- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There was once a Broadway play — it was really a less-than-subtle campaign ad for Adlai Stevenson — called “The Best Man.” The plot? To sum it up, Our Hero decides to do the right thing and so loses the presidential nomination to an unscrupulous Richard Nixon type. The message? It’s better to be able to live with yourself than win a political race. How quaint.

Columnists and editorial writers and other assorted navel-gazers are always calling for a presidential candidate who would do the right thing, stay positive, refuse to be dragged down the muddy road by his hot-shot advisers even while an opponent is plastering him with dung. So finally the press gets such a candidate.

And what do we do? We laugh at him.

It happened on the road not to Damascus but to Des Moines. A presidential candidate named Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher from Arkansas whom the sophisticates in the trade long ago tagged as some kind of hick, was about to unleash a negative ad against a sleek opponent from the Northeast.

So the former pudgy governor, and current Next Man from Hope, stepped out in front of a pack of salivating campaign correspondents to describe his pain over the last few weeks. His record, he said, had been distorted. Mitt Romney was behind it. And he planned to hit back.

Ho boy. Papers in Arkansas that morning reported Mike Huckabee was doing some serious praying in preparation for what he planned to do to his opponent. As if he were seeking divine dispensation for the heckuva hatchet job he was about to do on a fellow Republican. It was like asking for forgiveness in advance. Not very pretty.

But when Mike Huckabee finally took the pulpit — I mean rostrum — dawgone if he didn’t say his conscience had just kicked in, and he had told his surprised staff a few minutes before that, no, he wouldn’t go negative even if that’s what the conventional wisdom called for. Mike Huckabee announced he had just ordered the hard-hitting commercial pulled.

That’s when he made his big mistake. Just to prove he really had a negative ad in the can and wasn’t trying to pull a fast one, he announced that… he’d go ahead and show the clip anyway. Right then and there. The press just about laughed him out of the room.

The press types’ reaction to the Reverend’s announcement was just brutal, merciless, and it seemed to go on forever. The Washington Post had a video of the press conference on its Web site. It was painful to watch. You could tell by Brother Huckabee’s fallen face that the guy had been utterly serious. But the laughs kept coming. He looked like he had just been hit in the face with a cold, wet towel.

When there was a momentary pause in the derision, Mike Huckabee was asked what exactly he thought he was doing. Was he trying to go negative without going negative? Show his ad and get credit for pulling it, too?

Sure, it was a mistake to show the press the commercial. Someone in the Huck’s campaign (Ed Rollins, where were you?) should have seen this one coming. But none of them did. So much for high-paid help.

Mike Huckabee made a mistake, all right, but it was made out of naivete — not political cunning.

You know who really looked shameful at that press conference? The press itself, or at least the bunch who cover presidential campaigns, a k a the national press or Them Bastards, depending on whether you’re in polite society at the moment.

Listening to that seemingly endless laughter, one can understand how the press gets a reputation for being a hopelessly cynical bunch.

What did H.L. Mencken call us? The most depressing jackasses around. He was right. If Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith ever went to Washington again, we “ladies and gentlemen of the press” would probably laugh him right back to Des Moines or Peoria or wherever the poor sap came from.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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