Long knives, short tempers — and ridiculous theories about the election

Gen. Michael Flynn. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

On Monday, The New York Times published the results of a massive investigation into Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the election.

Today comes the tragicomic conclusion: a report by Axios on an insane meeting that took place at the White House on Dec. 18 at which the conspiracy-addled lawyer Sidney Powell tried to get herself named a special counsel to investigate Dominion voting machines while Gen. Michael Flynn (he of the two guilty pleas) and the White House staff screamed profanities at each other.

The reporters are Jonathan Swan, who conducted a hard-hitting interview of Trump last year, and Zachary Basu. The whole thing is so crazy that it’s hard to pick any one excerpt, but this will do. Below, Byrne is Patrick Byrne, the chief executive of Overstock.com and a Trump backer. Herschmann is Eric Herschmann, a White House senior adviser. Patrick Cipollone was the White House counsel. Swain and Basu write:

At one point, with Flynn shouting, Byrne raised his hand to talk. He stood up and turned around to face Herschmann. “You’re a quitter,” he said. “You’ve been interfering with everything. You’ve been cutting us off.”

“Do you even know who the fuck I am, you idiot?” Herschmann snapped back.

“Yeah, you’re Patrick Cipollone,” Byrne said.

“Wrong! Wrong, you idiot!”

Herschmann and others who were at least partly tethered to reality were afraid that Trump was going to go along with Powell and unleash her upon state and local election officials. As Swain and Basu write, “Trump expressed skepticism at various points about Powell’s theories, but he said, ‘At least she’s out there fighting.'”

In the end, though, Trump was somehow coaxed into listening to reason. How bad was it? Toward the end, we see that Rudy Giuliani actually had a calming effect on the situation, which is surely the first time anyone has said that about him in many years.

Correction: I originally misspelled Jonathan Swan’s name.

The pros and cons of charging Trump with incitement to violence

Donald Trump in 2016. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) America, is concerned that the second impeachment of Donald Trump could be used to weaken the legal standard for convicting someone of incitement to violence. I differ with her New York Times op-ed, and in fact I think criminal charges could be brought against Trump without doing any harm to the First Amendment.

Nossel, a lawyer, rightly differentiates between the impeachment proceedings, which are based on a layperson’s definition of incitement, and the legal definition. By any reasonable measure, Trump whipped a mob into a frenzy on Jan. 6 and pointed it in the direction of Capitol Hill, a reckless action that led to five deaths, including that of a police officer.

The legal standard, as Nossel explains, is much more narrow, based on the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which a Ku Klux Klan leader, Clarence Brandenburg, was convicted of incitement under Ohio state law after telling those attending a rally that they should take “revengeance” upon Black and Jews. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, ruling that Brandenburg’s threat wasn’t imminent or specific enough.

The Brandenburg decision was the culmination of a series of court rulings going back to Schenck v. United States (1919), in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. offered his famous metaphor that the law does not protect falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. The standard the court arrived at was that speech could be banned if it presented a “clear and present danger.”

The Schenck decision is often reviled as repressive today, but it was a step forward at the time. For the next 40 years, the court sought to refine and narrow what was meant by a clear and present danger, finally arriving the Brandenburg standard. As Nossel explains, the legal definition of incitement is based on the idea that the language in question was intended to cause violence; that the threat of violence must be imminent; and that the language must be likely to result in violence.

I read the transcript of Trump’s remarks, and it seems to me that they could support an incitement conviction. First of all, there is the context. Trump lies, at great length and in fine detail, about the outcome of the election. You’ve heard it all before, but right near the beginning he says this:

All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats, which is what they’re doing and stolen by the fake news media. That’s what they’ve done and what they’re doing. We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.

Now you might say Trump actually believes this. But over the weekend it was reported that Trump, in the White House, has railed about his defeat with associates. According to Axios, he has gone so far as to say, “Can you believe I lost to that fucking guy? That fucking corpse?” So he knows. He’s lying. And though that lie doesn’t amount to incitement, it prepares the crowd for what follows.

The most incendiary language comes at about the 18-minute mark:

After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down. We’re going to walk down any one you want, but I think right here. We’re going walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated.

