When Al Gore and John Kerry lost their presidential campaigns, the media had a clear message for them: Get out of the way and let George W. Bush govern.
As was often the case, Gore couldn't win with the media no matter what he did. When he lay low, they mocked him for growing a beard and gaining weight -- and suggested he should be doing more to represent the interests of those who voted for him. And when he did speak, the media dismissed him as an angry lunatic in need of psychiatric help. When he presciently spoke out in 2002 against rushing to war in Iraq, for example, they said he was crazy. (Years later, they adopted much of his critique as their own. They kept making fun of him, though.)
On CNN's Reliable Sources, The New Republic's Michelle Cottle described her colleagues' reaction to Gore's Iraq speech: "[T]he vast majority of the staff believes this was the bitter rantings of a guy who is being politically motivated and disingenuous in his arguments." When they weren't attacking Gore, the media were ignoring him. On that same edition of Reliable Sources, host Howard Kurtz noted that television news organizations, including his own, didn't carry Gore's speech:
Al Gore delivered a major address this week. The former vice president sharply criticizing George Bush's handling of Iraq. But Gore's speech hit a thud on television. MSNBC was the only cable network to carry the whole address live, while Fox and CNN stayed with other programming. And the nightly network newscasts dealt with Gore's speech only briefly.
Oh, by the way, you know, CNN and Fox, which carried so many sheriff's press conferences when there were missing kids this summer, I think could have spared 20 minutes to carry Al Gore's speech. I thought it was embarrassing.
As for Kerry, some in the media -- particularly, but not exclusively, the conservative media -- all but threw rotten fruit at him in an effort to get him off the stage. Here's how one columnist reacted to Kerry's criticism of Bush Supreme Court nominee John Roberts:
Oh, shut up, John.
Perhaps if you had run a better presidential campaign, you would now be in a position to appoint Hillary Clinton to the high court, simply to annoy Rush Limbaugh.
There is no greater spoil to winning the White House than the power to appoint justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Well, there's Air Force One and blowing up countries, too.
Still, George W. Bush has every right to name anyone he wants to the court.
And he did.
Keep in mind: As a U.S. senator, it was Kerry's job to take a position on Roberts' nomination. Still, he was told to just shut up and let Bush govern.
Or consider this newspaper editorial, headlined "Someone should tell Kerry election is over and he lost":
Sen. John Kerry still seems to think he is running for president -- complete with the vague generalizations that came with his campaign.
Inflammatory rhetoric might keep Kerry in the headlines, but it is not helpful to the country or to Kerry. It makes him look less like a statesman and more like a sore loser or a media chaser.
In June of 2005, radio host Howie Carr wrote a column for the Boston Herald in which he ranted for several hundred words about people who had not removed their Kerry bumper stickers from their vehicles. Carr insisted at the beginning: "GET THE DAMN KERRY BUMPER STICKERS OFF YOUR CARS!! YOU LOST!! IT'S OVER!!!" Yes, in all caps. Yes, with seven exclamation points sprinkled among only 13 words. That's how adamant Carr and many others were that Kerry, and those who supported him, sit down and shut up.
It is important to note that it wasn't just conservatives who thought Gore and Kerry should lie low after their losses. In 2002, liberal columnist E.J. Dionne wrote that it was time for Gore to begin speaking up -- but, in doing so, he agreed that losing candidates should remain quiet for a while: "The tradition that defeated candidates should shut up for a spell makes sense -- even when the candidate in question doesn't believe he was beaten fair and square. But at some point, silence is no longer golden."
If Kerry, who lost the presidency by one state, and Gore, who lost by a Supreme Court vote, were expected to "shut up for a spell," as Dionne put it, surely we might expect the media to ask the same of John McCain following his blowout loss to Barack Obama. But the media have always had a different set of rules for John McCain, and their reaction to his loss is no different. For the first time in memory, the media have granted the loser of a presidential election the ability to dictate coverage of the president who defeated him.
During the recent congressional debate over omnibus spending legislation, McCain's attacks -- via Twitter and a speech on the Senate floor -- on the bill's earmarks drove media coverage for days. MSNBC played clips of McCain's speech over and over, and the cable channel's hosts adopted McCain's anti-earmark position as their own. Maureen Dowd anthologized McCain's Twitter posts on The New York Times' op-ed pages.
Along with its focus on a trivially small portion of the legislation and its casual indifference to the actual merits of the programs in question, McCain's floor speech was most notable for how hostile it was -- McCain was yelling and sputtering and waving his arms around furiously. Coming from, say, Al Gore, it would have been portrayed as an angry rant from a bitter loser. How can I be so sure? Because that's how the media typically portrayed Gore's post-2000 speeches, even when they were subdued, as Bob Somerby has detailed.
But McCain's tantrum wasn't received that way. Instead, the media treated McCain as though his loss last November endowed him with even greater moral authority and quickly took up his crusade as their own. If they noted his anger, they portrayed it as righteous anger. They didn't dismiss him because of it, as they had done with Gore; instead, they saw it as yet another reason to join his cause.
Never mind that McCain had devoted much of his failed presidential campaign to the same kind of disingenuous mockery of small-bore government spending -- attacking bear research and funding for an "overhead projector," for example. And never mind that the public reacted much the way you would react to a contractor who shows up to rebuild your fire-ravaged home and says the first thing you need to do is get some new curtains. Voters may not have taken much interest in McCain's obsessive focus on what doesn't matter at the expense of what does -- but reporters love it.
Then there's the February "fiscal responsibility summit" at the White House, at which Obama graciously asked McCain if he had anything to say, and McCain returned the kindness by suggesting Obama was squandering taxpayer funds on an unnecessary presidential helicopter. You don't have to have a particularly active imagination to suspect that such an act by John Kerry or Al Gore would have been greeted by weeks -- if not years -- of derisive media commentary. Had either of the vanquished Democrats pulled a stunt like that, they'd have been portrayed as petulant brats who were upset that they wouldn't be getting the helicopter.
But John McCain isn't portrayed as a sore loser or an angry and bitter crank. His complaints aren't dismissed as sour grapes, and he isn't mocked as someone who doesn't know when to get off the stage. Instead, the media take his petty obsessions seriously and treat him as a wise elder statesman. As David Dayen has noted, less than three months into 2009, McCain had already been hosted by Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Fox News Sunday (twice), and CNN's State of the Union -- and conducted a "Twitterview" with ABC's George Stephanopoulos. And if recent remarks by Meet the Press' David Gregory are any indication, McCain won't be getting any less airtime in the coming months.
They do know he lost, don't they?
Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.