While Vice President Dick Cheney stared daggers into CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer over his pushing questions about his lesbian daughter’s December announcement of her pregnancy, Blitzer insisted it was a “responsible and fair question.” Cheney disagreed. There's an argument that Blitzer's question citing Focus on the Family, when considered alone, is a fair (if not kind) question. There's no doubt that Blitzer's question was a trouble-making question, which could easily serve to sow division among Republicans and press Cheney into making a big gaffe or controversy.
Here’s where it’s clearly unfair. When has a Democratic national candidate’s sons or daughters ever been the subject of a national controversy? Try this as Exhibit A. In 2000, while the networks tried to make great hay in the election’s last weekend over an antique George W. Bush drunk-driving ticket, CNN and the other liberal networks hyper-sensitively avoided the story of Al Gore's teenage son Albert Gore III, caught driving 97 miles per hour on an interstate highway, an offense on the public record, just two days before the 2000 Democratic convention. As I wrote for National Review Online in 2000:
But the 17-year-old boy arrested for wild speeding is Al Gore III, driving back to Washington from the Outer Banks of North Carolina on August 12, 2000. Clearly Young Al is not supposed to be a public figure. Clearly it would seem beyond the pale for any political operative or hard-charging talk-radio host to blame his dad for doing a rotten job of the boy's upbringing. But is it fair to spike the unfavorable news angles — especially when a presidential nominee's child breaks the law — and then celebrate the child, or more precisely, celebrate the parenting of the child, on a different day? The Clintons and the Gores have both benefited politically from exploiting their children in a way that invites backhanded compliments from sympathetic journalists.
Young Al's speeding was noted in the New York Times with a 185-word Associated Press dispatch. The Washington Post carried 89 words of wire copy below three other wire service items. But both newspapers devoted a much larger story (and photos) to Young Al's Sidwell Friends football games, and how the publicly paternal vice president never misses one.
A Nexis search using the terms "Al Gore" and "speeding" brought no news mentions of the son’s ticket. But a search using the terms "Al Gore" and "son Albert" brought a selection of items making candidate Gore look like Dear Old Dad in 2000:
-- November 10 CNN Today (an afternoon show), then-CNN reporter Jonathan Karl: "Nothing from the candidate yet. He's had no public schedule, although tonight he does have an awards dinner for his son Albert, a high school football player, and we expect to at least see some pictures of the vice president today, but keeping a very low profile."
-- November 9 Morning News, Jonathan Karl: "He is expected to go to Washington sometime before Friday evening, however, because Friday evening his son Albert has a football banquet. And as you probably know, the vice president never missed any of his football games, and has no intention of missing that banquet either.
-- October 22 Democracy In America, a long profile of Al Gore by correspondent Ken Bode: "For Gore himself, it was back to the Senate, back to work. Then, another family tragedy: his son, Albert III, 6 years old, is struck by a car."
Video clip of Gore: "Tipper and I watched as he was thrown 30 feet through the air and scraped another 20 feet on the pavement after he hit the ground."
Bode: "His son was in a body cast. His family deeply strained. Tipper was treated for depression. Gore began to reassess. He decided he wanted to make a difference, to write a book, a global environmental manifesto."
October 17 on the afternoon show Inside Politics, Jonathan Karl: "Following the debate, the vice president plans to campaign virtually nonstop until Election Day, returning home only once and then only for a few hours, long enough to watch his son Albert’s homecoming football game -- Judy?"
September 4 NewsStand (airing at 10 PM Eastern time)
Judy Woodruff: "The failure, coming at age 40, sent Al Gore into something of a midlife funk.But an event the following year in his family life had an even greater impact. Leaving Camden Yards after a Baltimore Oriole's game, Gore's 6-year-old son, Albert III, slipped from his father's hand and into the path of a moving car. He was lucky to survive. The rest of Gore's children, Sarah, Kristin and Karenna, saw a change in their father."
Karenna Gore Schiff: "I remember my dad really making it clear to the schedulers in his office, and his friends and everybody that nothing was don't owe going to interfere with family time."
Woodruff: "During this period of introspection, Gore wrote and published Earth in the Balance, summing up his views on the environment."
August 17 live convention coverage: After recounting how Al Gore "still manages to make time for Halloween," an odd claim you’re your youngest child is getting speeding tickets, Tipper Gore recounts son Albert’s accident in her 2000 convention address to underline how it helped her seek help for depression.
This was not CNN's or Wolf Blitzer's approach when President Bush's twin daughters were cited for underage drinking as 20-year-olds in the spring of 2001. Blitzer kept on that embarrassing story, exposing his and CNN's partisan news judgment in the process:
--May 30, 2001 Wolf Blitzer Reports: "Police in Austin, Texas say Jenna Bush tried to buy alcohol at a restaurant Tuesday using someone else's identification. Jenna's sister Barbara was with her at the time. Last month, Jenna was cited for underage alcohol possession. No charges have been filed in this latest incident."
-- May 31, 2001 Wolf Blitzer Reports: "Welcome back.Police in Austin, Texas today cited President Bush's twin daughters for violating state alcoholic beverage laws. Questions about the incident remain off limits at the White House. As CNN's Anne McDermott reminds us, all first families struggle to retain a little privacy." That's right. An entire news story.
-- June 1, 2001 Wolf Blitzer Reports: "Welcome back. In other news tonight, the Bush twins could face victim -- could fall victim to a tough zero-tolerance law signed by their father while Texas governor. Jenna Bush was cited this week for using someone else's identification to buy alcohol. Barbara was ticketed for possession of alcohol by a minor. Under the law, Jenna could lose her license for 60 days while Barbara could lose hers for 30."
Blitzer’s question, when considered alone, without the partisan double standards, can be defended as a fair question. After all, Mary Cheney or some political ally of hers clearly leaked to very favorable Washington Post gossips to make the pregnancy a national story. (Mary Cheney is an activist who also publicly supported a liberal Virginia campaign against a state marriage amendment, which would be fair game for questions.) The Focus on the Family quote Blitzer used was not a personal attack on the Cheney family, but it was clearly critical of the choice to raise children without a father, as social conservatives from before and after Dan Quayle's Murphy Brown speech have argued.
The problem for Blitzer is what Cheney and every other conservative was reading into his question: that he enjoys badgering the Cheneys on this issue. CNN jumped all over Mary Cheney's Baby last month. Don't forget Blitzer pressing Democratic press releases on Mrs. Cheney about lesbian themes in her novels just before the November elections in defense of Democrat Jim Webb.
CNN milked its Blitzer vs. Cheney showdown on Thursday. They replayed it on "American Morning," advertised a poll question coming up in their "Your World Today" program in the noon (Eastern time) hour, asked a poll question during the 1pm hour of "Newsroom" and read letters in response in the 2 pm hour. One was conservative, and the other two were liberal.