Thursday, January 17, 2008

A few strolls down memory lane

Pop quiz for Jan. 17: What historic political event occurred on this date? First prize, a pat on the back. Second prize (to quote Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross), a set of steak knives. The answer is at the bottom of today's post.

Speaking of history, let us briefly pause to ponder the South Carolina Republican primary. The '08 contest will be staged on Saturday, and it's worth noting that the unusual dynamic of the current GOP race will likely deprive South Carolina of the chance to play its traditional role of party kingmaker.

Ever since 1980, the state has brought great clarity to the Republican race - by shoring up a shaky frontrunner and smoothing his path to the nomination (Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000); by blessing a guy who'd been beaten in Iowa (Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H. W. Bush in 1988), or embarrassed in New Hampshire (George H. W. Bush in 1992).

Note that every one of those South Carolina winners went on to win the GOP nomination. In each case, the state Republican establishment (comprised of defense hawks, religious conservatives, and fiscal conservatives) anointed the person who seemed most in sync with the grassroots, the big donors, and the dominant party zeitgeist. As I can testify from my numerous trips to palmetto country, South Carolinian Republicans basically respect hierarchy, and bow to the wishes of their senior political leaders; this was particularly true when Gov. Carroll Campbell was alive and running the state GOP machine, and when native-born uber-strategist Lee Atwater was alive and gutting the guys who wound up losing.

In fact, it was Atwater (Karl Rove's mentor) who put the primary on the map in the first place, contriving to position South Carolina right after Iowa and New Hampshire, to ensure that southern conservatives would have a major say in the party's choice of candidate.

But South Carolina clarity might prove elusive this time around. None of the candidates has mustered the requisite support for a breakthrough (despite the fact that John McCain seems have scored the kind of party establishment backing that he lacked in the 2000 primary), and prospective voters seem either disenchanted or simply indecisive about the slate. Polls have shown that roughly half the folks who are inclined to show up for the balloting have yet to make up their minds.

Mitt Romney is not fully contesting the state, preferring to wait for the top two finishers (apparently McCain and Mike Huckabee, the latter buoyed by the large pool of religious conservatives) to arrive in Florida for a potential four-way battle on Feb. 26 with Rudy Giuliani (who has already ceded South Carolina, after having ceded Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan). Indeed, Florida's presence on the calendar is another reason why South Carolina's clout seems diminished this time; in the old days, South Carolina was the gateway to a slew of Dixie primaries, with Florida way down on the calendar. Not so this time. Florida moved up to get more clout, and it has far more delegates than South Carolina.

But there's a good chance that South Carolina on Saturday will bring clarity in at least one respect - by sending a definitive message to Fred Thompson that he should stick to playing politicians in the movies.


The answer to the pop quiz: On this date 10 years ago, the Monica Lewinsky scandal went public. And the era of digital media dominance began.

Late in the evening of Saturday, Jan. 17, 1998, the Drudge Report posted this item: NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN BLOCKBUSTER REPORT: 23-YEAR OLD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT**World Exclusive**

The story wasn't totally correct - Newsweek had merely delayed publication, pending the need for more reporting - but the gist of the charge was right. Few Americans probably saw that item, but conservative commentator Bill Kristol mentioned it the next morning on an ABC News talkathon. Then the mainsteam newspapers geared up, and, by Wednesday morning, The Washington Post had its first big splash.

We all know how the scandal rocked Bill Clinton's world, and how the zeal of his Republican pursuers wound up turning off the public and costing the GOP seats in the House and Senate that fall. Less recognized is that the Jan. 17 Drudge item ultimately triggered a media revolution that continues today.

Ten years ago today, long before the advent of broadband, Internet news was not yet a mass phenomenon. Yet even by September of 1998, when special prosecutor Ken Starr released his report on Clinton's sins, the world had changed. Millions of Americans read the report online, without a filter from the established media. Newspapers were ultimately spurred to go heavily into the online business, to keep pace with the burgeoning demand for instantaneous information. Those pressures persist today, amid the ever-escalating tension between the desire to be first and the need to be accurate. And woe to any politician who transgresses as Clinton did, in this era of pitiless transparency.

I'll leave it to you to judge whether this is all to the good.