We don't burn our draft cards here at ABC News ...

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We've got a new "Think Again" column here called "The Media (Finally) Talk About Torture," and a special Passover-inspired Nation column called "Motzira-Making on the Right."

About last night:

It's not every day we get to outsource Altercation to Tom Shales. But his description of ABC News' "shoddy, despicable performances" seems to us better than we could do. It was amazing really, the depths to which these boys will sink to, well, I don't like to speculate on peoples' motives. Just why ABC thinks that a presidential debate should entirely ignore, say, health care issues, environmental issues, science policy issues, our overstretched and under-resourced military, an epidemic of people losing their homes, the bailing out of megabanks, issues related to our disappearing civil liberties and political freedoms is a mystery to me. Instead we got a combination of trivial personal gossip and right-wing talking points, as if the anchors had been scripted by the bastard child of Liz Smith and Grover Norquist. Really, anchors who are paid many millions of dollars a year shilling for capital gains tax cuts to candidates for the party of the working class? Have they no shame, at long last?

In any case, here is Shales:

For the first 52 minutes of the two-hour, commercial-crammed show, Gibson and Stephanopoulos dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news. Some were barely news to begin with.

The fact is, cable networks CNN and MSNBC both did better jobs with earlier candidate debates. Also, neither of those cable networks, if memory serves, rushed to a commercial break just five minutes into the proceedings, after giving each candidate a tiny, token moment to make an opening statement. Cable news is indeed taking over from network news, and merely by being competent.

Gibson sat there peering down at the candidates over glasses perched on the end of his nose, looking prosecutorial and at times portraying himself as a spokesman for the working class. Blunderingly he addressed an early question, about whether each would be willing to serve as the other's running mate, "to both of you," which is simple ineptitude or bad manners. It was his job to indicate which candidate should answer first. When, understandably, both waited politely for the other to talk, Gibson said snidely, "Don't all speak at once."

For that matter, the running-mate question that Gibson made such a big deal over was decidedly not a big deal -- especially since Wolf Blitzer asked it during a previous debate televised and produced by CNN.

The boyish Stephanopoulos, who has done wonders with the network's Sunday morning hour, "This Week" (as, indeed, has Gibson with the nightly "World News"), looked like an overly ambitious intern helping out at a subcommittee hearing, digging through notes for something smart-alecky and slimy. He came up with such tired tripe as a charge that Obama once associated with a nutty bomb-throwing anarchist. That was "40 years ago, when I was 8 years old," Obama said with exasperation.

To this observer, ABC's coverage seemed slanted against Obama. The director cut several times to reaction shots of such Clinton supporters as her daughter, Chelsea, who sat in the audience at the Kimmel Theater in Philly's National Constitution Center. Obama supporters did not get equal screen time, giving the impression that there weren't any in the hall. The director also clumsily chose to pan the audience at the very start of the debate, when the candidates made their opening statements, so Obama and Clinton were barely seen before the first commercial break.

At the end, Gibson pompously thanked the candidates -- or was he really patting himself on the back? -- for "what I think has been a fascinating debate." He's entitled to his opinion, but the most fascinating aspect was waiting to see how low he and Stephanopoulos would go, and then being appalled at the answer.

It's all here.

Another way of putting it would be the way Atrios did: "There are genuine nonpersonality differences between these candidates which moderators who had any idea what they were talking about could have elicited. But when Charlie Gibson is a Laffer loving wingnut whose heart bleeds for the capital gains earnings of $200,000+ earners, and Snuffleupagus is a Sean Hannity sock puppet, that's not the debate we're going to get."

Or Attytood: "Frankly, the questioning was so horrendous that it's hard to determine what's supposed to be important here. ... The big loser, of course, was ABC, and perhaps the American people -- but I think the American people are too smart for baloney. ... This question about William Ayers (sp?) of the Weather Underground, now a Chicago professor and acquaintance of Obama, was planted by Sean Hannity in a conversation he had with Stephanapolous. By the way, for what it's worth, viewers probably don't realize that the letter that they're talking about was published on the morning of 9/11/01, i.e., before the attacks. I'm sure the average viewer doesn't get it. The average viewer is just getting that Obama must be some kind of America hater who hangs out with terrorists. This is disgusting. ... Oh My God! "Senator Obama, why do you hate America?" Actually, it was about the flag, but apparently Rush Limbaugh, even though he was fired by ESPN, is apparently still on the Disney payroll in some capacity."

