GOP trying to shoot the messenger

By Jay Bookman

The McCain campaign and much of the Republican Party are outraged at media coverage of Sarah Palin. McCain strategist Steve Schmidt set the tone perfectly Wednesday, whining about a "faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee."

Well, cry me a river.

Let's take that claim apart, and let's start with this:

A relative handful of columnists and commentators and a larger number of bloggers have, indeed, wondered in public about Palin's decision to accept the nomination so soon after giving birth to a son with Down syndrome, a condition that requires a lot of attention, and when she has a 17-year-old unmarried pregnant daughter. How, they have asked, could Palin do right both by her family and her country?

To the McCain camp, such questions constitute a "vicious and scurrilous" media campaign to ruin a promising conservative candidate, using sexism to do it. Is that true?

Fortunately, we have a similar set of circumstances to compare against the Palin case.

In March of 2007, John Edwards decided to continue his presidential campaigning even after his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The reaction will sound familiar.

Rush Limbaugh said the Edwardses were turning their eyes to the campaign when they instead should turn their eyes to God. Katie Couric, in a 60 Minutes interview, accused Edwards of mining his wife's condition for sympathy votes.

"Even those who may be very empathetic to what you all are facing might question your ability to run the country at the same time you're dealing with a major health crisis in your family," Couric told Edwards.

And in Time magazine, columnist Jay Carney wrote that "surely many average Americans have to be wondering at what point the candidate will decide that his duties as husband and father to three children, including a 6- and 8-year-old, trump his duty to his country and the cause of winning the White House."

Edwards is a man; he is also a liberal. Yet, he faced the same questioning and second-guessing that Palin is now undergoing.

Why? Because human beings are drawn to human stories, and the media have an economic incentive to tell those stories, regardless of political bent.

The McCain camp's complaint about a media "feeding frenzy" focused on Palin is even more precious.

McCain chose to introduce a totally unknown player to the national scene at a critical point in the campaign, and he did so by portraying her as a gun-toting mother of five, riding out of the wilds of Alaska like a female John Wayne to clean up Washington.

And they claim to be shocked at the "feeding frenzy" they set off? In the first hours after the announcement, TV reporters had so little information about Palin that they were reduced to reading off Wikipedia for information. Of course, the media descended on Alaska to try to fill in the gaps as quickly as possible.

The story the McCain camp peddled was so appealing that Palin even drew coverage from Us magazine, People and National Enquirer, outlets that would never have wasted ink on a Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison or Sen. Tim Pawlenty. Their interest was human, not political.

The real reason Schmidt is angry is that the reporting has shown that so much of the original McCain narrative was untrue.

Palin was cast as a reformer who fought the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." But in fact, she ran for governor in 2006 as a champion of the pork-barrel bridge and "opposed" it only after it was clear the project was dead.

We were told that Palin abhors earmarks, the special congressional appropriations that Alaska politicians have used to bleed billions from the American taxpayer. But it turns out Palin fought to get earmarks both as mayor and as governor, hiring lobbyists and going to Washington herself to bring them home.

It's not the media's fault that the cinematic story envisioned by McCain and his staff has fallen apart on closer inspection. They just didn't do their homework, and they got caught.