For a media that likes to complain about the incivility and personal attacks that Republicans have supposedly injected into our politics over the past generation, the networks' reactions to former Texas Governor Ann Richards underscore journalists' partisan approach to what is fair and what is foul.
In 1988, then-Texas state treasurer Richards laced her keynote address at the Democratic National Convention with a series of nasty, mocking attacks on then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. Instead of deploring her descent into the “politics of personal destruction” — as they might have if the speechmaker were a conservative Republican and the target was a liberal Democrat — the media elite swooned, with then-CBS anchor Dan Rather admiring her “scalpel-style attack” on the Republican presidential candidate.
Remembering Ann Richards this morning, all three broadcast network shows re-visited her ridicule of Bush, admiring it as “biting wit” and “fun-loving spirit,” with ABC’s Diane Sawyer touting Richards as the “sassy, funny homemaker who became Texas governor.” ABC, CBS and NBC all played the same sarcastic soundbite of Richards from 18 years ago. “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver-foot in his mouth.”
But when some Republicans in 2004 mocked Democratic nominee John Kerry as a wealthy out-of-touch wind-surfing flip-flopper, the same networks sniffed at the bitter partisan attacks against the liberal Massachusetts senator.
Personal jabs aren’t anything new in politics, but while attacks on liberals are deplored as mud-slinging, Richards’ attacks earned her a dedicated media fan club. “Her acidic, plain-spoken keynote address was one of the year’s political highlights,” Rick Lyman claimed in today’s New York Times obituary of Richards.
MRC analysts Megan McCormack, Geoff Dickens and Michael Rule transcribed this morning’s media farewells to Richards, as all three networks praised Richards’ Bush-bashing “wit.”
ABC’s Good Morning America began their show by teasing: “Silver-haired legend Governor Ann Richards. The sassy, funny homemaker, who became Texas governor, loses her battle with cancer.”
ABC newsreader Chris Cuomo, the son of another Democratic convention keynote speaker celebrated by the media, praised Richards: “Former Texas Governor Ann Richards has died. Richards lost her battle with esophageal cancer at her home in Austin last night, just six months after being diagnosed. This morning she’s being remembered as a pioneer with a rare wit. She was a larger-than-life figure with Texas charm and a sharp tongue. Richards burst onto the national political scene in 1988 at the Democratic convention, where she blasted then-Vice President George Bush.”
After running the “silver foot” soundbite plus another shot at Bush from 1988, Cuomo celebrated how after she thrilled the media with her Bush-bashing speech, “the homemaker turned politician rode her popularity all the way to the governor’s mansion.”
For ABC’s 8am news update, Cuomo said of Richards: “She’s being remembered this morning as a larger than life figure. Richards was known for her fun-loving spirit and sharp wit. She only served one term, but her contribution to politics was far greater. Richards championed women's rights and was a trailblazer for women and minorities. Ann Richards was 73.”
On NBC’s Today, new co-host Meredith Vieira previewed their upcoming story: “One of a kind. Former Texas Governor Ann Richards, known for her biting wit, dies of cancer.”
After noting Richards’ passing, news anchor Ann Curry said the ex-governor “is perhaps best remembered for one line at the Democratic National Convention in 1988 about the then Vice President George Bush.” After the soundbite, Curry noted: “She also said she got into politics because she wanted to open government to women and minorities and didn't want her tombstone to read that she quote, 'Kept a really clean house.' Ann Richards was 73."
CBS’s obituary was the shortest of the three, but conveyed the same spin: “Former Texas Governor Ann Richards, has died. Richards had been battling cancer. The outspoken Democrat said she entered politics to help women and minorities, but she made her mark in a speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention when she had this to say about then Vice President George Bush,” co-host Rene Syler noted, then played the “silver foot” soundbite. “Ann Richards was 73 years old.”
Back on July 18, 1988, network reporters received Richards’ speech enthusiastically. Moments after she finished, Dan Rather gave it high marks: “Ann Richards, state treasurer of Texas, asked to stand and deliver at the Democratic National Convention, and does so. Among other things, a scalpel-style attack on George Bush, describing the Vice President as a man ‘born with a silver foot in his mouth,’ who, to quote her, ‘wants a job he can’t be appointed to’ finally.”
After noting Richards comments on Social Security, Rather underscored the Democrats’ pleasure at the Bush-bashing: “Ann Richards now hears ringing in her ears the applause, rhythmic applause, and ‘The Eyes of Texas,’” referring to the song blaring in the background.
In an interesting exchange, Rather a few moments later told then-political reporter Bruce Morton, “This was a very populist approach to a keynote address.”
Morton’s reply suggested the Democrats have been victims of nasty spin: “Well, no one is a liberal anymore. They’ve taken to calling that the ‘L’ word — everyone is a populist or a progressive now....This is a party which for 20 years has been tarred as squishy soft or kooky or flaky or wild or soft on communism or whatever, special interest party now. Here is this mainstream lady talking about tossing a ball back and forth with her granddaughter and what a wonderful America she hopes that child will have. That’s the least ‘special interest’ little girl you’re ever going to find.”
If you were a partisan Democrat in 1988, you undoubtedly thought Richards’ attacks were an enjoyable political spectacle. But the enthusiasm that persists to this day among political reporters shows they’re not really offended by personal invective or hardball tactics. They just get offended when their liberal friends are the ones on the receiving end of those attacks.