By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
AT TIMES this week it has seemed as though, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the media themselves were the message.
For me, the apex of absurdity was achieved Monday morning, when I sat in a conference room here at the paper shooting video of a guy from French television who was shooting video of me talking about Saturday’s S.C. Republican presidential primary. You remember how, in old-fashioned barbershops, you could see yourself sitting in the chair in the mirror in front of you, reflecting the mirror behind you, and on and on? It was kind of like that.
After the interview, the Frenchman followed me to the Columbia Rotary Club, where I had been asked to speak about the newspaper and its endorsement in said primary. In case you missed it, we rather emphatically endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain in Sunday’s paper. See more about that at my blog (address below).
As I was stepping down from the podium at Rotary, a Danish journalist gave me her card, saying she wanted to interview me later. She had followed Columbia businessman Hal Stevenson to the meeting. Poor Hal. I had been sending some of the national media who were calling me to him, as a good, thoughtful example of the “religious conservative” kind of voter they were so eager to talk to. Now here he was, dragging journalists right back at me. (Just keep looking into the mirrors. Whoa … is that what the back of my head looks like?)
On Tuesday, Michele Norris of NPR’s “All Things Considered” called on her cell while traveling across South Carolina, and we spoke for 53 minutes. But that was just the preliminary; we’ll tape the actual interview this morning. I’m also supposed to be on local public radio with Andy Gobeil this morning — and Andy and I will be on ETV live for primary results Saturday night.
Thursday, I spoke with Dennis Miller of SNL fame, who’s now a conservative talk show host. He wanted to know how come South Carolina was having its Republican primary Saturday, but the Democratic primary a week later. I couldn’t give him a good reason, because there isn’t one.
All this attention can be fun, but some get tired of it. Bob McAlister, for one. Bob is a Republican media consultant who made his rep as chief of staff to the late Gov. Carroll Campbell. In 2000, he was for George W. Bush. This time, he’s for McCain. He’s feeling pretty confident that he’ll be on the winning side again.
But he’s got a beef with all the media types. “The national press wants to know about segments” of the GOP electorate, he complained. As in, don’t you think McCain has the retired military vote sewn up, or will McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney split the evangelical vote?
“They talk about evangelicals as though we were some sort of subset of the culture,” Bob (a Baptist) complains. “They try to put us in a little box, as though we were apart from the mainstream in the Republican Party.
“But in South Carolina, we are the mainstream.”
As The Wall Street Journal said Thursday, “McCain campaign aides are hoping Mr. McCain and his rivals — Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson — divide the evangelical vote, leaving the state’s sizable population of military and independent voters to Mr. McCain.”
Mr. Huckabee’s main hope, as a Baptist preacher himself, is to attract that whole evangelical “subset” of the GOP here. But it seems pretty divided. Fred Thompson, surprisingly, has the endorsement of S.C. Right to Life. Bob’s for McCain. Hal Stevenson is for Huckabee, but he seemed worried Thursday that there aren’t quite enough like him to put the former Arkansas governor over the top. He said he’s found “a lot of support for McCain and Romney among social conservatives,” because they think they have broader appeal. He particularly notes the McCain advantage on national security.
Sen. McCain is counting on people like Jack Van Loan, about whom I wrote in this space yesterday. Jack’s a retired Air Force pilot, now a Columbia community leader, who met Sen. McCain when they were both prisoners of the North Vietnamese.
In the interests of full disclosure, and in order to keep with my theme of media-as-message, he’s also counting on people like my Dad — a retired Navy captain who lives in West Columbia. My father is like most career military officers — politics has been something other people did, while those in uniform did their duty.
Not this time. Dad spent a couple of hours working the phones at McCain HQ in Columbia Thursday morning. He was given a list of names to call, which he dutifully did. Speaking of mirrors, he was amused to find his own name and number on his list. Orders are orders — he called the number, and talked to my Mom.
I did go out and check the pulse of the real world once or twice this week. But I didn’t gain much new information.
Take Tuesday night: I went to hear Fred Thompson speaking at the Sticky Fingers in Harbison. He did OK — the crowd was good-sized, and seemed to like him. If you were in the Fred Thompson bubble, you might think he had a chance to win.
Then I went out toward Lexington, to Hudson’s Smokehouse, to hear Mike Huckabee. Wow. The place was packed, and the people were pumped. That, I thought, was what a contender’s rally looks like in the last week. The crowd was impressive, even though from where I sat it was hard to see past the — you guessed it — media types.
I missed the McCain rally on Gervais Street Thursday, because it happened at the same time that I had promised to talk to Dennis Miller. Bob McAlister says it was awesome, and had all the marks of a campaign headed for victory. But he would say that, wouldn’t he, being a McCain man.
Maybe I’ll call a reporter who was there and get an objective view. Just kidding — sort of.
Just one more day, folks. Tomorrow, it’s what you say that counts. Then we can do it all over again with the Democrats.