I don't listen to Cokie Roberts's weekly NPR commentaries, and Jack Shafer provides abundant evidence that I'm wise not to. Shafer's takedown did, however, remind me of a historic low point in television journalism that took place during the 2000 election.
In the final, and arguably decisive, presidential debate, George W. Bush had tried to muddy the waters by claiming vaguely that he supported a "patient's bill of rights," and Al Gore had tried to clarify them by pointing out that Bush opposed the bipartisan Dingell-Norwood bill. On ABC's "This Week," Roberts and co-clown Sam Donaldson offered this trenchant analysis:
DONALDSON: Well, you talk about the message. I mean, remember during the last debate, Gore kept talking about 'the Dingell/Norwood bill, the Dingell/Norwood bill.' And we thought, as a public service, we'd just show you who Dingell and Norwood are. Let us tell you about them. Representatives of Dingell and Norwood introduced the Patients' Bill of Rights favored by Gore and the House of Representatives. John Dingell, from Michigan, is the longest-serving Democrat in the House. His father, who was a House member before him, was a sponsor of Social Security in the '30s, and pioneered the idea of national health insurance back in 1943. Charlie Norwood from Georgia, a Republican, is a dentist. He served in Vietnam and was first elected to the House in 1994 as part of the Republican revolution. So that's who Dingell and Norwood are. Now I'll tell you...
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But the important...
ROBERTS: Yeah, but...
DONALDSON: But there's a guy named Greg Ganske who's also on the bill. It's actually the Dingell/Norwood/Ganske bill.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But the import--the important point...
DONALDSON: But I don't have time to start telling you about him.
ROBERTS: He's from Iowa.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The important point there is that George Bush didn't answer the question about the Dingell/Norwood bill, which is a Patients' Bill of Rights that allows people to--the right to sue.
ROBERTS: Actually, I don't think that is the important point there.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not?
STEPHANOPOULOS: But it's...
ROBERTS: And you know, it's having an effect not just at the presidential level, but at the congressional level as well. Because the Republicans did a very smart thing, which is that they voted for their version of a Patients' Bill of Rights, and they voted for their version of prescription drug coverage. So they get to go out and tout all these issues, and then the Democrats are left saying, 'But you didn't do Dingell and Norwood.'
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, then they--but what gets lost there--wait a second, what gets lost there is that George Bush did oppose a Patients' Bill of Rights in the state of Texas. And he did--and he's not for the Dingell/Norwood bill.
ROBERTS: It was lost, because Al Gore didn't say it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah, well, he did say it, actually, in the course of the debate.
DONALDSON: This is very cerebral.
Jon Cohn said what needed to be said at the time, though perhaps with fewer strong adjectives than I would have offered.