Covering those dummies on the right

crash test dummies2As I said a week ago, I really think the MSM are stuggling to cover the HHGR division within the camps of cultural, religious and political conservatism. What does it mean when journalists find themselves cheering for Bush, in opposition to Rush Limbaugh? What does it mean when you are an elite blue-zone scribe and you are tempted to line up on the same team as Dr. James Dobson?

In the past day or so we have seen all kinds of evidence of this confusion. Where to begin?

* Over at The Washington Post, Howard Kurtz has a nice look at the groundbreaking work of former Bush White House scribe David Frum. It’s full of punchy material. Check this out:

The spectacle of Frum, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, John Podhoretz, Kristol and other conservative commentators breaking with their president over Miers has the feel of a messy family feud. These, after all, are the political pugilists who are usually slapping around liberals and Democrats. But there is something about Bush picking his White House counsel and longtime personal lawyer — and passing over a batch of conservative judges with sterling credentials — that has inflamed his normally loyal media supporters.

Former Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie says he’s detected a whiff of sexism in the opposition to Miers. Fox News anchor Brit Hume has noted that many critics of the Southern Methodist University graduate went to elite Eastern schools. This prompted Frum — a proud graduate of Yale and Harvard Law — to fire back at “Brit Hume’s and Fred Barnes’ embarrassing repetition of Ed Gillespie’s talking points: ‘Brawwwwwk-sexism; brawwwwwwk-elitism; brawwwwwwwwwk-Harvard; brawwwwwwwwwk; brawwwwwkk; brawwwwwk.’”

My take? Howie talks about Frum taking a “Passover break” from blogging. Is this part of the ghost? Has HHGR turned into a battle between lots of evangelicals (not all) and the world of conservative Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants?

• That brings me to a nice blog piece by Roberto Rivera, a Catholic writer known for his work with evangelical leader Chuck Colson. This post titled “Crash Test Dummies” is at a new blog operated by some friends and associates of mine — The Culture Beat.

Rivera is reacting to a piece at The New Republic by Jonathan Chait (“Conservatives Get Taken for a Ride”) that is rather hard to get to. Here is the Chait lead:

There are two basic ways to think about President Bush’s relationship with the religious right. The first is that Bush is a genuine ally of social conservatives who, while often cagey in public, takes every opportunity to advance their agenda. As liberals would phrase this interpretation, Bush is a tool of the religious right. The second — utterly diametrical — theory is that Bush is mainly interested in harvesting votes from religious conservatives in order to implement an agenda dominated by his economic backers. In liberal-ese: Social conservatives are hapless GOP dupes. At this point, five years and two Supreme Court nominations into the Bush presidency, we can arrive at a definitive answer. And the verdict is: hapless dupes.

Rivera follows this line of thinking into several other pieces and reaches a simple bottom line — the world of religious conservatism is much, much more complex than many people let on and there are all kinds of attitudes in conservative pews about Bush, Harriet Miers and who knows what all. But the feeling of betrayal is real. Can journalists report that?

Meanwhile, check out The Culture Beat for yourself.

• If you think the MSM are having trouble deciding who to cheer for in the HHGR story, put yourself in the shoes of the Democratic Party leadership. Is Miers a closet country-club soft conservative or a secret-weapon theocrat? Who knows?

Now, imagine that you are reporter Charles Babington at The Washington Post and you are trying to figure out what the Democrats are saying and what they really mean as they say it. You might end up writing this:

Jim Jordan, a former presidential campaign manager for Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), agrees that Democrats will have plenty of reasons to oppose Miers, but he said some worry that Bush might replace her with a more forceful and effective conservative. “Even though she’s undoubtedly a mediocrity,” he said, “philosophically she’s probably the best they [Democrats] can do.”

Jordan added: “If the Republicans splinter, as looks likely now, the Democratic caucus will be in the bizarre position of having to decide whether to bail Bush out.” The choice will not be easy, he said. “From a purely political standpoint, they’ll have to decide whether to add to his humiliation,” Jordan said. A Miers rejection, however, would allow Bush “a do-over” that could improve his relations with his conservative base.

Which conservative base?

• Fun, right? But what if the president is convinced that he can force this nominee through? So he could — now that the religious right has seen the strong wink and nod — stop the God-talk and fight to take Miers back to the mainstream. Maybe this is what the White House is doing. Maybe. Maybe not.

• But what if — during the God-talk stage, when there were supposed to be talks about Miers and God, but not Miers and Roe — the White House left some fingerprints that could be detected by reporters with the right sources over on the right? At that point, you might be able to do what John Fund did today at The Wall Street Journal. He was able to write this:

On Oct. 3, the day the Miers nomination was announced, Mr. Dobson and other religious conservatives held a conference call to discuss the nomination. One of the people on the call took extensive notes, which I have obtained. According to the notes, two of Ms. Miers’s close friends — both sitting judges — said during the call that she would vote to overturn Roe.

The call was moderated by the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association. Participating were 13 members of the executive committee of the Arlington Group, an umbrella alliance of 60 religious conservative groups, including Gary Bauer of American Values, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and the Rev. Bill Owens, a black minister.

Well now, do you think some folks on the Hill might want to see those conference-call notes?

Stay tuned. Lots of reporters have calls to make to people they are not used to calling.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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