Trump immediately follows up with what could be considered exculpatory language: “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” But we’ve heard him do this many times over the years. If you’re on the jury, would you let him off the hook because, in course of an hour-long speech aimed at stirring up a frenzy, he used the word “peacefully” — once?

Later in his speech, he says, “We got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world, we got to get rid of them. We got to get rid of them.” Again, maybe there’s just enough ambiguity here — that sentence is preceded by “a year from now, you’re going to start working on Congress.” That sounds like he could be referring to primary challenges. But Cheney and other Republicans who voted for impeachment are receiving death threats, The Daily Beast reports, and it’s hard to make the case that Trump’s words didn’t have more than a little something to do with it.

I think we also need to keep in mind that Trump took part in a rally at which his son Donald Trump Jr. and one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, spoke even more recklessly than he did. Giuliani spoke of a “trial by combat,” which he ludicrously claimed later was a reference to “Game of Thrones.” Trump Jr., among other things, said:

It [the gathering on the National Mall] should be a message to all the Republicans who have not been willing to actually fight, the people who did nothing to stop the steal. This gathering should send a message to them: This isn’t their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

Again, Junior could, at least in theory, have been referring to primary challenges. But he was speaking to an angry mob, not a gathering of precinct captains. We have to look at what he had to know the effect of his words would be. There’s no reason we have to interpret what he said in a light most favorable to him.

In other words, it’s possible that Giuliani and Trump Jr. could be in legal jeopardy. And it’s also possible that a jury could use what they said to clarify the president’s own statements.

Would it be wise to prosecute Trump for incitement once he’s out of office? Probably not. This is a close enough call that there’s a good chance he’d be acquitted, which would make the case against him look like a politically motivated attack by his enemies. The best route, it seems, is to hope that the Senate convicts him by the necessary two-thirds vote followed by banning him from holding office in the future, which only requires a majority.

In any case, a possible incitement prosecution is likely to be the least of Trump’s concerns once the clock hits 12:01 p.m. on Wednesday. He faces financial ruin and endless legal problems, both civil and criminal. If he pardons himself, that will be challenged in court. If he prevails, he still faces trouble in a number states, which are not bound by a federal pardon.

But an incitement prosecution is an interesting thought exercise. It could well be that Trump went further than Clarence Brandenburg, sheets and all, in unleashing mob violence. That’s quite a distinction.

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Trump’s five years of incitement finally reach their logical end point

I half-expected to wake up this morning hearing martial music on the radio and an announcement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that President Pence would be speaking soon.

Instead, Donald Trump is still president. In the early-morning hours, he finally conceded the race and promised an orderly transition of power to Joe Biden, though he refused to abandon his false assertion that he actually won the election — a toxic lie that led directly to Wednesday’s insurrection.

What led Trump to back down? We can be pretty sure what it wasn’t. Even the rioting and the fatal shooting of a Trump supporter in the Capitol weren’t enough to stop him from releasing an incendiary video in which his call for calm was completely overshadowed by his words of support for the insurrectionists. It was so horrifying that Twitter and Facebook both took it down.

It seems more likely that Trump’s change in tactics came as the result of what The Washington Post described as serious talk among “some senior administration officials” to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove him from office before his term expires on Jan. 20. Something like that may have begun Wednesday evening, when Vice President Pence but not Trump was consulted on whether the National Guard should be called out — a clear violation of the chain of command, but understandable under the circumstances.

Trump should be removed anyway. As we saw Wednesday, he is far too dangerous to leave in power even for another day. “The president needs to be held accountable — through impeachment proceedings or criminal prosecution — and the same goes for his supporters who carried out the violence,” The New York Times editorialized. The Post called for Trump’s removal under the 25th Amendment, arguing: “The president is unfit to remain in office for the next 14 days. Every second he retains the vast powers of the presidency is a threat to public order and national security.”

