Massaged in Manhattan

By Howard Kurtz

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, July 21, 2004; 10:30 AM

My plans for the Republican convention have just changed. I may be packing for Boston, but I'm dreaming about Madison Square Garden, at least, now that I know that I can get a free shave and hit the spa.

Apparently I, as part of the 15,000-strong press invasion, will be able to dine in the press center on bagels, lox, whitefish, summer corn, peaches and croque monsieur (though the administration usually has a distaste for anything French, even ham and cheese sandwiches.)

If there were any remaining doubt that these conventions are of, by and for the media, this New York Times story puts it to rest. (Don't tell the delegates, we wouldn't want them to think they're chopped liver.)

I'm sure the Fleet Center will be very nice, especially after the Dems read this article, but the Republicans--or, more precisely, their Big Apple hosts--plan to treat me in the style to which I've never become accustomed (because other than at a convention, I'd have to pay for it myself).

There's going to be a concierge (!) to deal with my last-minute needs, such as new shoes (which Barneys New York will shine for free) or camera parts or maybe even psychotherapy (given the high proportion of practitioners there).

The reason, says the Times, is as old as the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry:

"This touch of five-star extravagance, which organizers say has never been offered during a national political convention, is as much about the rivalry between Boston and New York as it is about hoping that a well-fed, well-manicured news media will make for positive news coverage. Some New York honchos are still peeved that the Democrats picked Boston over Manhattan for their nominating convention."

The media, not surprisingly, approve.

"'To be completely serious, at past conventions there would be times when I have had to go out and buy things,' said Cokie Roberts, a veteran television and radio commentator who said she has attended 16 conventions. 'It started with shoes. I had no notion of how much my feet would be killing me. I'm not willing to wear ugly running shoes.'"

Cokie added: "The fact that they think we need to be pampered like that does not speak well for us."

Obviously, in accordance with The Post's policies and my own extremely high ethical standards, I won't accept any freebies worth much more than a bagel (okay, maybe with a schmear). But I've learned from too many long campaign trips with lousy accommodations and worse food that it's smart for candidates to avoid having a tired and hungry press corps. Sounds like that won't be a problem at the New York shindig.

As a matter of civic pride, perhaps, the Boston Globe fires back today with its own rendition of the culinary delights awaiting the Democrats:

"Lions and zebras in the background and shrimp skewers on the table. It's not a typical night at the zoo. But when the California delegates step off their buses and into the Franklin Park Zoo, they will be surrounded by jungle animals with food to match. Sumptuous nibbles infused with African flavors will be offered up to the more than 600 guests expected at Sunday's fete.

"Meanwhile the delegates from Maryland, Delaware, and D.C. will be noshing on an Italian and Chinese buffet at the Boston Children's Museum while traditional Caribbean fare is served to delegates from Puerto Rico and New Mexico across town."

What a concept--they're concentrating on the delegates.

As for this Sandy Berger controversy, I wish I had some special insight to offer. The whole thing seems so bizarre, and I can't figure out why he would risk his reputation.

"Former national security adviser Samuel R. 'Sandy' Berger withdrew Tuesday as an adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry after the disclosure that he was being investigated for the mishandling of classified documents from his years in the Clinton administration," the Los Angeles Times says.

"Berger's lawyer acknowledged that the FBI was looking into an episode last year when his client removed copies of highly classified documents from the National Archives while preparing to testify before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."

Hmmm . . . so why is this breaking now?

"The unauthorized documents included hand-written notes that Berger had taken while reviewing materials at the archives, and what his lawyer said were copies of drafts of a secret Clinton administration analysis of its handling of a terrorist bombing plot surrounding the millennium celebration. Berger returned most of the materials after National Archives officials complained, although one or more versions of the draft report could not be located, and were probably thrown away, attorney Lanny Breuer said. Breuer ascribed the episode to inadvertence and 'sloppiness' . . .

