Ryan’s Not the First: Media’s History of Trashing GOP Vice Presidential Picks
Almost as soon as word leaked that Mitt Romney had chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate, liberal reporters stepped forward to help define the Wisconsin congressman as too conservative, a heartless budget-slasher who might repel as many votes as he might attract to the GOP ticket. Chris Matthews, for example, on Saturday derided Ryan as someone whose plan “really screws the people who desperately need Medicare and programs like that.”
The script is always a little different, but the trend is always the same. The Media Research Center has monitored campaign coverage for 25 years, including the media’s reaction to four Republican vice presidential selections: Dan Quayle (1988); Jack Kemp (1996); Dick Cheney (2000); and Sarah Palin (2008). While most of the candidates usually received initially positive introductory coverage, in each case journalists quickly pivoted to emphasizing the attack lines pushed by the Democratic campaigns.
Just like Paul Ryan, Quayle, Cheney and Palin were impugned as too extreme or too conservative. Quayle and Palin also faced frenzied media coverage of their personal lives, and were dismissed as unfit for high office. ABC’s Ted Koppel disparaged Quayle in 1988 as a “mediocrity.” Twenty years later, CNN’s Jack Cafferty savaged Palin: “If John McCain wins, this woman will be one 72-year-old’s heartbeat away from being President of the United States. And if that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it should.”
After his selection in 1996, Jack Kemp was initially praised as “nice” and a “can-do optimist,” but those compliments were quickly matched with insults about the “haters” that comprise the rest of the Republican Party. Within a couple of days, as Kemp made it clear he would be loyal to nominee Bob Dole and the GOP platform, journalists switched to mocking him as an “acrobat” who had “sold his soul” for political profit.
Here’s a brief rundown of how the networks greeted the last four GOP VP candidates, including a five-minute video compilation of lowlights drawn from the MRC’s archives. (MP3 audio) Keep reading for more on these quotes and background on how the media reacted in 1988, 1996, 2000 and 2008.
Dan Quayle, 1988
“Did he or did he not at the height of the Vietnam War get the kind of help not available to many young men of his age in order to join the National Guard? Did he evade the draft to avoid Vietnam or did he fulfill his military service in an honorable way?” So asked Peter Jennings in opening ABC’s World News Tonight on August 18, 1988, two days after Vice President Bush selected Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate.
But the media already had their answer, and the rampage was on. From August 16 through August 28, 1988 the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts ran a stunning 93 stories on Quayle, more than they ran during the entire primary season on 12 of the 13 presidential candidates. A Center for Media and Public Affairs analysis published at the time found that only the philandering Democratic Senator Gary Hart received worse press than Quayle that year.
Yet after a week of frenzied coverage condemning Quayle as a draft-dodger and worse, the media acknowledged that, as ABC’s Richard Threlkeld reported on the August 24 World News Tonight, “there were, in fact, vacancies in Quayle’s National Guard unit when he joined and no waiting list, suggesting favoritism played no crucial part in Quayle’s enlistment.” In other words, all of the sinister speculation was wrong.
In that same report, Threlkeld conceded that, perhaps, the coverage had gone too far: “Some of the reporting has involved things about Quayle that seem less than front page news: What about that weekend with some golfing buddies and the female lobbyist? How low were his grades in college? Did he have to talk his way into law school? Is all of this getting to be too much? Maybe so.”
The National Guard story provided the pretense for the media’s intensive coverage of Quayle, but the lasting effect of the circus was to cast the Indiana Senator as unqualified. CBS correspondent Jacqueline Adams, for example, ridiculed Quayle on the August 20 Evening News: “At today’s rally in a Dayton, Ohio suburb, Quayle’s pro-defense rhetoric was almost comical.”
Three days later on ABC’s Nightline, host Ted Koppel scoffed: “Quayle and his supporters throw a protective arm around the National Guard as though the institution itself were under attack. It, of course, is not. He and his apparent mediocrity and hypocrisy are.”
The next night, on ABC’s World News Tonight, correspondent John Martin insisted that Quayle had the burden of proving his qualifications: “So now a young man who got a long way in life on the kindness and power of family and friends must now convince voters he is qualified to be Vice President, only a step away from the presidency.”
