The day after the Republican convention I ran into a fellow scribe, busily clicking away at his sunlit laptop, on the terrace of a café in downtown New York. Had I, like him, been hearing that the convention had been a disaster for the GOP? he asked. “Well, er, no,” I replied. “My job was to watch the convention on Fox. They didn’t think it was a disaster.”
Nor, to be fair, did many other people. Only a few hours later, CNN’s Judy Woodruff was announcing, with considerably less joy than sorrow, that a brand-new poll had Bush opening up a hefty lead over his Democratic rival. Kerry campaign adviser Joe Lockhart fought a desperate rearguard action, telling Woodruff that the public would “respond very negatively to the personal character assassination that we saw in this convention.” But after a summer in which Bush has taken it on the chin from Michael Moore, the drones at MoveOn, and every other celebrity in the land, it’s a wonder Lockhart could make his accusation with a straight face. Having backed Fahrenheit 9/11, the Dems are in no position to start demanding that their opponents play nice.
Last week was not only good for the GOP, it was a triumph for Fox, which walloped its cable rivals and the “big three” networks in the ratings. Even before Bush’s speech, Bill O’Reilly was already trumpeting the glad tidings, attributing the channel’s growing audience to the fact that “We’re interesting — we give you the facts, but also give you unpredictable analysis.” To some extent, he’s right. The network has zip. And while it may brush over topics the left would like it to dwell on, it has a whale of a time with topics the left would prefer to ignore — like loony educational policies, for instance.
Fox News analyst Michael Barone interpreted both Fox’s ratings and Bush’s speech, which included a deft jab at the New York Times editorial page, as a kick in the teeth for “old media,” or at least left-leaning old media. (Barone is the editor of U.S. News & World Report.) “I’d like to mention one [issue] in particular,” he said, referring to Bush’s solemn recitation of some of the countries belonging to what Kerry once referred to as a “coalition of the bribed and coerced” — Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Australia . . . etc. “To call Tony Blair bribed or coerced — George Bush shoved that down [Kerry’s] throat and properly so.” Barone’s analysis had been soporific on the preceding nights, so it was nice to see him with his blood up, even if the effect was diminished by the fact that he was fiddling with his earpiece (which was falling out) and had to talk over host Greta Van Susteren, who kept interrupting to say she needed to cut to a commercial. But that’s live television.
Among Fox’s conservatives — not a tautology: There are some Democrats on the channel — confidence had been visibly rising throughout the week. True, Wednesday night had been a bit problematic (“Ladies and gentlemen, live from Madison Square Garden in Noo Yawk City . . . DICK CHENEY!”). Dry ice made flesh, Cheney has few fans, even in Murdoch Land, where Kristol daydreamed aloud about the president dumping him in favor of bipartisan press favorite John McCain. And then there was Zell “Spitballs!” Miller, whose flamethrower of a speech caused consternation even in the place where Sean Hannity makes his living. Was his attack on the Democrats too “hot” for our cool Warholian TV screens? National Review’s Rich Lowry thought it might be, while Susan Estrich, the one unmistakable Democrat in the Fox studio, didn’t bother to hide her disgust. Asked to rate the speech, she gave it a “great big goose egg” in her meat-grinder voice. Roll Call editor Mort Kondracke also gave it a thumbs-down and, momentarily at least, looked personally offended by it.
But on Thursday, Bush’s words massaged away the last knots of doubt in the once-tense Republican body. “A pitch-perfect speech, and a very effective speech . . .,” announced Kristol, giving his benediction while the president was still onstage, kissing babies and basking in confetti and applause. Brit Hume noted how visible the president’s emotions had been during the speech’s final 10 minutes, when it seemed very possible, as he talked about the war wounded, that a tear might actually trickle down the presidential cheek. His eyes grew watery and his face cramped up into an almost animal expression of grief. “In those military families I have seen the character of a great nation,” he said. “Decent, idealistic and strong.” It was not the first time that, through the strength of his emotions and idealism, Bush made his detractors look petty.
Some of the latter were right in the hall. On ABC, I read later, Peter Jennings had wondered aloud as to what law could justify protesters being evicted from the convention given that they were merely engaged in “political expression.” Fox anchor Brit Hume took a more laconic approach. “That protester you see gettin’ the bum’s rush had a sign saying, ‘Bush lied, people died,’” he commented dryly as the screen split in two and the camera followed a group of security men hurrying another anti-Bush martyr out of the Garden.
After watching the big speech, blogger Richard Bellikoff wrote that Bush’s “defining characteristic is a sort of determined recklessness, as in ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but I’m going to keep on doing it.’” On Fox, you weren’t likely to hear a substantive discussion either of that point of view or of its opposite. Down on the convention floor, where hundreds of popping balloons sounded like gunshots, Chris Wallace noted Bush’s humor, self-deprecation and emotional conviction, all qualities (as he didn’t need to mention) that appear to be sorely lacking in the president’s challenger. Though neither Wallace nor anyone else said it, there was a feeling that in those almost eerily intimate closing minutes, standing at a podium whose design might or might not have contained a subliminal Christian cross, speaking words that were unmistakably tinged with religious belief, Bush had shown America his heart, and with it, his (and our) destiny. One way or another, Wallace seemed to suggest, we were going to be stuck with the guy for another four years.
“Sure, we’ll think about what each one would do on taxes or Social Security or the war on terror,” he summed up. “But also I think people just make a judgment. Who’s the guy I trust? Who’s the person that I feel comfortable with . . . ? And I think tonight the president went a long way toward cementing a relationship he already has with the American voters.”
Over on MSNBC, where the tone was considerably less reverential (“How many shots of Botox do you think it took to remove [Bush’s] smirk?” cracked Ron Reagan Jr.), John Kerry was frantically reapplying the Krazy Glue to his own relationship with the American voter. Perhaps MSNBC thought it was doing Kerry a favor by showing his emergency “midnight rally” following Bush’s speech, but if so, it was a miscalculation that would have been catastrophic had more than a handful of people been watching. Kerry and John Edwards looked like a couple of overly tanned cardsharps flown in to scam the locals. “I’m not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by people who refused to serve when they could have,” blustered Kerry, referring to Vietnam yet again and sounding (as someone or other mentioned) as if he were talking to his butler.
On Fox the next day, there was surprisingly little gloating, maybe because Hurricane Frances was on the way, Bill Clinton was in a hospital, and most of the big-name anchors had taken the day off. If the network continues to do this well, you can be sure O’Reilly & Co. will let us know about it. Whatever else it may be, Fox is not modest.