09/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sunday Watch 8-10-08: The Question Mark Over The Networks

(Originally published on, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review.)

On Meet the Press Sunday, David Gregory told his political round table:

The big question ... on the campaign trail is readiness to lead, to handle a crisis like this [Russia-Georgia]. And the readiness issue has been a huge theme of the attack ads that Senator McCain has launched against Senator Obama. It's been something you've seen in, in all of the ads. Let's show clips from each of some recent ads to drive that point home. Watch.

Crowd: (In unison) Obama! Obama! Obama!

Narrator #3: (From political ad) Is the biggest celebrity in the world ready to help your family? He's the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead? Not ready to lead, that's the real Obama.

Gregory resumed:

There is a fundamental question, which is the question mark over Barack Obama's head to a lot of voters, is he really ready? Does he have enough experience to take on the issues?

David Gregory appears to have a limited supply of question marks at his disposal. He doesn't see any over John McCain's head. None about McCain's top foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, who had been, until recently, a paid lobbyist for the government of Georgia. None about how Scheunemann lobbied McCain's staff on behalf of Georgia, while at work in McCain's presidential campaign. None about Scheunemann's job at Worldwide Strategic Energy making deals to help Georgia develop its hydrocarbon industry. None about Scheunemann's history as a principal backer of the Iraq war and promoter of Iraq's putative rescuer, Ahmad Chalabi. So many question marks, so many blind spots. No, to Gregory, the Russian-Georgian war provides one of those 3 A.M. moments when you wake up, rub your eyes, and see question marks circulating over the other guy's head.

Speaking of blind spots, Gregory went on to ask whether McCain's efforts to "define Barack Obama" -- "define" is political talk for "insult" -- risk "this maverick image," as if "the maverick image" were some sort of accepted fact, as if it hadn't already been exploded at book length by Matt Welch in McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, as if it were more important to speculate about the fate of an image than about its accuracy.

Meanwhile, over at CBS's Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer found nothing amusing about Karl Rove's suggestion -- yes, that Karl Rove- - that "part of the reason why Senator Obama is in the shape he is in today is because he's failed to run a positive campaign. He's run a negative campaign. He's claimed to be something new and different, and yet given these -- you know, it is really beyond the pale to sit there and insinuate that Senator McCain is somehow going to attack him for being black, which is what he did for over a month." Schieffer's penetrating response was: "What do you think John McCain ought to do?"

Later, Schieffer asked Rove: "Does he need to separate himself from your old boss, George Bush? Separate himself more?" To which Rove replied: "John McCain's not George Bush. He ran against him in 2000." Schieffer seemed not to know that McCain has voted with Bush 100 percent of the time in 2008 and 95 percent of the time in 2007. If he knew, would he care?

You know an anchor is out of his depth when he feels the need to defend himself from a withering attack by -- Paris Hilton. Yes, that Paris Hilton, who taped her own funny comeback ad last week and stuck it in John McCain's face. Schieffer, being a wrinkly white-haired guy, took major umbrage and seemed to feel it was incumbent upon him to stand up four-square for all wrinkly white-haired guys thusly:

I am compelled now to stand up for old white-haired dudes and point out we actually have several advantages over others. For example: If forced, we can drink coffee straight from a mug. We don't need to sip it through a little hole in a plastic top on a cardboard container to make it taste good. Since we grew up when telephones had cords and telephone booths had doors, we know how to keep phone conversations private. We were lucky enough to grow up when it was safe for kids to walk to school and we learned the lessons that came from having to organize our own after school games ...

The maundering Schieffer reminds me of the stuffy old sod on the train in Richard Lester's great Hard Day's Night who huffs to the Beatles, "I fought the war for your sort!"--to which Ringo says, "I bet you're sorry you won."

America, this is the man who will moderate one of your official presidential debates. Who could make this stuff up?