Or Yglesias: "I'd forgotten that for months now Charlie Gibson has been asserting that $200,000 is a solid middle-class income, blissfully unaware that just 3.4 percent of U.S. households have an income of $200,000 or more. You could be richer than 96 percent of your fellow citizens, but still just folks to Gibson."

Shockingly, there's not a word about the whirlwind of criticism of ABC News anywhere on The Note today, though, tellingly, mostly right-wing sources like The American Spectator -- are they still around? -- and Andrew Sullivan are trotted out to support ABC's argument that Obama was the loser. Personally, I make no judgments whatever about the candidates themselves on this website, lest my words be misinterpreted as some sort of endorsement or election interference, but my impression is that anyone watching the debate or reading a source whose salary, even if it's not in the millions, is not paid by ABC News, will focus on the smarminess of ABC's performance rather than Obama's (or Clinton's) failure to spin their dross into gold. (What is "dross," by the way?) My boss doesn't need the dough, but congratulations anyway to Katrina vanden Heuvel for calling them out despite her presence as one of This Week's regular roundtable participants. Let's hope they don't take their revenge.

(To be fair, I guess the questions were okeydoke with strong supporters of John McCain.)

Lest anyone think those quoted above are taking this a bit too far, here are commenters on ABC's own website. (Sample: "As an American, I was and am deeply offended at the unprofessional way that ABC conducted a PRESIDENTIAL debate yesterday. It was the worst debate I have ever had seen. You guys didn't get heckled for nothing last night, I just wish you could have heard the folks at home. How long will the American media play Americans as if we are stupid? If there is any ELITIST in this race, it increasingly seems to be the idiots like you in the media. To spend an hour on this crap in a time in which we are at war, in a recession, gas prices are through the roof, people are losing their homes, their jobs, their health care, and you bozos want to keep drilling about pastors, gaffes and gotcha topics? I want you to know I am through watching ABC, and I will most likely call the advertisers during that debate to also voice my complaints. If they want to keep my business, they better drop their support for your station.") And here, finally, are the horse's mouths themselves.

(But wait, one more question: I didn't see any mention in the transcript of Stephanopoulos' long-term employment with the Clintons and his personal relationship with the candidate herself. It's no secret, of course, and perhaps they think "everyone" knows, but many young people, I imagine, are coming to watch this campaign with little experience of Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns and his White House. Surely if there's one idea that has been debunked in this country, it is that "everyone knows" absolutely anything. I'm curious as to why ABC thinks this to be appropriate. After all, if one of the questioners has a long and storied history with one of the candidates, one that in fact led to his current position with the network, but no relationship whatever with the other, isn't that a potential bias that viewers ought to be allowed to judge for themselves?)

Ok, here's the transcript:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Clinton, when Bill Richardson called you to say he was endorsing Barack Obama, you told him that Senator Obama can't win. I'm not going to ask you about that conversation. I know you don't want to talk about it. But a simple yes-or-no question: Do you think Senator Obama can beat John McCain or not?

[...]

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the question is, do you think Senator Obama can do that? Can he win?

[...]

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama, do you think Senator Clinton can win?

[...]

GIBSON: Senator Obama, since you last debated, you made a significant speech in this building on the subject of race and your former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And you said subsequent to giving that speech that you never heard him say from the pulpit the kinds of things that so have offended people.

But more than a year ago, you rescinded the invitation to him to attend the event when you announced your candidacy. He was to give the invocation. And according to the reverend, I'm quoting him, you said to him, "You can get kind of rough in sermons. So what we've decided is that it's best for you not to be out there in public." I'm quoting the reverend. But what did you know about his statements that caused you to rescind that invitation?

OBAMA: Well --

GIBSON: And if you knew he got rough in sermons, why did it take you more than a year to publicly disassociate yourself from his remarks?

GIBSON: But you did rescind the invitation to him --

[...]

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator, two questions. Number one, do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do? And number two, if you get the nomination, what will you do when those sermons are played on television again and again and again?

[...]

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you do believe he's as patriotic as you are?

[...]

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Clinton, we also did a poll today, and there are also questions about you raised in this poll. About six in 10 voters that we talked to say they don't believe you're honest and trustworthy. And we also asked a lot of Pennsylvania voters for questions they had. A lot of them raised this honesty issue and your comments about being under sniper fire in Bosnia.

[...]

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama, your campaign has sent out a cascade of e-mails, just about every day, questioning Senator Clinton's credibility. And you yourself have said she hasn't been fully truthful about what she would do as president. Do you believe that Senator Clinton has been fully truthful about her past?