Even after the National Guard furor died down, the media kept “the Quayle factor” alive. In his magazine’s August 29 edition, Time’s Walter Shapiro insisted Quayle could “haunt the Republican team right through Nov. 8.”
And the president of NBC News, Michael Gartner, showed off his network’s objectivity in an anti-Quayle screed published in the September 1 Wall Street Journal, ostensibly aimed at defending the earlier feeding frenzy: “His academic record is mediocre, his memory (just how did he get into the National Guard?) is mediocre, his honesty (he fudged his resume) is mediocre, and his judgment (who would go off on a golfing weekend, however innocent, with two pals and a female lobbyist?) is mediocre.”
On the September 17 McLaughlin Group, former Democratic aide Chris Matthews, then with the San Francisco Examiner, emitted this mean-spirited blast: “The minute he speaks his own mind, he reminds us of why Lady Di isn’t allowed to talk, the guy has nothing to say and when he speaks it’s frightening.”
Then on October 6, CBS’s Mike Wallace drew applause on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman with this jab: “We try to report objectively, and so I’m a little reluctant to say it: I find it very difficult to believe that eventually, conceivably, Dan Quayle would sit down and negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev. It doesn’t seem to make sense.”
In the end, the media’s over-the-top reaction to Quayle’s selection backfired. In late August, Gallup found that 69 percent of likely voters thought the coverage of Quayle’s past was “excessive,” while 55 percent believed news organizations have “been unfair to Dan Quayle.” But the public’s disapproval did not stop the media from trying the same tricks in the years to come.
Jack Kemp, 1996
Bob Dole’s choice of Jack Kemp as his 1996 running mate drew early praise from a number of reporters and analysts, but that praise was often accompanied by disparaging cracks about the “haters” that comprise the rest of the Republican Party.
CNN political analyst Bill Schneider touted the choice on the August 9 Inside Politics, praising Kemp as he derided other conservatives: “He is a rare combination — a nice conservative. These days conservatives are supposed to be mean. They’re supposed to be haters....Jack Kemp is buoyant, he’s effusive, he’s inclusive of everybody in the country, not just in the Republican Party. He puts a different face on that ticket.”
On August 10, during live coverage of Dole’s announcement of Kemp, CNN anchor Judy Woodruff declared: “On welfare, up through the last few years, he’s advocated more moderate policies than those that were passed this month by the Republican-controlled Congress. Jack Kemp does not like the idea of taking money — yanking money away from welfare mothers with small children.”
Hours later on CNN’s Capital Gang, Woodruff’s husband, Al Hunt, Executive Washington Editor of the Wall Street Journal, disparaged the rest of the GOP while praising Kemp: “Jack Kemp is a can-do optimist who cares about all people, and that’s going to put him at odds with a platform that is protectionist, mean-spirited, anti-immigration, insensitive to racial minorities.”
On that day’s Inside Politics, Bill Schneider proceeded to repeat the previous day’s slur: “Kemp also has a rare combination of qualities. He’s a nice conservative. There haven’t been too many of those since Ronald Reagan. Most conservatives these days come across as mean [video of Newt Gingrich] or intolerant [video of Pat Buchanan] or grouchy [video of Bob Dole]. Kemp is tolerant and inclusive.... Kemp is not a hater.”
Barely two days later, however, at the GOP convention, journalists were appalled that Kemp would agree to do what any vice presidential candidate would do: support Dole and the platform. Dan Rather hit Kemp from the left in an interview shown on the August 12 CBS Evening News: “Even some Republicans describe the current platform as quote, ‘harsh, extreme,’ even ‘radical.’ Do you see it that way?”
On World News Tonight two days later, ABC’s Jackie Judd started her report with mockery: “The quarterback became the acrobat today. Kemp was flip-flopping on long held positions....”
And during her network’s live convention coverage that night, CBS’s Lesley Stahl asked Dole strategist Vin Weber whether Kemp had “sold his soul” for political gain: “Your longtime friend Jack Kemp has changed his long-held views, in the last two days, on affirmative action, on immigration policy. Is he selling his soul to be loyal to Bob Dole?”
In a span of just a few days, the media had gone from praising Kemp as a “nice” aberration in an otherwise nasty Republican Party, to scolding him as an “acrobat” and a sell-out for serving as a loyal vice presidential nominee.
