woody_zimmerman_118_2007“What in the world is going on?” asked my buddy Al (of Al’s Coffee Shop). “Every Republican candidate looks like an idiot. How can any of them possibly beat Obama?”

Al said this by way of expressing his frustration with the numerous made-for-TV debates in which media figures ask questions apparently designed to trip up the candidates or make them appear trivial or foolish. There is also a clear tendency to try to set the candidates against each other – almost certainly for the “entertainment” value. The operative question for media people is always, “Where’s the conflict?”

In a debate on the preceding night, Governor Romney got in a spirited argument with Governor Perry over whether the former had supported Obamacare in his book. Mr. Romney stoutly claimed that he had not, and jocularly bet Mr. Perry $10,000 that he was right. (Gov. Romney would have won the bet.)

The dominant media, however, immediately lost focus on the principal question of who did or did not support Obamacare. Instead, platoons of talking heads obsessed for most of the following day on how “out of touch” Mr. Romney was to wager an amount that few ordinary people could lay their hands on. The hyperbole of Mr. Romney’s gesture was completely lost in a blizzard of “tsk-tsking” over the candidate’s wealth and his willingness to throw it around. I wondered if any of those reporters had ever bet someone “a million dollars” that such-and-such was true or false. (Oh, the horror of it!)

Al’s disquiet does get to a central question: does all this political entertainment really help to sort out the Republican candidates so we can find one who can credibly stand against President Obama? My sense is that it probably does very little to reach that objective – for the simple reason that finding a strong GOP candidate is not Big Media’s purpose in staging these “shows.” I believe that media’s true objective is to wound most or all of the GOP candidates, to the greatest extent possible, in order to leave the eventual nominee mud-spattered, weakened and crippled for the contest against Mr. Obama.

By contrast, the president has enjoyed virtually “untouched” status since his initial run for the presidency, starting in 2007. Mr. Obama was never subjected to the kinds of “gotcha” questions GOP candidates are getting now. Actress Tina Fey savaged Sarah Palin, but Mr. Obama – with less executive experience than Mrs. Palin – floated free. Not a glove was laid on him.

No past girlfriends came out of the woodwork to reveal his dating behavior or sexual proclivities. (By the way, who were his old girlfriends? Have you ever wondered why reporters have not found any?)

No revelations have emerged about his private or academic life. No old classmates from Columbia can be found. His photo isn’t in the yearbook. (Some investigators doubt if he really was a student there.) Big Media showed very little curiosity about his citizenship status. (Try to imagine how a GOP candidate in a similar situation would be treated.)

Indeed, every effort was made to minimize publicity of any controversial items that might prove problematic to Mr. Obama’s candidacy. When Mr. Obama unguardedly spoke to Joe the Plumber about “spreading the wealth” around, media water-carriers jumped all over the questioner, not the revelations of Mr. Obama’s socialist leanings. (Who was Joe the Plumber? Was he really a plumber? Aha! He isn’t really! What about his tax problems? Yadda, yadda, yadda…) I am not the first to note that Big Media obviously made it their particular mission to “protect” Mr. Obama’s candidacy and ensure his election. Obviously, no equivalent protection is being extended to any of the GOP candidates. Nor is that likely.

“But doesn’t publicity benefit the Republican candidates?” asked another acquaintance. “Actors always say that all publicity is good publicity, as long as they spell your name right…”

At some level, of course, most publicity has some value – especially when one’s opponent is a sitting president. The incumbent is already famous, while the challenger is struggling to become known to the public. Having his name (and face) in lights is certainly beneficial.

But everything should be kept within reasonable bounds. A steady drumbeat of silly sound-bites, gaffes, stupid arguments with other candidates, embarrassing revelations about past incidents, and other distractions from the substantive issues on which the challenger wishes to contend with the president are not helpful publicity. Instead, they make the challenger look “idiotic” (as Al said). It is the death of a thousand cuts. Call it the Gerald Ford Model of Candidate-destruction. Who was Gerald Ford?

Gerald Ford was a genial, capable politician elevated to the presidency after the resignation of Richard Nixon. He had long experience as a senior Republican in a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. He was an exemplary man – very well liked on both sides of the aisle – who knew how to work with people within the legislative community. He was the only president ever to take office without being elected as either president or vice-president, so he was not very well known beyond his own state (Michigan).

Mr. Ford took office in August 1974. By law, he could have been elected to one additional term. Not wishing this to happen, his political opponents set out to weaken him. As luck would have it, Mr. Ford was caught on film tripping on a step of a portable staircase leading from Air Force One. Later, he was filmed hitting a golf ball into a too-closely positioned gallery at a golf-benefit. The ball struck a spectator. A photographer also caught Mr. Ford’s look of fear when a former terrorist fired a shot within earshot of the president’s motorcade. Thus was the foundation for the “stumblebum president” story laid down. Media organs mercilessly aired and re-aired those clips and photos until the image was burned into the public’s collective mind. President Ford was even cruelly depicted in one of Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther films – tripping over chairs and hassocks as he tried to find the Michigan game on TV.

Ask anyone over age 45: who was the clumsiest president in history? Chances are he’ll say Gerald Ford. Yet this is an outrageous lie. Gerald Ford was probably the finest athlete ever to sit in the Oval Office. He was a star football player for University of Michigan (class of 1935), and received contract offers from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers. Later he was a skilled golfer. He was still skiing in his 70s. But the Death of a Thousand Cuts made him the stumblebum president – a laughingstock forever after.

This is the awesome power of an electronic media that can show damaging clips again and again. It is what the GOP Debate Follies are all about. The eventual GOP candidate will already be wounded in dozens of places from all those media cuts when he finally turns to face President Obama.

Ronald Reagan was frequently the target of media knives when he ran in 1980 and 1984. With his actor’s background, Mr. Reagan laughed off the attempted thrusts, even turning some of them to his advantage. In the ’84 campaign, the issue of his age (73) was raised in one of the debates. He promised (with mock seriousness) that he absolutely would not make an issue of his opponent’s obvious youth and inexperience. Even Walter Mondale had to laugh, and the issue evaporated.

We need a GOP candidate like that to beard Mr. Obama over his stewardship of the presidency and the nation. Let’s hope one emerges who can crack jokes, deliver counter-zingers, and restore perspective for voters (like Al) who are wondering if any Republican can play this game. A sitting president is a formidable opponent, but this one is holding a very weak hand. He can be beaten.