[...]

GIBSON: And Senator Obama, I want to do one more question, which goes to the basic issue of electability....

[...]

GIBSON: Just to add to that, I noticed you put one on yesterday. But -- you've talked about this before, but it comes up again and again when we talk to voters. And as you may know, it is all over the Internet. And it's something of a theme that Senators Clinton and McCain's advisers agree could give you a major vulnerability if you're the candidate in November. How do you convince Democrats that this would not be a vulnerability?

[...]

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator, if you get the nomination, you'll have to -- (applause) -- (inaudible).

I want to give Senator Clinton a chance to respond, but first a follow-up on this issue, the general theme of patriotism in your relationships. A gentleman named William Ayers, he was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol and other buildings. He's never apologized for that. And in fact, on 9/11 he was quoted in The New York Times saying, "I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough."

An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly. Can you explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?

[...]

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Clinton, two-part question.

Two-part question: Can you make an absolute, read-my-lips pledge that there will be no tax increases of any kind for anyone earning under $200,000 a year?

And if the economy is as weak a year from now as it is today, will you -- will you persist in your plans to roll back President Bush's tax cuts for wealthier Americans?

[...]

GIBSON: And in each instance, when the [capital gains tax] rate dropped, revenues from the tax increased. The government took in more money. And in the 1980s, when the tax was increased to 28 percent, the revenues went down. So why raise it at all, especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?

[...]

GIBSON: But history shows that when you drop the capital gains tax, the revenues go up.

[...]

GIBSON: I'm going to go to a commercial break. But I just want to come back to one thing you said, and I want to be clear. The question was about capital gains tax. Would you say, "No, I'm not going to raise capital gains taxes"?

[...]

GIBSON: But Senator, that's a tax. That's a tax on people under $250,000.

[...]

GIBSON: Senator Obama, the District of Columbia has a law, it's had a law since 1976, it's now before the United States Supreme Court, that prohibits ownership of handguns, a sawed-off shotgun, a machine gun or a short-barreled rifle. Is that law consistent with an individual's right to bear arms?

[...]

GIBSON: But do you still favor the registration of guns? Do you still favor the licensing of guns?

And in 1996, your campaign issued a questionnaire, and your writing was on the questionnaire that said you favored a ban on handguns.

[...]

GIBSON: Final question, now, to finish what I think has been a fascinating debate, and I appreciate both of you being here -- thanking you in advance.

I -- it is hard to see how either one of you win this nomination on the basis of pledged delegates in primaries. And it could well come down to superdelegates. And I know you've been talking to them all along. But let's say you're at the convention in Denver, and you're talking to a group of 20 undecided superdelegates. How are you going to make the case to them why you're the better candidate and more electable in November?

Meanwhile, Ezra Klein wrote a fine column about J Street. Gershom Gorenberg too.

And Eric Boehlert asks: Is Chris Matthews the Michael Scott of political talk show hosts? And if so, does that make MSNBC the Dunder Mifflin of cable news? Read more here.

Alter-reviews:

Eric Boehlert on Joe Jackson at the Apollo, April 15:

Tuesday night was sweet soul music at the Apollo Theatre, courtesy of the timeless Brit Joe Jackson, out promoting his new album, Rain. Maybe it's just me, but I've always thought of Jackson as a soul singer. Yes, he was part of the brilliant New Wave pub-rock pack in the late 1970s with Elvis, Graham, and Nick. And he's dabbled in whorehouse jazz, classical, and of course smart piano pop. But it's always been the soul in Jackson's music and his voice -- which remains as strong as ever -- that set him apart.

Still as thin (and tall) as a stick, with his receding white hair and decked out in an olive martini suit, Jackson at the Apollo was fronting a trio; the musical configuration he's been using for more than a year now. (The trio included drummer Dave Houghton as well as Jackson's original bassist, Graham Maby.)

Over the years, and during the '90s in particular, Jackson seemed to have an uncomfortable relationship with his fans, maybe a bit annoyed that they weren't genre-jumping with him. Instead, they were stuck in the past, a past Jackson didn't seem interested in celebrating. He seemed so serious. Whether it was perception or reality, it no longer applies. Jackson was gracious throughout the evening and while the show was by no means a greatest hits revue, the singer was relatively generous with his old hits, such as "On the Radio," "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)"; and an encore sing-along to his impossibly simple, almost nursery-rhyme classic, "Is She Really Going Out with Him?"