Dick Cheney, 2000
George W. Bush’s selection of Dick Cheney twelve years ago drew praise for the former Defense Secretary’s intelligence and even-keeled demeanor, but the media quickly zeroed in on Cheney’s reliable conservative votes while serving in Congress in the 1980s. Picking up on the Democrats’ line of attack, liberal reporters painted Cheney as somehow “outside the American mainstream” and the opposite of “compassion.”
“[George W.] Bush is portraying himself as a compassionate conservative,” fill-in host Gloria Borger lectured Karl Rove on the July 23 Face the Nation. “If he’s running with somebody who voted for all the Reagan budget cuts, for example, wouldn’t that prove a bit of a problem?” She later hit the same point with guest Bill Bennett: “[Cheney’s] very conservative. George W. Bush is not portraying himself as an ultra-conservative. Wouldn’t that be a problem?”
ABC’s Linda Douglass, who would eventually join the Obama administration to help push for government-controlled health care, hit the Democratic chord perfectly on the July 25 World News Tonight: “A close look at his ten years in Congress reveals that Cheney was one of its most conservative members, say analysts who have looked at his record.”
Earlier that day, former Democratic operative George Stephanopoulos appeared on Good Morning America to spin the case against Cheney. Co-host Diane Sawyer set up Stephanopoulos, who at the time was billed as a “political analyst,” asking about how Cheney “doesn’t look fire-breathing, but he’s very conservative. Take us through the issues.”
While allowing that Cheney is a “very nice man,” Stephanopoulos proceeded to pound him as a “hardline conservative” on gun control, abortion, and a host of other issues. Stephanopoulos and Sawyer seemed especially excited by a vote Cheney cast against banning plastic guns. “Even the NRA was for that,” Stephanopoulos helpfully pointed out, “so he was purer than the National Rifle Association on that issue.”
Over on CBS’s The Early Show that same morning, Bryant Gumbel employed the phrase “hard right” to marginalize the newly-named candidate: “Cheney’s politics are of the hard-right variety. He’s opposed to abortion and gun control and favors both capital punishment and school prayer.”
On the July 27 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather echoed the Gore campaign in claiming that Cheney might be outside the American mainstream: “Past votes in Congress are prompting new questions about Dick Cheney and whether, as some say, they show he’s too outside the American mainstream for voters in the year 2000.”
NBC’s Matt Lauer joined the echo chamber on the July 26 Today, asking Tim Russert: “When you talk about votes like that, that he made while in Congress, anti-affirmative action, anti-abortion, anti-gun control, anti-equal rights, how does George Bush portray him as a compassionate conservative?”
The rampant ideological labeling of Cheney was at odds with how the media treated Democratic vice presidential selections. After Bill Clinton picked Al Gore in 1992, ABC correspondent Jim Wooten crowed: “That’s the ticket. Not a liberal in sight.... Democrats happily moving from their liberal past to their centrist future.”
As a Senator, Gore’s average conservative rating from the American Conservative Union was 10.6 percent, compared to Cheney’s 90.6 percent for his time in the House. In other words, Gore was about as far left as Cheney was far right — yet the networks refused to brand Gore as a liberal while Cheney was an “ultra-conservative.”
And, two weeks after Cheney’s selection, Al Gore selected Joe Lieberman as his running mate. With a 19 percent conservative ACU rating, Lieberman was only slightly more centrist than Gore. Yet the same networks that speculated about the “hard right” Cheney being “outside the mainstream” fell over themselves to crown Lieberman as a “moderate” or even a “conservative.”
On NBC’s Today on August 7, 2000, correspondent Claire Shipman tagged Lieberman: “He’s a conservative Democrat and an Orthodox Jew.” Later on the MSNBC simulcast of Imus in the Morning, Shipman repeated: “[Lieberman] is a conservative Democrat ..., but, you know, Gore is a pretty conservative Democrat.”
One of the media’s quadrennial gifts to Democrats is their tendency to cast conservatives as outrageous extremists, while helping to camouflage liberals as “moderates.”
Sarah Palin, 2008
In the days after she was selected by John McCain, Sarah Palin faced an onslaught from the national media, much of it about her family life — a topic that traditionally would have been seen as out-of-bounds for political attacks. From August 29 through September 4, 2008, the Big Three network morning and evening shows ran a total of 59 stories mentioning Palin’s family, or about eight per day. Nearly two-thirds of those (37) brought up the pregnancy of Palin’s teenaged daughter; another ten questioned whether she could balance her family obligations with a campaign.
