by Howell Raines May 12, 2008 You wouldn't know it from the campaign so far, but we may be living at the end of the age of smashmouth media coverage. When one of the wise old birds of British and American print journalism, Sir Harold Evans, invited me to Washington for the annual awards dinner for The Week, I never expected to wind up as the filling in a shouting-head sandwich. Yet there I was on an evening in early April, sitting on a stage at the Georgetown Four Seasons between Karl Rove, the Parseltongued Bush adviser, and Doug Schoen, erstwhile Clinton pollster turned Hillary critic. In our audience sat 200 or so of the usual suspects from my generation of media muckety-mucks: Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, our version of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; Andrea Mitchell, by my lights the hardest-working reporter in network television; Bill Kovach, my ex-boss at the New York Times' Washington bureau and a premier guardian of what we once called journalistic ethics; and Chris Matthews, reeling that evening from having just read an early copy of "that fucking article" about him in the Times Magazine. My wife, Krystyna, seated at the same table, reported that Andrea assured Chris that "it wasn't that bad," but no creature in the universe is more fragile than a cable celeb who has just been mugged in print. There were also several representatives from the new media, including Time blogger and former Wonkette Ana Marie Cox, who demanded the microphone to observe that Sir Harry had assembled a panel of aging white guys to discuss an election defined by race and gender. I found myself perched on a wobbly stool, cold sober, wearing my most expensive Paul Stuart pinstripe and hoping, vainly I fear, that it would armor my dignity against the raucous cabernet-fueled scene in the Four Seasons ballroom. Rove, on my right, and Schoen, on my left, were shouting at each other in a hair-splitting debate over whether Clinton's "red phone" ads amounted to negative campaigning. When Rove and Schoen ran out of wind, I had the wit to say into my lapel microphone, "And you wonder why people are disenchanted with politics." But there was no dodging the fact that the four of us, journalists and strategists alike, were old-timers trying to explain what is potentially a crossroads election for this country --a zeitgeist election, if you will. The election of Barack Obama would mark a transition from an old politics that deserves to die to a new politics struggling for what could be a risky premature birth. Win or lose, Obama has already, in the words of Fast Company, "taken what we thought we knew about politics and turned it into a different game from a different generation." The coexistence of the panelists and our Beltway peers in the audience symbolized nicely the poisoned symbiosis between old politics and old media, the nature of which is summed up in the title of Matthews' program, Hardball. And what of the blogs and the rest of new media, freighted as they are with the potential to democratize information in a revolutionary way? Alas, they seem for the moment a gigantic, pimpled, teenage version of the old hardball world, with its glorification of prediction as fact, assault as entertainment, and anger as the baseline emotion. All this crystallized for me when Rove went into a rant about Obama's minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I set Rove off by observing an obvious fact, for me anyway, of American elections: White candidates can get away with sleazy associations, and black candidates can't. Both John and Robert Kennedy met politely with Alabama governor George Wallace during his Stand in the Schoolhouse Door phase. Ronald Reagan opened his fall campaign in 1980 by appearing as an honored guest at the Neshoba County Fair, in Mississippi, where Governor Ross Barnett in years past gave his annual race-baiting speech--a festive event held only a stone's throw from the muddy grave where Barnett's constituents buried three bullet-riddled civil-rights workers in 1964. As recently as this year, Times columnist David Brooks naively assured his readers that the Gipper didn't mean any harm by his richly symbolic appearance at a location closely linked to segregationist politics. Black candidates are held to a different standard in regard to their associates and not just by party apologists like Brooks. The mainstream press can be depended on to demand that any black candidate, for sheriff or president, disown every controversial thing said or done by every black man since Nat Turner's rebellion. Rove, of course, pointed out that tolerating a racist preacher, as Obama did, is different from cozying up to racist politicians, and he's right. Wright has never had the legal authority to block state prosecution of Klan murderers, as Wallace routinely did back in his days of hobnobbing with presidents. Rove ridiculed Obama at length for suggesting a moral equivalence between black and white racism. "We're all morally equivalent to a guy who says 'Goddamn America' and AIDS was a virus concocted by the government as a genocidal tool," Rove said. To make matters worse, he added that Obama "then concludes by suggesting that the morally equivalent black and white anger ought to find its outlet against the real enemy, which is corporate America." Rove's outburst was notable, I told the audience, "because you've just heard the Republican campaign in a nitroglycerin tablet," should Obama get the nomination. Actually, I was dazzled by the cogency of Rove's case against Obama. Clearly, if perhaps unintentionally, he had outlined a G.O.P. swift-boat game plan, updated for the 2008 general-election campaign. Obama's crazy preacher and the candidate's sociological observations about guns, religion, and working-class bitterness have given the G.O.P.'s video pistoleros all the fodder they need for the television commercials you'll see after Labor Day. Within 24 hours, two