Op-Ed

You don’t have to be friends to win their support

I’m a big fan of shooting fish in a barrel, so it was great fun for me to watch Jake Tapper on Sunday firing clip after clip at Donald Trump, demanding that he repudiate the support of white supremacists.

I can’t wait for next weekend, when Tapper will clamp his jaws on the throat of Hillary Clinton, demanding that she renounce the support of Nevada hookers. And after that, he’ll crack the toughest nut of all, forcing Bernie Sanders to disavow Satan himself.

Right, Jake? Unless you and CNN want a pentagram hanging over the Oval Office, or a cash register outside the Lincoln bedroom. (Well, never mind the last one; we’ve already been there, done that. The last time the Clintons were in the White House, they invited so many of their big donors to sleepovers that the Center for Public Integrity dubbed the place the Fat Cat Hotel.)

That’s kind of a cheap shot on Tapper, who is usually one of the best television reporters in the business and — at least as far as I know — doesn’t owe his success to a deal with the devil. (He did, however, get his first big break from writing a story headlined “I Dated Monica Lewinsky,” so go ahead with your own punchline here.)

But it’s not much cheaper than the one Tapper played on Trump: the friendly-fire endorsement story. It’s one of the hoariest old journalism ploys by which a reporter can make a quick splash.

You find some idiot or crank like the president of the Flat Earth Society who says he’s voting for Candidate X, and then demand that Candidate X grovel before you in a frenzy of abnegation: “The president of the Flat Earth Society is an idiot! I’ll go to his house and shoot him myself if you give me the address!” The slightest hesitancy on the part of Candidate X can only mean that he himself believes the world is flat. No matter that the candidate has never said anything of the kind and in no way sought the endorsement.

Friendly-fire endorsement stories go back at least to 1884, when a Presbyterian minister named Samuel D. Burchard, speaking at a Republican event late in the election, called the Democrats the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” James Blaine, the Republican candidate, wasn’t quick enough on the repudiation trigger, and it probably cost him the election: He lost to Grover Cleveland by less than 60,000 votes.

It’s more difficult to pin Wendell Wilkie’s 5-million-vote loss to Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 on Wilkie’s unsolicited endorsement by comedian W.C. Fields. But it’s safe to say that Fields’ reference to the polio-stricken Roosevelt as “Old Gum Legs” (the comedian was incensed by the president’s proposal to cap the earnings of actors at $25,000 a year) certainly didn’t do Wilkie much good.

Democrats have been mousetrapped by friendly-fire endorsements, too. In 1984, when Jesse Jackson was making an unexpectedly strong bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he suddenly found himself hounded by reporters demanding that he disavow anti-Semitic remarks by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, as if Jackson had to answer for everything said anywhere in America by a black person.

This election, however, friendly-fire endorsement stories have been strictly for Republicans. Nobody has been pestering Clinton about her enthusiastic support from a group called Hookers for Hillary, who seem to think that what this country needs is a good dominatrix: “The girls have great respect for any woman who can take powerful men from oppressive cultures and make them bend to her will.”

And I’m still waiting for the debate where Megyn Kelly or Gwen Ifill demands that Bernie Sanders take off his shoes so we can see if he has cloven hooves. Isn’t that a fair questions after an argument broke out a few weeks ago at a Sanders social-media group over the prudence of a Satanists for Bernie faction?

A Facebook group called Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash (“dank” is stoner-speak these days for “really good”) that produces Internet graphics supporting the candidate divided rather sharply over a Satanists for Bernie 2016 meme.

Interestingly, the argument centered not around whether Sanders is really the candidate of Beelzebub, but whether it was smart to talk about it. “Satanists are more than welcome to vote for Bernie,” declared one group member. “But please don’t openly endorse him like this.” Is that what “feel the Bern” is really all about?

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