CNN’s Anderson Cooper and "The Nation" editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel joined the attack on Bill Cunningham’s anti-Barack Obama comments at a rally for John McCain in Cincinnati, Ohio, comments that McCain himself repudiated. Cooper began his "Anderson Cooper 360" program on Tuesday by referring to Cunningham as a "talk show pit bull" and criticizing his use of Obama’s middle name. "Tonight: ugly words from a talk show pit bull about Barack Obama at a John McCain event, calling him a hack, using his middle name as a slander." Later, Cooper described Cunningham as a "a two-bit radio host." On Wednesday’s "Election Center" program on CNN, vanden Heuvel went even further than Cooper. "This talk radio guy is very unstable. He went from supporting McCain to Hillary and then Ralph Nader in one minute."
Cooper devoted the very first segment during the 10 pm Eastern hour of Tuesday’s "Anderson Cooper 360" to the Cunningham affair. After his "pit bull" remark and introducing his other top stories, Cooper speculated that the comments might be a hint of a possible campaign against Obama, and used a now-famous label from the 2004 presidential campaign. "We begin with tough talk on the campaign trail today -- tough talk, an apology, a disavowal, and now, questions whether what you're about to hear is a taste of sleazy campaigning and swift-boating to come."
Cooper then asked CNN’s chief national correspondent John King for his take, since he was present at the McCain rally in Cincinnati. King described the circumstances of Cunningham’s words and played a clip from McCain’s denunciation/apology. He also briefly addressed Cunningham’s angry response to McCain, and the potential problem McCain may face due to Cunningham’s influence in Ohio.
Once King was finished, Cooper prefaced his follow-up question with another harsh description of Cunningham.
COOPER: Well, clearly, for -- for a two-bit radio host, this is the biggest thing to happen to them [him] in quite a long time, and they [he] will try to ride this thing as long as possible. But, John, looking down the road, I mean, is there a sense of what kind of attacks are out there on both sides of the aisle, these 527 groups? Do we already have a sense of what is building, what the general campaign is going to look like?
King explained that "one of the reasons, we are told, that Senator McCain wanted to denounce this quickly was that Bill Cunningham used the word prophet about Barack Obama and then used the word Hussein, his middle name, twice. Clearly, the McCain campaign took this as some way to suggest again, as others have, that Barack Obama is or was a Muslim." Even if King’s statement about McCain and/or his campaign was accurate, it’s odd to conclude that using the word "prophet" and the middle name "Hussein" in an attack on Obama is a hint that the Illinois senator "is or was a Muslim."
Fast-forward to a segment 43 minutes into the 8 pm hour of Wedneday’s "Election Center" program. Host Campbell Brown had vanden Heuvel, former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, and CNN senior political correspondent Gloria Borger on for their second segment of the hour. After a discussion of the possible issues in a McCain/Obama match-up, Brown brought up the Cunningham affair, and how "other talk radio hosts are coming to Cunningham's defense," using a clip from Rush Limbaugh’s show as an example. Fleischer opined that " McCain shouldn't have apologized. I don't think that was so outrageous." Brown questioned Cunningham’s use of "Hussein," and objected when Fleischer tried to defend his position.
BROWN: By using his middle name, I mean, why?
FLEISCHER: Did anybody criticize the Democrats when they called him George Herbert Walker Bush...
BROWN: Come on, Ari. Come on. Even I, I mean --
FLEISCHER: ... as if he came from this rich, Protestant, cut from a different cloth? That’s what that attack was.
VANDEN HEUVEL: You know what's delicious...
FLEISCHER: But for John McCain to apologize for this?
VANDEN HEUVEL: What's delicious is to see Rush Limbaugh....
FLEISCHER: That's making politics too petty.
Vanden Heuvel then took the occasion to express her glee at the spat between conservative talk radio and McCain, and to launch an attack on McCain.
VANDEN HEUVEL: What's delicious is to see Rush Limbaugh and his right wing talk radio hosts in a tizzy. This talk radio guy [Cunningham] is very unstable. He went from supporting McCain to Hillary and then Ralph Nader in one minute. I think the key thing here is we're going to see a lot of surrogate smears in this campaign, and this prefigures one of the ugliest elections we may see....
Vanden Heuvel oversimplified Cunningham’s angry response to McCain. He did indeed state that he had "joined Ann Coulter in supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton," but in a video, he stated, possibly only half-seriously, that he "might become a supporter of Ralph Nader."