Coming in second place in the presidential race is a lot like finishing second in the Super Bowl. Instead of being the second-best contender, the loser suddenly becomes the butt of ridicule and Monday-morning quarterbacking.
Don't cry for Al Gore, whose unsavory America-Held-Hostage fight over Florida hasn't earned him nearly enough heckling yet. He's embarking on a new career as a college professor, teaching graduate-level journalism courses at Columbia University. There, in a very prominent nexus of academia and the national media elite, Gore will no doubt succeed in teaching aspiring scribes paying serious Ivy League money how he won the popular vote, and would have won Florida, too, if it weren't for those dishonest and racist Republicans.
But this is not remarkable. What is remarkable is the media's treatment of the other No. 2. The press, usually so unsympathetic with losing large, is still marching around Washington with trombones and cymbals behind Sen. John McCain, lionizing that honest man with a lantern seeking to burn a hole through "special interest corruption" with his so-called "campaign finance reform."
In a press conference the cable-news operations clamored to present in full, McCain fatuously proclaimed: "After one of the closest elections in our nation's history, there's one thing the American people are unanimous about. They want their government back." McCain lost spectacularly in the primaries a year ago, but in so doing he's somehow mysteriously located a mandate: "The American people have chosen the president of the United States. But I also have a mandate, and I believe that that mandate can be achieved under moderate and reasonable circumstances."
A "mandate" from ... whom? By their nonstop fawning coverage, the national media are certainly suggesting a mandate exists. Network reporters like NBC's David Gregory explicitly endorsed the silly idea of McCain's "mandate," too. Yet all the polling data shows this issue is nowhere near the top of people's concerns. National Review editor Rich Lowry coolly pointed out what the media won't admit: In nearly every primary election in early 2000, less than 20 percent of McCain's voters cited "campaign finance reform" as a reason for pulling McCain's lever.
If they don't care, who does? The press.
Print reporters promoted McCain's quixotic campaign far beyond its newsworthiness. Showing up at a half-empty town meeting in Little Rock, Ark., on Jan. 29 gained him the front page of the Washington Post. "At least one Capitol Hill sideshow could quickly become the main event," hoped Newsweek. Time relished that among the gifts lavished on the new president, "at least one skunk will be hiding in the gift bin, a present from Bush's former GOP presidential rival." In a sign of its obsession with the McCain-Feingold bill, still staggering around like the undead, Time printed a chart explaining how the bill will get "killed" again, emphasizing the legislative carnage by printing that word in blood red. No favorites there.
While Bill Clinton was correctly -- and amazingly -- panned by the press for trying to step all over President Bush's inauguration, no one in the newsrooms is whispering a word about the class of Johnny Mac. The night Al Gore finally conceded to Bush, McCain was making the rounds of the TV networks, talking up his plans to put the thumb screws to Bush on his censorship bill. Two days into the Bush presidency, McCain was already holding court, threatening to hold up every other Bush initiative in the Senate until his pet project was placed on the agenda once again.
Amid the pitter-patter of media hearts, no one suggested that McCain was a sore loser who was threatening to ruin his own career with his impertinence. To receive that sort of criticism, McCain would have to be a Democrat trying to outlaw partial-birth abortion.
But McCain has chosen for his crusade a neverending media favorite: a bill to enhance the media's power by squashing the voices of troublesome outsiders who might disagree with the liberal media worldview. Pro-lifers are dangerous; entrepreneurs are greedy; religious institutions are intolerant; and anyone supporting any of these things is suspect at best -- or just plain evil. Only the federal government can save us from this threat, with a healthy assist from the press, which will tell us what's right and wrong.
The mysterious reign of John McCain proves the national media do not see themselves as stenographers to power. They see themselves as the wielders of power, and they insist in every flattering interview and front-page news story that McCain is the most powerful politician in Washington. Why? Because they say so. When McCain-Feingold dies yet another death, that giant whining sound you hear will be the anchormen complaining they haven't succeeded in putting McCain's -- and their own -- agenda over the top.