Something new and more than a little bizarre is busy being born in California. Call it post-journalism politics.
Billionaire Meg Whitman has been spending feverishly for months on an advertising blitz, trying first to purchase the Republican nomination for governor and, ultimately, the governorship itself. After a number of terrible performances in press conferences and interviews with knowledgeable reporters, the former national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign and her high-priced handlers have decided to drop the pretense of normal campaign engagement, dispensing entirely with press conferences.
Billionaire Meg Whitman's bizarre press conference that wasn't, Tuesday in Oakland. The massively self-funding candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of California laughs oddly when asked to answer questions.
First, in a truly bizarre episode, the career corporate marketing executive called reporters to an event in Oakland on Tuesday and then proceeded to stiff them entirely.
On Wednesday night, she and her handlers staged, and I do mean staged, a "town hall meeting" in Orange County featuring pre-selected questioners and multiple takes of Whitman responding to their pre-fab questions, all for what turns out in reality to be a 30-minute TV infomercial.
Then on late Thursday afternoon, with criticism mounting over these episodes, the Whitman camp announced that she will not hold a press conference at this weekend's California Republican Party convention in Santa Clara.
So I called Whitman press secretary Sarah Pompei late yesterday afternoon on her mobile phone to find out the reasoning behind this unusual move.
"We didn't think we needed anything formal," Pompei told me. "Meg's going to be around. There will be plenty of opportunities to talk with her."
There certainly have not been.
So, really, why not have a press conference?
Meg Whitman's practice of evading unscripted questioning from the press is laid out in this video from the campaign of her Republican opponent, super-rich state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. In contrast to Whitman, Poizner regularly takes questions from reporters.
Aside from the fact that every one of Whitman's press conferences -- two last year, an aborted press availability last month, and the press conference that wasn't on Tuesday in Oakland -- have been unmitigated disasters.
A moving target is harder to hit.
In a press conference, the politician faces the press and takes questions in full view of everyone there. When the politician stumbles on substance, as Whitman has repeatedly, there is plenty of room and opportunity for follow-up, with no escape for the politician.
In contrast, a politician on the move, as Whitman will be this weekend, will not be attended by the entire press corps wherever she goes. She will be able to play hide and seek.
More to the point, she will be able to pick and choose what she will and won't answer, and who she will and will not allow to ask her questions. Away from the view of the press corps.
In a sense, you can hardly blame Whitman; she held press conferences at both state Republican conventions last year, and both were flaming disasters for her. In the first press conference, she couldn't discuss her budget ideas with any credibility. But she did succeed in coming across as high-handed and tone deaf. In the second, she couldn't explain her pattern of barely voting, or even when she did vote.
Despite more than two years of preparation -- Whitman hired big money political consultants to begin tutoring her in 2007 -- she isn't any good at this. Whitman still fails to demonstrate any depth of understanding beneath a few surface buzzwords about jobs, education, and governmental efficiency, which she and her handlers claim constitutes a "plan."
In her introductory TV ad, Whitman claimed to have lived in California for 30 years. That's nowhere near being true. As I pointed out, when she became national co-chair of the Republican presidential campaign in 2008, she told veteran broadcast journalist Lesley Stahl that she'd lived here for less than 20 years.
Meg Whitman, whose involvement in public affairs has been so slight that she's barely voted, sang the praises of controversial environmental advocate Van Jones, who she met on a cruise ship, last May. This year she wants to roll back California's landmark climate change program.
However, although she and her camp convinced the state party's board of directors not to issue formal invitations for debates at the convention -- something her rival, super-rich state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner -- very much wanted (she'll debate before a private fat cats group next week in Orange County), her insistence on running around yet another hurdle on the race course is not exactly a clever move, no matter what she may think.
That's because she blew it, big time, on Tuesday at a Union Pacific facility in Oakland when she stiffed a local press corps invited by the campaign to interact with her.
And because she had another significant problem Wednesday night with a "town hall meeting" in Orange County.
Billionaire Meg Whitman's faux town hall meeting, shown in video footage surreptitiously obtained by Republican rival Steve Poizner's campaign.
Reports are that the event was essentially a sham, a staged backdrop for the filming of Whitman TV ad footage. Audience members were selected in advance to pose questions to Whitman.
When Whitman's answers weren't up to snuff -- imagine that! -- she got additional takes at the supposed town hall meeting.
