Friday, September 5, 2008

When news is the enemy

When vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin launched her famous attack on the right of news media to report bad news, she seemed to be reflecting the George W. Bush view of the first amendment. Her GOP convention speech in St. Paul was largely written by Matthew Scully, a former Bush speechwriter, according to the distinguished journalist Don Wycliff (who is not responsible for the conclusions I draw from it).

Her words reminded me of a previous Republican governor, Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland, who became Richard Nixon’s surprise vice president. Agnew is remembered for needling nattering nabobs of negativism in the news media.

While Agnew was governor of Maryland I read a news account of a press conference he had held in Annapolis, the state capital, and I disagreed with what the newspaper said that he said. I wrote a critical editorial in The Catholic Review, weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The next day my phone range. It was Agnew on the line. He said the statement attributed to him in the press, which had led to my editorial, was wrong. He invited me to breakfast the next morning to read the press conference transcript. It showed that his remarks were not accurately reporter, and I wrote a correction for my paper.

After he was elected vice president he called me again. Would I write his biographical sketch for publication in the Official Inaugural Program? My first thought that flashed through my head was of something attributed to Abraham Lincoln. When asked how it felt to be ridden out of town on a rail, he reportedly said that if it wasn’t for the honor of the thing, he’d just as soon walk. I did write it, and it was published over my signature, but it had been given a public relations tuneup and had little resemblance to what I wrote.

After he was in office I asked for a depth interview and was given one. This was in his office next to the White House. Then I returned to Honolulu to be managing editor of the morning newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser. Before long Agnew was in Honolulu, where his phone call inviting me to cocktails at the Kahala Hilton caused some chuckles in the newsroom. I wasn’t there. Whoever took the message wasn’t sure whether it was the vice president of the United States on the line, or, more likely, a prankster.

When Agnew was nominated I was in Europe. His name was no better known than Sarah Palin’s. Journalists there knew an American when they saw one in a press club, so they asked me about the unknown Agnew. The one thing I knew about him, I said, was that he was an honest man. After he was found guilty of tax evasion and resigned his office in October 1973, my European friends never again asked my opinion about anything.

Agnew’s job was to speak for what Nixon called the Silent Majority, white, conservative, middle-class voters.

Governor Palin is a more formidable anti-media crusader than Agnew was, because she has causes. Agnew had no cause beyond exploiting his role as a conservative. Palin shares biblical convictions with George W. Bush. Agnew never thought he was chosen by God.

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