Naturally, the radical Republicans who continue to support Trump are pointing their fingers at anyone but themselves. Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Brit Hume and others have tried to blame the violence on left-wing infiltrators from antifa groups, an absurd and offensive proposition for which there is zero evidence. As Molly Ball of Time magazine put it, “The amazing thing about ‘it might have been antifa’ is that Trump literally summoned these people to DC, spoke at their event, offered to walk them over to the Capitol and then praised them afterward.”

One of the more interesting questions today is whether Trump might face criminal charges for inciting violence, as the Times editorial suggests. Of course, Trump has been inciting his followers for months — for years, even. But the key to criminal charges would be the speech he delivered to the mob shortly before it began its rampage through the Capitol.

According to the Times’ account of his speech, he did not explicitly call for violence, although he indulged in incendiary rhetoric such as “you will never take back our country with weakness.” On the other hand, Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat” and Donald Trump Jr. — speaking of Republican members of Congress who were not supporting the effort to overturn the election — said, “We’re coming for you.”

An investigation might well conclude that they had crossed the line, and of course it was the president himself who was aiding and abetting such calls. “There’s no question the president formed the mob,” the Times quoted U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as telling Fox News. “The president incited the mob. The president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”

There’s so much more that we need to know. I’ve heard a lot of criticism that the police essentially enabled the violent Trumpers just months after a massive show of force put down Black Lives Matter rallies. From what I’ve seen, the problem Wednesday is that the police were vastly outnumbered. An overly aggressive response in such a situation could have led to an even greater disaster. But why were they outnumbered? Why was the planning for Wednesday so poor given that we all knew a Trumper mob was descending upon the city?

Needless to say, we also need to know more about Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran and Trump supporter who was fatally shot inside the Capitol, reportedly by a Capitol Police officer. Three others also died after experiencing “medical emergencies, according to reports.

Wednesday was a day that will live in infamy as five years of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric reached its logical end point. “What happened at the U.S. Capitol today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

What we need, I suspect, is a new conservative party untainted by Trumpism and led by people of conscience like Romney. The notion seemed absurd even a few days ago. But just as the Republicans supplanted the Whigs in the 1840s and ’50s, it may be time for the Republicans to be supplanted by a party committed to principle and democracy.

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Anatomy of a smear: How Rudy Giuliani’s latest Biden ‘drug deal’ (almost) went mainstream

Rudy Giuliani. Photo (cc) 2019 by Palácio do Planalto.

Previously published at GBH News.

It was last Friday at precisely 9:24 p.m. that the New York Post’s unverified and possibly false story linking Joe Biden to his son Hunter’s unseemly dealings in Ukraine crossed the line from conspiracy theory to fodder for mainstream discourse.

The occasion was a tweet by CBS News reporter Bo Erickson, who announced to his 28,500 followers that he’d asked the former vice president about it — and who, in turn, was none too pleased.

“He called it a ‘smear campaign’ and then went after me,” Erickson wrote, quoting Biden as saying: “I know you’d ask it. I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.”

Biden does indeed appear angry in the accompanying video. And why shouldn’t he? In fewer than three days, an unsupported allegation based on emails of dubious provenance had slithered up the media food chain from Rupert Murdoch’s sleazy scandal sheet to what we once called the Tiffany Network. Now the story was “Biden denies,” and if — as appears more than possible — it was the work of disinformation agents, then they must have taken great satisfaction in a job well done.

The details of the story hardly matter. Even if the emails are genuine, all they show is that Joe Biden may have met with an official from Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that paid Hunter Biden to sit on its board. Biden, as vice president, pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor who was investigating Burisma. But as this piece by PolitiFact explains, it has long since been established that the prosecutor himself was corrupt, and that Joe Biden was acting on behalf of the U.S. government and the Western alliance.

What does matter is that the Post story has all the earmarks of disinformation from the campaign of President Donald Trump, from Russian interests or from both.

Consider that the two sources were former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal lawyers. One of Bannon’s best-known maxims is that “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s**t.” Because, inevitably, the media just can’t resist reporting on it, even it’s to debunk it or, in the case of Erickson, to get the victim to say something about it.

Moreover, The Washington Post reported last week that U.S. intelligence agents had warned months ago that Giuliani was “the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence,” and that he was passing along Russian disinformation to the president as part of his so-called investigation into the Bidens’ connections with Ukraine. Trump’s reported response: “That’s Rudy.”