In another blow to the Whitman camp's credibility, a member of the Democratic Governors Association's California Accountablity Project, who was ticketed for the event, was forcibly ejected by security and then threatened with arrest at the hands of the Santa Ana Police Department. The Whitman camp denied calling the cops. But building security says they didn't make the call.
Now, in a way, I actually like these Whitman episodes. That's because she has -- in rapid-fire succession -- demonstrated herself to be exactly what I wrote in my Tuesday morning piece here on the Huffington Post. No sooner do I delineate the ways in which Whitman is a very inferior version of Arnold 1.0 then she goes and pulls this series of stunts.
Whitman, as I mentioned, has held only two press conferences, both disasters. Footage is still floating around the blogosphere. (I have hours of footage of her that I haven't gotten around to releasing.) She had a press availability last month, which consisted of a non-answer to one (1) very easy question, pre-approved by her staff, before fleeing the scene. On Tuesday, she again agreed to take a few questions at an event in Oakland. And this time reneged entirely.
Shocking. Positively shocking.
The Whitman campaign also reneged on allowing reporters to view her tour of a generic Union Pacific site.
Billionaire Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman dashed away from reporters last month after giving a non-answer to the one question allowed in her only press availability in months. That question had been cleared in advance with Whitman's staff.
It's all quite nonsensical. If you like, you can click through and watch Whitman press secretary Sarah Pompei engage in wild dissembling about the situation, claiming that Whitman hadn't really agreed to take any questions and the hosts wouldn't allow it anyway and in any event Whitman was far too busy to take questions. Even though the would-be governor lingered at the scene, doing nothing much, waiting to do an interview with a conservative columnist, as you can see if you are so inclined. And the hosts had no problem with the press touring the facility. And Whitman had agreed to a press availability. It's all highly predictable at this point.
It should be perfectly obvious at this point that Pompei is a flak catcher, nothing more. I had drinks with her last fall, teasing her about the missing Whitman helicopter. She's a very nice young woman, a very familiar type in PR. She doesn't really know much, which is actually fine as she isn't supposed to know much. She is supposed to put an agreeable face on the fast shuffle, as well as provide the obligatory plug-in quote in a story.
She's since been complemented, as it were, by the hiring of Whitman communications director Tucker Bounds. He was the Baghdad Bob of the McCain campaign, the guy rolled out to say preposterous, nasty things about Obama and get smacked around. There's a whole piece in that, and there is ample video footage available to support that. (His smackdown by CNN's Campbell Brown is a classic.)
Bounds and Pompei are there to say what Whitman's chief strategist Mike Murphy tells them to say. They're pawns on a game board, employed by Murphy to try to avoid having his own credibility tarnished.
In that regard, he hopes that California's much diminished press corps either doesn't know or doesn't remember some very recent history. After performing well as part of an ensemble in Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide election as governor in the famous 2003 recall election, the glib consultant/lobbyist persuaded the action movie superstar to make him his chief strategist. That proved to be a disaster. Murphy's counsel nearly destroyed Schwarzenegger, and was embarrassing to boot, as Murphy shamelessly shilled his connection to Schwarzenegger to every potential corporate client. Schwarzenegger fired Murphy two years later.
Whitman clearly prefers the simulacra of interaction in a political Potemkin village of her own purchasing.
What is nearly as revealing as this week's moves is her most recent biographical TV ad. In it, a series of unnamed people sing her praises as a visionary business leader. Which happens to be Whitman's image of herself.
But it turns out that every one of these purported validators of her excellence as a CEO was on her payroll. And one still is.
Meg Whitman's leadership ad. In reality, all of her validators, none of whom are identified, have been on her payroll, and one of them still is.
In very stark contrast to Whitman and her bloated, big budget would-be blockbuster of a campaign, Jerry Brown is pursuing what might be described as a cinema verite campaign.
The California attorney general, a two-term former governor and two-time runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination who recently served two terms as the mayor of Oakland, one of the toughest cities in America, rolls sans entourage, engaging in free-wheeling dialogues with voters. Brown did more in-depth, unstructured interviews with journalists when he finally formally announced his candidacy last week -- he effectively won the Democratic nomination by clearing the field last year -- than Whitman is likely to do in her entire life.
Of course, if Whitman does manage to win, that could presage an era of Russian oligarch-style politics in America, in which a vigorous and informed press is dispensed with entirely.
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