Besides, if Jackson was taking himself too seriously these days, he would not have covered ABBA's "Knowing Me, Knowing You," which he prefaced by saying was perhaps the "whitest" song ever performed at the Apollo.

The real star of the night, though, was Rain, one of the first great albums of 2008. (And what Q1 it was; Vampire Weekend, R.E.M., Drive-By Truckers.) Sturdy, engaging and at times dazzling, the record brims with distinguished, smart pop for the Creative Class and represents some of Jackson's best work in decades. At the Apollo, the lush Rain sounds of "Too Tough," and "Invisible Man," were balanced by the feverish, post-punk pounding of "King Pleasure Time."

Jackson ended the evening alone at his piano, his head tossed back while he belted out his anthemic "Slow Song." Sweet soul music, indeed.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Neil
Hometown: Vegas, baby.

Doc,

Sickening, isn't it. We had no chance to win, because there is no benchmark, hill to take, or goal to reach that determines a victory in Iraq. The Bush administration handed this country and our armed forces a loss as soon as they decided to enter this disastrous war. None of us, with the exception all of those that voted to go to war, ever had a chance. And, we can thank the MSM for making the Republicans the supposed pro-military party. This administration has been the most anti-military administration this country has ever seen. I only hope the men and women of our armed forces are taking notice of this, too.

P.S. -- Loved the new book. Didn't think When Presidents Lie could be topped, but you've done it, Sir. Great work.

Name: Michael Green
Hometown: Las Vegas, NV

MoDo was awfully quick to point out that her roots are Irish Catholic working class. If so, I am curious to know why one of the first things she said upon being hired at The Times was that she wouldn't be covering those "dreary regulatory agencies." If there is any rule about old Irish Catholic working class politics, it's knowing all of the levers of power. Those dreary agencies are where a lot of important things happen -- indeed, where Pulitzer Prizes for reporting can be won. But Dowd's Pulitzer was for her commentaries on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the only time she consistently pointed out the stupidity of those who were after Clinton.

Name: Larry Cowan
Hometown: http://larrycowan.wordpress.com

When a Catholic bishop threatened to withhold communion from John Kerry in 2004 because he would not take away a woman's right to choose I wondered when the church would show balance. Well, Pope Benedict is in the country now and it would seem like a great time for him to order withholding of communion from Justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas for upholding the death penalty.

Name: Bill Dunlap
Hometown: Lake Oswego, Oregon

Yes, Eric, by virtue of your intelligence, education and life choices you are one of the elite. So is Barack. But don't cop to being an elitist. Elitist and elitism are to elite as racist and racism are to race.

Name: Bruce Henke
Hometown: Bartlett, IL

Rob Goodwin says that Obama's "bitter" comments are not "inarguably true." He then goes on to say that "...they don't vote Democrat because they're sick of us telling them what their problems are..."

Jeez, that's the whole point. Democrats want to ensure unemployment benefits, fund SCHIP, protect Social Security, and all sorts of other things that benefit all "working class" citizens. Republicans, on the other hand, fight these same things tooth and nail. And when some of those "working class" citizens repeatedly vote Republican because... why do they do this again? And some of "them" are upset that some of "us" don't understand this?

And by the way, Rob, it's "Democratic."

Name: DrJ
Hometown: Austin

It seems to me that, just like the speech on race in this country, Senator Obama was speaking to the root causes of some of the bigotry and insular thinking among some in this country. He wasn't intending that all who practice a religion or hunt were bitter, but that there are clearly some in this country who are bigots and insular and it's not entirely irrational from their point of view. At least he has a handle on ways to approach those holding those views with empathy and understanding.

Name: John Caruso
Hometown: Portland, OR

Newsweek and other media sources are now referring to the fuss over Obama's supposedly elitist comments as "bittergate." Using the "-gate" suffix here not only exaggerates the significance of his (aguably true) comments, but it subtly downplays the significance of previous "-gate" incidents. Watergate, Contragate, Plamegate, etc., were all incidents where presidents and others acting on their behalf committed serious crimes, violated the public trust, and then tried to cover up their unethical actions with lies, perjury and the usual dirty tricks. None of these conditions apply here. Let's save "-gate" for real liars and crooks like Nixon, Reagan, and Bush.

Name: S.D. Miller
Hometown: Norwich, Vermont

Dr. Alterman,

Regarding the whereabouts of God during the misfortunes of Rabbi Rubenstein and others of deep religious belief, I thought of this old peasant saying from France (courtesy of Graham Robb's The Discovery of France):

"If only God was a decent man."

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