seasoned campaign survivors--one a veteran correspondent for a Northeastern newspaper, the other a battle-scarred Republican consultant--assured me that my analysis was basically right. Rove's remarks might easily serve as a blueprint for the anti-Obama television ads in the fall campaign. Of course, John McCain and the Republican National Committee will condemn those ads. Even so, the commercials will run relentlessly, funded by Republican "527s"--the supposedly independent groups named for the section of the federal tax code that allows these officially "independent" groups to stab the other party's candidate without their guy's getting blood on his hands. And throughout the fall, the press will dutifully publicize one of the great fictions of American campaigning: Our presidential nominees--one of whom will go forth to negotiate with the Chinese, the Russians, and the Arabs--actually lack the persuasive skills to get their own supporters to withdraw the "independent" commercials the candidates supposedly detest. The G.O.P. consultant added that Rove has delivered his Wright tirade in several venues. That's the reason, he said, that it sounds as well-documented and rhetorically precise as, in fact, it was. Rove's .50-caliber political mind, on full automatic, is formidable. "He's very rehearsed on it because he's auditioning for the role. He'd like to run the 527s to disassemble this guy Obama." The speaker of these words was Roger Stone, the dapper political trickster who tipped the F.B.I. to Eliot Spitzer's trysts. Stone is routinely described in news stories as disreputable, cruel payback for the fact that he's been a major source for the Washington press corps for close to 30 years. I first met Stone in 1980, when he was running the general-election campaign in New York State for Ronald Reagan. Because Reagan's chief political valet, Mike Deaver, disliked both of us, Stone wound up giving me some valuable news tips. Since both Deaver and Reagan are dead, I guess the off-the-record status of Stone's leaks doesn't matter anymore. Deaver was a master of the same trade and would have been surprised if Stone hadn't tried to knife him. That's part of the point here. Stone, who has been condemned editorially more times than Vlad the Impaler, is emblematic of a political age in which the press secretly admires and enables attack politics as long as it's marketed as brutally unidealistic. Perhaps because he's a renegade, Stone is unusually candid about the fact that managing low-road campaigns is a bipartisan enterprise organized by both parties' top political consultants, who this year have surpassed all their earning records. That's because to gain early credibility, candidates hand out multimillion-dollar signing bonuses to star advisers. Then, those advisers' firms get 9 to 15 percent of every dollar the candidates spend on radio and television advertising. Less well-known, they also collect the "vigorish" from multimillion-dollar polling, direct-mail ads, and robocalls. "A letter in a direct-mail campaign costs 55 cents," says Stone. "The consultants charge the campaigns 75 cents a letter. The extra 20 cents is the vigorish." Reporters of my generation have a hard time being honest about the role of our major news institutions in creating "the game"--as Washingtonians, with a wink, call the capital's permanent industry. Witness the tolerance of rascality in my descriptions of Rove and Stone as mercenary warriors. Consider the undertone of admiration in news stories about the Clintons' willingness to "do whatever it takes to win." In modern times, this journalistic celebration of ruthlessness dates back to Robert Kennedy, who seduced and co-opted many of the top broadcasters and reporters of his time. More recently, my gang of boys on the bus elevated Lee Atwater for the politics-as-war tao of his television ads that hung Willie Horton around the neck of Mike Dukakis. Mainstream journalists like to believe that their admiration for bullies is a professional secret, but the American people have been onto us for too long. That's why the handmade journalism on the blogs has so much authority, despite the fact that it's a hydrophobic parody of my generation's political journalism. So what does this have to do with the 2008 campaign and the Rove jeremiad against Wright or, more pointedly, Clinton's kitchen-sink victory in the Pennsylvania primary? Both remind us that we're astride a demographic fault line. Sure, the ruling Democrats of the state's hackocracy--Governor Ed Rendell, the mayors of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh--got Clinton the numbers she needed. Yet six of 10 newly registered Democrats and the same proportion of voters under 30 voted for Obama. They responded to Obama's commercials saying he didn't want to play "the game" of old politics, but end it. McCain has already bridled at party-financed ads attacking Obama. Suppose that in the general election, independent 527 ads depicting Obama as Wright's hand puppet fail to work in each and every red state. Or suppose that, as suggested by a G.O.P. consultant with roots in the party's bare-knuckle Southern wing, "McCain denounces 527 attacks, as he has done in the past. Then it will be much more difficult for any Republican-based 527s to attack Obama." That would mean the coming electorate--young, multiracial, linked, equally indifferent to Wright and nutty Texas evangelists, dubious of McCain's neo-Rumsfeldian military strategy, convinced that "smart" is better than "faith-based"--has already grown beyond the political commercials and reporting that have been a sport and pastime for me and my peers and, it seems, for today's bloggers. It would mean that a new American majority had experienced what Martin Luther King Jr. said Rosa Parks experienced on that bus seat in Montgomery in 1955. She had been hunted down by the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Will we? Could we be? Even the reporters?