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that it was a straight line from the New York Post to CBS News. There have been more than a few zigzags along the way.

For instance, there is the matter of why Giuliani’s latest “drug deal,” to recycle John Bolton’s apt phrase, found its way into the Post rather than a more respectable sector of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. If the story had been broken by The Wall Street Journal, for instance, we’d all be taking it seriously.

As it turns out, what Giuliani was peddling was too rancid even for Fox News, yet another Murdoch property. According to Mediaite, the news department at Fox rejected Rudy’s pitch because the veracity of the emails — allegedly found on a laptop that Hunter Biden had left at a Delaware repair shop — couldn’t be verified.

Crisis averted? Hardly. That’s not how the media food chain works. Because after the story appeared in the Post, Fox News hosts immediately began talking it up. According to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, the story was discussed more than 100 times between Wednesday and Friday — not just on the opinion shows, but on the news side as well, even though the operation’s actual journalists had taken a pass on it.

And even within the Post, the story proved toxic. The New York Times reported that there were such misgivings in the Post’s newsroom that those involved in writing it refused to have their bylines put on it. In the end, the bylines of two women who may not have had much to do with it were placed atop the story. One, according to the Times’ sources, had “little to do with the reporting and writing of the article” and “learned that her byline was on the story only after it was published.”

The smear led to the usual handwringing at Facebook and Twitter as well. As The Guardian reported, both platforms took steps to limit the reach and distribution of the story on the grounds that the emails had not been verified. And that, in turn, led to the usual complaints from Republicans that the two services were censoring news that had a rightward slant. “Twitter’s censorship of this story is quite hypocritical,” wrote Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, “given its willingness to allow users to share less-well-sourced reporting critical of other candidates.”

As I wrote recently, the media for the most part have been less gullible in covering the presidential campaign than they were four years ago, when Hillary Clinton’s emails were conflated into a massive scandal despite all evidence to the contrary. This time around, for instance, the press treated unproven claims by Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer who charged that Biden sexually assaulted her a generation ago, with the skepticism they deserved.

But Giuliani, in particular, has refused to let go of the Ukraine story. And it’s got to be damaging to Biden on at least some level for it to resurface just a few weeks before the final day of voting. You can be sure it will come up at this Thursday’s debate, and it is exactly the kind of complicated tale that can’t be refuted with a soundbite. The challenge for Biden will be explaining it in simple terms while Trump is interrupting him and yelling at him, regardless of whether his mic has been cut.

A few minutes after Bo Erickson tweeted out Biden’s response, his CBS News colleague Paula Reid came to his defense. “Biden adopts Trump playbook” by “attacking” Erickson, she tweeted, adding: “Fine to attack the story, but why personally insult Bo?”

The “Trump playbook”? Seriously? Biden’s response was sharp and a little rude, but hardly out of line given that Erickson was giving mainstream credibility to an unverified smear. Fortunately for Biden, the media for the most part appear not to be taking it seriously.

But the question of how to handle such unproven and unprovable allegations remains unanswered. Ignore them, and you’ll be accused of bias — and the story will get out there anyway. Debunk them, and you’re giving them wider play. Ask the target about them, and you run the risk of #bothsides-ism.

It’s a miserable dilemma. But that’s the state of media and politics in 2020.

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Biden’s ‘demand’ that Giuliani be silenced is an affront to the First Amendment

Joe Biden could be the next president. And he has issued a “demand” (via his campaign) that the networks stop booking Rudy Giuliani, which they have a First Amendment right to do.

Yes, Giuliani is lying about the Bidens. But Biden, who may soon have the power to appoint FCC commissioners, could have “urged” or “requested” that the networks stop giving Giuliani a platform. “Demand” suggests consequences. Does Biden want to join Trump in eroding constitutional norms?