In the hours after Palin was selected on August 29, then-CNN anchor John Roberts suggested it was irresponsible of her to join the ticket. “Children with Down’s syndrome require an awful lot of attention. The role of Vice President, it seems to me, would take up an awful lot of her time, and it raises the issue of how much time will she have to dedicate to her newborn child?”
On NBC’s Today on September 3, reporter Amy Robach framed the issue this way: “Will she be shortchanging her kids, or will she be shortchanging the country?” During a roundtable discussion on CBS’s Early Show that same morning, the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn scolded that “a woman with five children, including one with special needs, and a daughter who is a 17-year-old child who is pregnant and about to have a baby, probably has got to rethink her priorities.”
Liberal journalists digging into Palin’s family life appalled not just conservatives, but lifelong Democrats like Susan Estrich, who managed Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign. “I don’t agree with Sarah Palin on the issues. I mean, she and I are very far apart, but I have never seen from some of my friends such vicious and mean-spirited attacks on her most personal choices,” Estrich announced during FNC’s live convention coverage in the early morning hours of September 3. I think this is just really unfair, really sexist, and very likely to provoke a backlash.”
In the days that followed, the media also attacked Palin as inexperienced and unqualified, exhibiting a venom not seen since the Quayle days of 1988. On MSNBC’s Countdown August 29, 2008, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman insisted the Republicans had lost any chance to criticize Barack Obama’s thin resume: “Sarah Palin makes Barack Obama look like John Adams. I mean, it’s just, it’s no contest.”
Fineman’s colleague, Eleanor Clift, exposed the media’s contempt for Palin on that weekend’s McLaughlin Group: “This is not a serious choice. It makes it look like a made for TV movie. If the media reaction is anything, it’s been literally laughter in many places... in very, very many newsrooms.”
The media’s Palin-bashing continued for the rest of the campaign. Interviewing John McCain for 60 Minutes on September 21, correspondent Scott Pelley refused to believe that McCain considered Palin ready for the White House: “The criticism of Governor Palin is that she was a brilliant marketing choice for the campaign, but she’s not well versed on the economy or foreign affairs.... Can you see her as President of the United States?”
“Absolutely,” McCain responded. Feigning incredulity, Pelley theatrically responded: “As President of the United States?”
After Palin’s interview with CBS’s Katie Couric, CNN’s Jack Cafferty (on the September 26 Situation Room) hyperbolically slammed it as “one of the most pathetic pieces of tape I have ever seen from someone aspiring to one of the highest offices in this country....If John McCain wins, this woman will be one 72-year-old’s heartbeat away from being President of the United States. And if that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it should.”
And just as he had with Quayle 20 years earlier, Chris Matthews could not resist taking a personal potshot — this time on his own MSNBC show, Hardball (October 14, 2008): “The fact of the matter is, the comparison between her [Sarah Palin] and Hillary Clinton is the comparison between an igloo and the Empire State Building!”
Despite her role in energizing the Republican base, and overlooking McCain’s own tepid performance in his debates with Barack Obama, the conventional wisdom pushed by the media was that the conservative Palin had hurt the GOP campaign. On the October 21 Early Show, co-host Harry Smith suggested as much to McCain: “A lot of Republican pundits in the last couple of weeks have said that your choice of a vice presidential candidate of Sarah Palin has been a disaster. If, in fact, you found out that her candidacy cost you the election, would you still say it was the right choice?”
As with Quayle, polling suggested that the media’s blatantly partisan approach had backfired. A report by Scott Rasmussen taken soon after Palin became the vice presidential nominee found that “over half of U.S. voters (51%) think reporters are trying to hurt Sarah Palin...and 24 percent say those stories make them more likely to vote” for the GOP.
Network news reporters may think they are equal-opportunity destroyers, but with surveys documenting how the national press corps tilts heavily to the left, the realities of pack journalism are that liberal and Democratic themes get favored treatment in daily campaign news coverage. News organizations that were concerned about fairness could track their own reporting and take steps to ensure an even playing field, but the record shows it is always an uphill fight for conservatives.