by Victor Davis Hanson
In the second presidential election debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on October 16, 2012, CNN moderator Candy Crowley sensed that Obama, coming off a dismal initial September 26 debate, was again floundering.
Romney was driving home the valid point that the Obama Administration had inadequately prepared the American mission in Benghazi for likely terrorist attacks. And such laxity resulted in a horrific attack and the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
Yet in the wake of the attacks, Team Obama denied that the killing of four Americans was indeed an act of terror. Instead, it fed the public a transparently but politically correct false narrative of a spontaneous riot in reaction to a video posted by a purported right-wing Egyptian residing on American soil.
Yet in the debate, Obama retorted: “The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.”
Romney pounced: “You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration – is that what you’re saying? I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
Romney was correct. Obama took two weeks before he eventually jettisoned his administration’s concocted “spontaneous demonstrations” party line that his subordinates – Susan Rice in particular, to her eternal embarrassment – had been peddling to the American people.
Yet in the debate, Obama flailed with a weak, “Get the transcript.”
In truth, Obama in his comments after the attack had simply offered, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for” – a deliberate effort not to name Benghazi specifically in the context of a terrorist act.
Obama did not, as he was finally forced to do two weeks later, tie specifically the Benghazi deaths to the premeditated attacks of radical Islamic terrorists. No matter. Moderator Crowley jumped in with her instant fact-check: “He did, in fact, sir. So, let me – let me call it an act of terror.”
Obama was delighted for the reprieve and wagged with delight at the coming out of his debate partner, “Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” On cue, she obsequiously complied, “He did call it an act of terror.”
In other words, Crowley became a real-time, partisan fact-checker, rather than a moderator – but of a peculiar sort that did not fully assume her new role until Obama himself was desperate for a bailout.
Crowley’s crazy logic apparently was that Obama really had meant Benghazi when he deliberately talked only in vague terms about generic acts of terror shortly after the attack, but then for the next two weeks nonetheless had allowed his subordinates to float the trial balloon of an alternate reality video, before giving it up when the evidence made peddling that fiction impossible.
For much of the debate, Crowley had further tried to massage a comeback for Obama after his disastrous first outing. She cut Romney off far more frequently than she did Obama. She alone had picked the townhall questioners.
And the questions they posed were mostly asymmetrical, such as the following one addressed to Romney: “I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush Administration. Since both of you are Republicans, I fear the return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?”
In the debate’s aftermath, Obama supporters crowed; Romney sulked that Crowley had hijacked the debate. And Crowley was never asked to moderate anything important again.
CNN offered various defenses. But, in fact, Crowley’s career more or less ended that night and two years later she went into retirement, her finale forever a reminder of what not to do as a debate moderator and an example of media bias.
Why Not Lose Nobly?
Something similar occurred with Fox News moderator Chris Wallace in the first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Like Crowley, he lost control of the debate. And similarly, much of the crosstalk grew out of Wallace’s asymmetrical “prove you are not guilty” questioning.
Wallace’s gotcha technique was to spur the candidates with a “scandal” question to rev them up, and then after two minutes, abruptly and vainly try to cut them off—as if to spur and whip a bronco and then demand on command that the infuriated horse stop his obnoxious bucking.
Trump, in the manner of Mitt Romney in 2012, was the more frequent debate interrupter, furious likewise about the similar imbalance of both the questions and the moderator’s call for order. For much of the night, Wallace grimaced as he asked Biden to explain a few misdemeanors while demanding Trump defend his presumed felonies.
And Wallace seemed stunned that Trump did not conduct himself as Romney had in 2012 with Crowley – like a philosophical pilot muttering “such is life,” as his sabotaged and powerless plane nose-dived into the oblivion below.
Financial scandals? Wallace zeroed in on the Trump tax returns, the media scandal du jour – without a word about Hunter Biden’s also breaking story of pocketing $3.5 million from the wife of the ex-mayor of Moscow even as his father was vice president. Could he not have at least mentioned such “Russian collusion”?
Race? It was not surprising that Wallace did not ask Biden why he has a habitual habit of denigrating blacks, with his riffs like “you ain’t’ black,” “junkie,” and the Corn Pop yarns. Instead, Wallace went back decades to an obscure Biden “predator” quote and then did not press Biden much when he simply stonewalled.
When Wallace, learning and forgetting nothing, turned to Trump on race, he dug up his own old 2016 debate question. And again, Wallace deliberately edited the Charlottesville quote by truncating Trump’s explicit condemnation of white supremacists and Klansmen. Wallace, for the nth time, was trying to force Trump to confess that he condemns white supremacists, in always a new way different from the various times Trump had done so in the past – reminding us that Wallace’s aim was not to find the answer but to continue to raise the question.
One might suggest Wallace was going the full “when did you stop beating your wife” routine – except our corrupt media had already ruined that old trope, by actually previously suggesting in June 2018 that the first lady may have been tardy in returning to work after an operation, in order to hide bruises from her abusive presidential husband.
When Wallace turned on Trump on the matter of honoring the verdict of the election, he honed in again on Trump’s past worries and statements about voter fraud and irregularities endangering the sanctity of the voter.
