's response to a simple question:

REPORTER FOR THE POLITICO: How many houses do you and Mrs. McCain have?

JOHN McCAIN: I think, I'll have my staff get to you. I'll try to tell you about that.

REYNOLDS: When McCain's staff got back, they said the number was at least four homes, but it turns out the real number, according to an independent watchdog project, is at least seven homes. Worth in the neighborhood of $13 million, they are scattered from coast to coast and they put McCain, whose wife inherited a $100 million fortune, well ahead of past chief executives in the private, residential sweepstakes. Obama jumped on McCain's remarks.

OBAMA: If you don't know how many houses you have, then it's not surprising that you might think the economy was fundamentally strong.

REYNOLDS: A national ad on McCain's comment was churned out in record time.

OBAMA TV AD, WITH PICTURE OF THE WHITE HOUSE: Seven houses, and here's one house America can't afford to let John McCain move into.

REYNOLDS: McCain's housing advantage could complicate attempts to cast Obama, who owns one million-dollar home in Chicago himself, as an out-of-touch, arugula-eating elitist. The McCain campaign, caught flat-footed by their candidate's remark and fighting to get the news media on to a different story, fired up its own rapid response ad suggesting Obama purchased his home in a deal with a shady Chicago influence peddler. What's more, argued McCain's people, Obama made $4 million last year and is in no position to complain about McCain's wealth, except that even by McCain's own definition, $4 million would not make Obama rich.

RICK WARREN: Define rich.

McCAIN AT SATURDAY'S SADDLEBACK FORUM: How about $5 million? (Audience laughter)

REYNOLDS: Of obvious concern to Republicans is that the discussion of McCain's wealth comes as many voters are dealing with foreclosures and high gasoline prices. The McCain campaign is clearly nervous that their candidate's own words will now come back to haunt him. And a campaign operative tells CBS News they plan on fighting back by attacking Obama's past associations, including the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Said this operative, "the gloves are off." Maggie.

NBC Nightly News:
TEASE, FROM BRIAN WILLIAMS: On our broadcast tonight: Housing issues. Does John McCain really not know how many houses he owns?

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Good evening. Days away now from the start of the Denver Democratic Party convention and tonight Barack Obama says he has made his choice for his vice presidential nominee, only we don't know it yet.

While reporters are busy chasing down all available clues, this was not the biggest political story of the day. That came from John McCain in response to a question about how many houses he owns. He didn't answer. The actual answer is a sizable number. And so the Obama campaign has seized on it. There are indications we'll be hearing a lot more about this starting right about now. NBC's Lee Cowan is with the campaign in Chesapeake, Virginia tonight. Lee, good evening.

LEE COWAN: Well, Brian, the Senator's answer was actually pretty surprising. He essentially said he didn't know how many homes he and his wife Cindy actually owned. And that was an answer the Obama campaign quickly predicted that working class, middle class families would have a pretty tough time understanding. It's John McCain's personal housing crisis. During an interview with Politico.com he seemed not to be sure just how many homes he and his wife actually own.

POLITICO REPORTER: How many houses do you and Mrs. McCain have?

JOHN McCAIN: I think, I'll have my staff get to you, mostly condominiums, I'll have to get back to you.

COWAN: In fact, he and his wife Cindy own at least seven properties in three states, including the one in Sedona, Arizona, where he's currently on vacation. For Barack Obama today in Virginia, it was all too good to resist.

BARACK OBAMA: If you don't know how many houses you have, then it's not surprising that you might think the economy was fundamentally strong. But if you're like me and you got one house or you were like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so they don't lose their home, you might have a different perspective.

COWAN: His staff jumped into action too, releasing a hurriedly produced TV ad entitled “seven” criticizing McCain as an elitist.

OBAMA TV AD: Here's one house America can't afford to let John McCain move into.

COWAN: A McCain spokesman shot back in a statement, saying quote: “Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year and bought his one-million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon, really want to get into a debate about houses?” The "who's more outof touch" game was actually a favorite of Hillary Clinton's who herself used it against Obama.

HILLARY CLINTON: Enough with the speeches and the big rallies!

COWAN: But today, she was in Florida campaigning for him.

CLINTON: Now I'm asking that you work as hard for Senator Obama.

COWAN: Even she's having trouble selling Obama to some of her most ardent supporters. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows 21 percent of her supporters are backing McCain and an additional 27 percent are either undecided or want to vote for someone else.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center