Published on Monday, September 29, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
The Real Clowns in Recall 'Circus' Are the Press
by Harley Sorensen
The Great California Recall Election of 2003 proceeded apace last week when 11 predictably loony liberal judges of the liberally loony Ninth District U.S. Court of Appeals did the exact opposite of what predictable conservatives had predicted they would.
They voted against the liberal ACLU and against the liberal Democrat Party, and allowed the recall election to be held as scheduled on Oct. 7.
The ACLU, to its credit, reacted by deciding not to ask yet another court to ignore the California Constitution, and then, on Wednesday, the five leading candidates for governor held the Mother of All Gubernatorial Debates. It was a thing of beauty.
Through it all the press once again made Spiro Agnew look good while making itself look silly.
Spiro Agnew, for those of you too young to know or too old to remember, was Richard Nixon's rinky-dink choice for vice president in 1968, when he promptly became known as "Spiro Who." Nobody outside of the otherwise fine state of Maryland, where he'd been governor, had ever heard of him.
Agnew is the guy who invented the notion of a "liberal press." Before Agnew denounced the press in a series of speeches, the press was generally thought of as neutral on its news pages and conservative on its editorial pages.
Agnew changed all that with his too clever by half references to presslings as "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "pointy-headed liberals."
The public bought into Agnew's malarky, not because it was accurate but because it fit the mood of the moment. The civil rights movement was in full swing and the press had taken the point of view that perhaps the black disturbers of the peace had some legitimate gripes. That notion was virtual heresy to many at the time, comparable to suggestions today that perhaps America is not pristinely pure in its relations with people elsewhere who hate us.
In any case, Agnew got the anti-press ball rolling, and it's never stopped. He himself more-or-less disappeared from the scene the day he resigned in 1973, the same day he went into court and pleaded "no contest" to a single count of income-tax evasion. Another 40 pages of dropped charges were read into the record. He got three years unsupervised probation.
As vice president, Agnew had continued what he had started in Maryland, accepting bribes from building contractors. That won him the title of America's most corrupt vice president ever, a distinction now in doubt.
It may seem odd to you, but I've never disagreed with Agnew's evaluation of the press. Oh, he was dead wrong about our liberal slant, but his complaints about our arrogance and smug sense of superiority were legitimate. We're so cocksure we're right about everything that it's hard to tell us apart from your basic conservative Republican (which, of course, many of us are -- but not me).
The major problem with Agnew's complaints was their source. Most people knew before he got caught that Agnew was a scoundrel, so who was he to be preaching to anybody?
(A similar problem cropped up in 1992 when another Republican vice president, Dan Quayle, darkened the halls of San Francisco's Commonwealth Club by criticizing the lifestyle of the TV character, Murphy Brown. Many of us who scoffed at the time may have agreed with Quayle except for the fact that he himself was such a hopeless pip-squeak, a virtual caricature of himself. Who cared what he thought? About anything? Even if he was right?)
Getting back to the subject at hand, the recall election and the press's reaction to it, the press is so united in making a fool of itself that nobody seems to have noticed.
What we have here in California this year is a stunning example of how a democratic system might work. The press (which includes me) has chosen to call this process a circus. The proper press reaction to the process is to laugh and scoff.
But when have voters ever had the choice we're being offered this year? Remember last November? We had a pitiful choice for governor. We could vote for the hapless Gray Davis or the dangerous William Simon. Some choice! Except for a handful of die-hards at both extremes, the voters held their noses and voted for the guy they thought would do the least harm.
The '02 election was like an election in the old Soviet Union, where the voters had a choice of only those sponsored by the Communist Party.
Now we have 135 candidates from which to chose. That, my friends, is a real choice.
Last week's debate did not have a single Democrat exchanging rehearsed sound-bite one-liners with a single Republican ... it had two Republicans, a Democrat, a member of the Green Party and an Independent.
It was wonderful. It provided a genuine exchange of ideas. And the format allowed the participants to mix it up with one another and say what they really think.
But all this made the presslings uncomfortable. It's not what they're used to. So they, the talking heads, were dismissive of the process. They seemed to want to make us believe that they were superior to the debate participants, sophisticates who had seen it all and were above the fray.
Fox News does a pretty good job of reporting news these days, and would be a wonderful news source if it shed its obvious right-wing bias. When Wednesday's debate was winding down, I turned to Fox and was not disappointed. The two commentators I saw both did a "fair and balanced" evaluation of what had transpired and came to the conclusion that the two Republicans, Tom McClintock and Arnold Schwarzenegger, had clobbered their opponents.
Yeah, and pigs fly.
Then I went to CNN, which is supposedly even-handed, and watched Tucker Carlson (who wants to be George Will when he grows up), who was equally dismissive of the non-Republican candidates.
In fairness, with the exception of Schwarzenegger, all the candidates did a pretty good job. Republican McClintock and Green Peter Camejo were outstanding. Independent Arianna Huffington was entertaining and insightful, and Democrat Cruz Bustamante demonstrated his knowledge of the system. Schwarzenegger limited himself to canned but vacuous platitudes and a few wisecracks, some of which were funny.
Immediately after Wednesday's debate, CNN gave Schwarzenegger (who is known in headlines as "actor") 15 minutes of free airtime by allowing him an on-air news conference of sorts. Schwarzenegger was all over television last week as, it seemed, everybody on television competed to be shown interviewing him.
He got millions of dollars worth of free publicity denied the other candidates.
So, it seems to me, the "circus" is not the democratic process being carried out in California. The real "circus" is the spectacle being put on by the press. The clowns are not the politicians, the lawyers, the judges, or the people, but rather those of us in the news media.
By revealing our smugness and acting like fools, we make Spiro Agnew look good.
This recall election is a marvelous event, and should be treated as such. And we should learn from it, and make sure that future debates have the variety of voices we heard last week. The sure losers very often have something important to say, something we're not going to hear from the Democrat or Republican candidates.
They add a lot to the mix. We should make sure they're heard in the future.
©2003 SF Gate