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Giuliani’s ‘truth isn’t truth’ gaffe was a howler. But it was also taken out of context.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There is nothing reporters and pundits love more than a mind-boggling gaffe. Rudy Giuliani achieved what you might call Gaffe Apotheosis on Sunday when he lectured Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth.”So let’s savor it, make memes out of it (Todd told us we should!), and throw it in the faces of President Trump’s allies whenever they repeat the falsehoods that spew forth from this administration. But let’s not pretend we don’t understand the perfectly reasonable point that Giuliani was trying to make.

As is the case with many political gaffes, the full effect of Giuliani’s howler depends on taking it out of context. The former New York mayor, now a member of Trump’s legal team, was asked by “Meet the Press” host Todd why the president won’t simply sit down and answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller.

“I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury,” Giuliani responded. “And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”

Todd: “Truth is truth.”

Giuliani: “No, it isn’t. Truth isn’t truth.”

Giuliani knew instantly that he had stepped in a big, steaming pile, and he tried ineffectively to push back. The damage was done. But think about what Giuliani was saying: If Trump answers questions under oath, he’ll say things that contradict what others have said under oath. And that could set up Trump for a perjury charge. Giuliani expanded on that point a short time later, arguing that if Mueller had to choose between Trump’s sworn statements and those of former FBI director James Comey, Mueller would choose Comey, whom Giuliani identified — or, should I say, derided — as “one of his best friends.”

Now, set aside our knowledge that Trump has spoken falsely more than 4,000 times since he became president, and that Giuliani has a credibility problem of his own. Giuliani was actually making sense in saying that Mueller would have to choose between competing versions of the truth, and that he might be disinclined to believe Trump. But the inartful (OK, idiotic) way he expressed himself is all we’ll remember. This is mostly Giuliani’s fault, but it’s partly the media’s as well. Because this is what we love.

Want some more examples? Before Sunday, perhaps the most memorable gaffe by a Trump official was uttered by Kellyanne Conway, who used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview with the very same Chuck Todd. Appearing on Jan. 22, 2017, Conway sought to explain White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s obviously false claim that Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd was the largest in history. Conway didn’t push back as hard as Giuliani did when challenged by Todd. But, later in the interview, she said Spicer was simply relying on different sources of information.

“I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or the other,” she said. “There’s no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want.” Yes, I understand that the small size of Trump’s crowd is factually beyond dispute. But Conway’s spin was reasonable, if wrong. She was not invoking Orwell.

On a more serious level, Hillary Clinton has been castigated for years over a disingenuous reading of her Benghazi testimony before a Senate hearing in 2013. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans?” Clinton said. “What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?” How callous! But as PolitiFact observed in analyzing Clinton’s testimony, she continued:

It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information…. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

The journalist Michael Kinsley once memorably defined a gaffe as an inadvertent statement of the truth. Sometimes, though, it’s a deliberate statement that you think won’t become public. That was the case in 2008, when Barack Obama told a group of his supporters what he thought of Clinton-leaning voters in poorer industrial cities: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Four years later, Mitt Romney said at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the electorate would vote for Obama because they “are dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims,” and “pay no income tax.” Both Obama and Romney spoke as they did because there were no reporters present, but their damaging remarks became public anyway.

For politicians and public figures, the solution to the gaffe challenge is obvious: Don’t step on your message with language that will seem clumsy, dumb, or insensitive if it’s taken out of context, as happened with Giuliani, Conway, and Clinton. And don’t speak your mind on the assumption that the media aren’t listening, as was the case with Obama and Romney. These things have a way of becoming public knowledge.

But there are lessons for the media, too. No one imagines that they should stop reporting gaffes, especially when they play out on live television. But even as Giuliani was making a mess of his interview, he was also saying something newsworthy: that Trump shouldn’t speak to Mueller for fear that he’ll be charged with perjury even if he speaks truthfully. You can agree, you can disagree, or you can denounce Giuliani’s statement as an outrageous attack on the rule of law. What the media shouldn’t do is overlook it in favor of cheap — if well-deserved — mockery.

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Sarah Palin’s debut

She projected strength but not authority. She made a reasonably good case for herself, but grossly exaggerated her reformist credentials on the “Bridge to Nowhere.” She was charming and well-spoken. Given that no one knows who she is, I suppose she had to go on about her family longer than most politicians would.

