The news media unleashed a tsunami of stories about comments Rand Paul’s made on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, with almost 2,700 stories coming up on Google news within 48 hours. Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse wrote the base story for the front page of the May 21 edition of the New York Times.
Pundits from across the spectrum of opinion weighed in. Some rightfully excoriated R-Paul for making absurd statements such as his belief that private businesses have the right to refuse to serve African-Americans; for example David Gans on The Huffington Post. Others offered principled explanations, such as the attempt of the Wall Street Journal to put R-Paul’s offensive remarks in the context of a libertarian movement that the Journal’s writer Jonathan Weisman claims began as a reaction to FDR’s New Deal.
Before speculating on the broader significance of what looks on the surface to be a sudden outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease, I want to analyze a part of the first Times article in which R-Paul demonstrates that he is completely stone deaf not only to minorities, but to his own Tea Party supporters:
Mr. Paul also found himself on the defensive on Thursday when he sought to justify his decision to hold his election night celebration at a country club in Bowling Green, arguing that was not in any way at variance with the grass-roots movement he has come to epitomize.
I think at one time, people used to think of golf and golf clubs and golf courses as being exclusive,” Mr. Paul said in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” adding, “Tiger Woods has helped to broaden that, in the sense that he’s brought golf to a lot of the cities and to city youth.”
First, R-Paul ignores the question completely because his answer focuses on minorities and the question concerned his movement, which has been well-documented to consist of fairly well-off whites living in far suburbs and rural areas. What R-Paul is trying to do is bring minorities into his lily white tent, which consists of a lot of people who feel right at home in country clubs. But R-Paul shows his finger is on nobody’s pulse when he hails Tiger Woods, who is currently still in semi-disgrace, as proof that minorities go to country clubs, which then for mysterious reasons justifies having his election night celebration in a country club. Minority admissions to historically segregated country clubs may or may not be up, but the greatest golfer in the world certainly doesn’t prove it, since he gets a free pass as a celebrity. And isn’t it a bit insulting to both African-Americans and his own constituency of middle aged, money white suburbanites to hold up as an example someone who has never really done anything for civil rights and has now scandalized himself with his bad behavior (which I still think was nobody’s business but his family’s and his).
In fact like his comments on the Civil Rights Act, holding his party at a country club was a subtle but easy-to-understand message to his core constituency. It’s an ugly racist message at heart, no matter how much he pretties it up with libertarian abstractions. And it’s obvious it’s been part of R-Paul’s bag of campaign tricks all along. Frank Rich dates 2002 as the earliest point one can start tracking R-Paul’s anti-Civil Rights Act rap.
So why didn’t the news media say anything about R-Paul’s obnoxious views regarding civil rights before the election? The media should have been salivating over R-Paul’s incendiary comments, as they represent the very type of detail from which reporters can build a campaign narrative about a “horse race” and not the issues.
There is a long history of the news media building up candidates in the primaries only to tear them down during the election, or of building up candidates during the election only to tear them down once they have won. The classic example is the Watergate burglary, which was downplayed until Nixon had trounced McGovern. But think of the case of Michael Dukakis, who could do no wrong in the news media until he was nominated, giving the Democrats perhaps their weakest candidate ever in a presidential election in which there was no incumbent. Kerry, too, was a much weaker, and more centrist, candidate than other 2004 choices among Democrats. As I remember it, the media didn’t start dumping on him for his gaffes, his policy turnarounds and his privileged background until the fall campaign. (Of course, Kerry’s smarmy and immature salute at the convention did make him a very easy target.)
I can’t tell you why the news media protects one candidate and goes after another, or protects a candidate until after the election, except to say that at the end of the day, newspapers represent the people who own them.