Fine. But the obvious parallel question to Biden was to ask what he was doing in the Oval Office when, in January 2017, the Obama Administration plotted to take out the national security advisor designate? If Wallace was worried about honoring the protocols of elections and transfer of power, then surely he might have asked Biden why, on his vice-presidential watch, were the FBI, Justice Department, and CIA weaponized and used to spread the fraudulent Steele dossier (paid for by Hillary Clinton and now known to have been mostly fantasies, cooked up by the huckster Steele drawing on a Russian operative working at the liberal Brookings Institution), to destroy a campaign, a transition, and a president?
But if Romney chattered in crosstalk as Crowley indulged Obama, Trump, as his way, thundered at Wallace’s similar indulgence of Biden. A miffed Romney went out quietly, an enraged Trump roared and stayed put.
The other day at a press conference, another Fox reporter, White House correspondent John Roberts, let loose with yet another demand that Trump condemn white supremacy – the domestic twin to the monotonous Russian collusion hoax questioning.
Roberts insisted that Trump provide a “definitive and unambiguous” denunciation for the thousandth time, as if observers were ignorant that continually asking the same question after receiving answers deemed unwelcome is not about discovering the truth, but virtue-signaling the smearing, as in, “Will you finally assert that you are not now and never have been a Communist?”
The more Trump hammers Putin – more sanctions, deadly weapons sent to Ukraine, Russian mercenaries killed in Syria, beefed-up NATO and Pentagon budgets, cheap U.S. oil crashing Russia’s main source of revenue, damning the German-Russian pipeline, getting out of ossified missile treaties, and the more Trump is exonerated by the inspector general, congressional inquiries, and the Mueller report – the more he is accused of Putin collusion.
So too, the more Trump denies he is a white supremacist, and the more his economic agenda is geared to offering minorities economic empowerment, fair drug sentencing, inner-city charter schools and help for black colleges, the more virulent the supremacist questioning. The obvious psychological diagnosis is that those who once canonized Obama’s Russian reset or said nothing as Biden talked down to and insulted blacks, the more they project these pathologies onto Trump.
Roberts droned on like a North Korean reeducation camp inquisitor, rephrasing ad nauseam the same demand for a false confession. In answering, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnaney blew him out of the water. Unlike Roberts, she came equipped with all sorts of citations not just noting Trump’s prior denunciations of supremacists, but by doing so in such detail to reveal Roberts’ own obsessions.
Afterward, there were natural social media push backs against Roberts, and in response he melted down on live TV, snapping, “For all of you on Twitter who are hammering me for asking the question, I don’t care. Stop deflecting. Stop blaming the media. I’m tired of it.” Was that the news?
A crusading journalist grows tired of that tiny pushback? Roberts apparently is unable to endure a fraction of the bothersome questioning of motives that he so doggedly has imputed to others.
Roberts is a distinguished journalist. But he will now be mostly remembered for his press conference puerile petulance and later meltdown. His hysterias reflect only agendas, not a desire for truth. He likes hitting others but has a glass jaw. And he offers a reminder to us that the beltway gotcha media is narcissistic, adolescent, and incestuous. Who could trust such people to report the news dispassionately?
Media Medical Madness
When Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, the media went berserk with all sorts of unhinged themes: did not Trump deserve the infection due to his recklessness (as if the 210,000 dead or CNN’s Chris Cuomo earned by their recklessness their infections, too?) Would not the virus make Trump now eat crow? Would he step down? Would he bow out of the debate? Was the confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett over before it could even begin?
Amid that hysteria, what was Wallace’s post facto reaction to his moderator’s role at the debate?
He blamed Trump alone for the melee, never reexamined his own asymmetrical questioning, and seemed incapable of self-examination of his Crowley-like passive-aggressive performance.
Just hours after Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, a now-Dr. Wallace went on a tear, diagnosing about why and how Trump was infected – without any iota of information about the severity of the infection, its prognosis, or how exactly a number of officials, many at the Amy Coney Barrett open-air White House reception, seem likewise later to have become sickened, masks or no masks.
In animated tones (“Wear the damn mask!”) an increasingly flustered Wallace variously blamed, in unhinged Don Lemon-fashion, Trump’s infection on his own laxity in not always wearing a mask. He insinuated that the White House might not be forthcoming with accurate news. He castigated White House advisor Scott Atlas as incompetent on grounds he lacked a specialization in epidemiology.
In other words, with no information, no facts, and no expertise, Dr. Wallace was now judge, jury, and executioner pontificating about why the president was singularly culpable for his own medical fate—apparently unlike the similarly infected millions worldwide, and the thousands of local, state, and federal government officials who have been sickened, including many senators and over a dozen congressional representatives. Did they all meet their fates because, on occasion, they brought it on themselves by not wearing a mask? Or were they without masks because they saw Trump sometimes on TV without one?
When, after a poor public performance that has lasting consequences, a marquee journalist hits the airways to perform an encore performance of errors, to meltdown childishly, to replay his prior blunders in self-interested fashion, and to protest the unfairness of his self-created debacle, and by his continued obsessions proves that indeed his critics are correct that he is obsessed, then he has gone the full Crowley – with all that such a fate entails.
Whether these journalists know it or not, in the American mind they are already retired before they have even retired.
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Victor Davis Hanson reports for American Greatness.
Photo “Chris Wallace” by The Kremlin CC BY 4.0.