Surely Palin had a more difficult task than Joe Biden, who delivered a “B” speech last week. Biden’s been around forever, so no single speech was going to make or break him. Palin, too, turned in a “B” performance, or maybe a “B-plus,” under much more challenging circumstances.

I think Palin established herself as potentially an effective surrogate for John McCain, but she’s got a ways to go before she establishes herself as a credible potential vice president. Is she now going to do the Sunday shows? Hold a press conference? Given the McCain campaign’s blame-the-media strategy, maybe they’ve decided to skip all that.

The speech of the week so far, by the way, was Rudy Giuliani’s.

A huge step forward for McCain

Democratic leaders must be unhappy tonight. By designating John McCain, finally, as the frontrunner, Florida Republicans have given a huge boost to the strongest candidate who could be nominated in terms of appealing to independents and conservative Democrats. McCain’s hardcore support for the war in Iraq may be poison in November. But he’s far more likely to expand his vote beyond the Republican base than Mitt Romney.

At 71, McCain is an old-fashioned guy. He’s wearing a hideous tie (no, not the one in the photo), and he began his speech by talking to the folks in the room, not the television cameras — reminiscing about his naval training in Pensacola, introducing Gov. Charlie Crist, Sen. Mel Martinez and several members of Congress. He also hailed Rudy Giuliani, who’s likely to endorse him this week. That will be huge, as it will unite moderate Republicans around one candidate.

Now he’s giving his stump speech, aimed at solidifying his shaky support among conservatives. “I am as proud today to be a Republican conservative as I was then,” he said, repeating his frequent line of being a “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.” Essentially it’s a list of conservative nostrums aimed at trying to unite his party, complete with a whack at judges, always popular with the red-meat crowd.

“We have a ways to go, but we’re getting close,” he said in closing. “And for that you have my profound thanks.”

Live-blogging note: When I don’t edit myself, I tend to write “huge” a lot, don’t I?

Photo (cc) by marcn. Some rights reserved.

Catching up with the 2008 campaign

Because I no longer make my living by covering media and politics full-time, I’ve been less engaged in the 2008 presidential campaign than in any I can remember. So when I got a chance to head north on Monday to catch a Rudy Giuliani event, I leapt. My editor at the Guardian, Richard Adams, provided me with a letter in case I needed to produce credentials. And we were off.

My traveling companion was Seth Gitell, an old friend who’s covering presidential politics for the New York Sun. Gitell is probably best known for his stint as Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s spokesman, but before that he covered politics for the Boston Phoenix. He and I covered the Republican and Democratic national conventions together for the Phoenix in 2000, probably the most fun I’ve ever had in the news business.

We arrived at Goss International in Durham, N.H., where Giuliani was scheduled to speak, ridiculously early. The only evidence that we’d come to the right place was a lone campaign worker who was planting Giuliani signs in the snow. So we headed over to a coffee house near the University of New Hampshire campus to kill some time.

When we got back, the second-floor function room, next to the company cafeteria, was beginning to fill with reporters. It was a decent-size media crowd — not exactly what you’d call a horde, but respectable, especially given the consensus that Giuliani, despite leading in the national polls for months, was starting to see it slip away.

The media were kept at a distance. Giuliani was scheduled to speak at 12:45 p.m., but he didn’t arrive until about 1:15. What appeared to be several hundred Goss employees had filled the room, leading to a quip or two about whether they’d be allowed to extend their lunch break so that Rudy wouldn’t be speaking to an empty room. There were also a few jokes among reporters about the irony of covering an event at a company that manufactures printing presses, not exactly a growth industry these days.

Finally, Giuliani walked out onto the stage, wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a red striped tie — no soft tones for the Mayor of America. He made a lame joke about ink from Goss presses rubbing off on his hands, and then — moving back and forth in front of a sign that said “Tested. Ready. Now.” — spoke for about five minutes. Giuliani offered some free-market boilerplate about taxes and government regulation and, of course, revisited his favorite theme, “the terrorists’ war against us.” After that, he took questions from the employees — certainly not from the press — for about a half-hour.

Giuliani cuts an impressive figure on stage. He has a knack for coming off as conversational and informal while still managing to speak in complete sentences. Compared to the perpetually stiff John Kerry or the perpetually tongue-tied George W. Bush, he comes off well indeed. The content of what he said, though, seemed tired even to me — and I was seeing him in person for the first time. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be one of the reporters traveling with Giuliani, like Brian Mooney of the Boston Globe, who wrote a blog item on the event but nothing for the print edition.

Illegal immigration? Give legal immigrants “tamper-proof photo ID” cards. Public education? A school choice plan that would “empower parents” and, in particular, “empower poor parents.” Health insurance? “We need a private competitive market with millions of people in it, then costs will come down.” Someone even asked him to tell everyone about what 9/11 was like, a pitch so fat that you might have thought the questioner was a plant.

“There’s no way I can describe how difficult it was to get through the day,” Giuliani began before describing, in some detail, how difficult it was to get through the day.

I don’t mean to be quite as dismissive as this sounds. Giuliani is a smart, serious candidate with proven leadership qualities and a whole lot of personal baggage. He’s as interesting a story as there is in this campaign. But these town-meeting-style gatherings, safe and innocuous, don’t exactly give people what they need to know before walking into the voting booth.

For reporters who were present, the Giuliani story of the day was very different from what the candidate was talking about in front of the Goss employees. From the beginning of the campaign, Giuliani has pursued an odd strategy of hoping to do just well enough to get by in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire while rolling to victory later, in big states like Florida, where voters are presumably more tolerant of a thrice-married moderate Republican. In pursuing this strategy, Giuliani has seemingly ignored the first rule of momentum: A lead in the national polls and in the big states tends to disappear overnight if you get creamed in Iowa and New Hampshire.

On Monday, the press was buzzing over news that Giuliani was cutting back on his advertising in New Hampshire. So a seeming throwaway line at the end of his talk — “I’ll be spending some of my Christmas holiday here in New Hampshire” — came across as at least somewhat significant. His New Hampshire campaign chairman, Wayne Semprini, reinforced that message afterwards, telling reporters, “Rudy Giuliani is not pulling out of New Hampshire.”

We milled around for a bit afterwards. Seth is a semi-regular on New England Cable News, and he did an interview with NECN’s Brad Puffer in which he said, “They [the Giuliani campaign] are still trying to have a foothold in New Hampshire and not abandon it. When you exclusively focus on a national campaign and don’t concentrate on Iowa and New Hampshire, then you may not get to have a national campaign.” (Seth’s piece for the Sun is here.)

David Saltonstall, a Massachusetts native and alumnus of the MetroWest Daily News who’s covering Giuliani for the New York Daily News, told me, “The news going into this news cycle is that Rudy’s withdrawing his ad dollars from New Hampshire.” Saltonstall saw Giuliani’s remarks as an attempt to have it both ways: “He’s walking kind of a tightrope with voters here, I think.”

All of this has precisely nothing to do with whether Giuliani would make a good president. Yet at this stage of the campaign, that’s what the media focus on — who’s up, who’s down, the polls, the fundraising. It’s not that the press never does substantive coverage (indeed, the Globe’s Mooney did a terrific profile of Giuliani in early November). It’s just that, late in the game, when ordinary voters finally start to tune in, the journalistic instinct is to cover the campaign as though it were a sporting event.

So let me indulge. Right now, on the Republican side, it looks as though Mitt Romney and John McCain have put themselves in the best position to win, assuming Mike Huckabee fades the way everyone thinks he will. Unless Giuliani can turn it around, he’ll be remembered as the winner of 2007 in an election that won’t be held until 2008. At least that’s what I wrote for the Guardian. (I gave Fred Thompson some props, too, so I may have been hallucinating at the time.)

Then again, who knows what will happen? It’s not as though anyone has actually voted yet.

Giuliani’s semi-retreat

My latest for the Guardian is on Rudy Giuliani’s semi-retreat in New Hampshire. I had a chance to cover a Giuliani appearance in Durham, N.H., yesterday. I’ve got more — including pictures — and will try to post something later today or tomorrow.