"House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said he was 'profoundly troubled' by the allegations, and said he found Berger's explanation suspicious. He also questioned whether it was part of an attempt to conceal important information from the commission. 'What information could be so embarrassing that a man with decades of experience in handling classified documents would risk being caught pilfering our nation's most sensitive secrets?' Hastert asked. 'Did these documents detail simple negligence or did they contain something more sinister?'"

Cue scary music.

USA Today raises the timing question, which is linked to the original leak to the AP:

"The investigation, which included a search of Berger's home by FBI agents in the spring, had proceeded quietly for months until Monday, when reports about it began circulating here. For Republicans wary about how the Bush administration's anti-terrorism efforts will be portrayed in the 9/11 panel's report, which is due Thursday, it was a chance to take aim at the Clinton administration -- and raise questions about Berger's work for Kerry just days before the Democratic National Convention."

Berger's bailout from the Kerry campaign "capped a day of heated political rhetoric in which some Republicans called Berger's actions a national security crisis, and Democrats cast the news of the Berger probe as a GOP-orchestrated leak aimed at deflecting attention from the 9/11 panel's report."

And, as the Philadelphia Inquirer notes, "Former President Bill Clinton also weighed in, telling reporters at a Denver autograph session for his book 'My Life' that 'it's interesting timing.'"

The Kerry camp is also returning fire, says the Washington Times:

"Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, said Republicans were trying to 'divert attention away from the 9/11 commission report,' which is scheduled to be released tomorrow. 'Instead of using the report's recommendations to learn how we can improve our homeland security, Republicans are playing politics with an inquiry,' Mr. Singer said."

The Wall Street Journal does its version of Dan Balz's no-Bush-agenda piece, the subject of yesterday's column, by starting with the old Wendy's commercial:

"Where's the beef?

"Concerned that foreign affairs are dominating President Bush's administration and re-election campaign, advisers are struggling to craft a domestic agenda that he will soon begin promoting in his bid for a second term -- even as they are trying to salvage initiatives in the current term.

"Health advisers, for example, were brought in over the weekend to work on, among other things, tax incentives Mr. Bush might propose to reduce the growing ranks of the uninsured, now numbering about 44 million. The goal is for Mr. Bush to lay out his second-term vision at the Republicans' New York convention late next month, and perhaps preview proposals before then to maximize attention.

"Bush advisers and Republicans close to the administration say proposals could include steps to help cover high college-tuition costs -- a focus of Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts -- and to extend to colleges and universities the school-accountability principles of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"Also, in keeping with Mr. Bush's theme of creating 'an ownership society,' proposals would be aimed at spurring home-ownership, pension protections and retirement savings."

Would it be rude to ask what these people have been doing until now?

Talk about parallel universes. Bill Sammon of the Washington Times reports on the Incredible Shrinking President:

"President Bush has ceded the national media spotlight to Sen. John Kerry for the rest of the month, resigning himself to nonstop press coverage of the political opposition that will climax in next week's Democratic National Convention. 'It's kind of their month,' Bush campaign spokesman Nicolle Devenish said of the Democrats. 'They are going to, for most of the month, dominate the news in a largely positive way.'

"Consequently, the president will retreat to his Texas ranch on Friday afternoon and lie low until the Democrats' convention ends six days later. It will be the completion of a presidential vanishing act that began two weeks ago, when Mr. Kerry named Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate. Seeking to capitalize on excitement over the selection, the Democrats have granted a flurry of interviews to national news outlets including Time, Newsweek, USA Today, the New York Times, Reuters and the Associated Press.

"By contrast, Mr. Bush has contented himself with granting interviews to smaller, regional newspapers, including the Toledo (Ohio) Blade, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Wheeling (W.Va.) Intelligencer-News Register."

Hey, overlooking Wheeling can be fatal.

But this does seem to conflict a bit with Adam Nagourney's take in the NYT:

"Seeking to blunt any advantage Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts might enjoy from the Democratic convention, President Bush's campaign has planned a month long offensive that will blend criticism of the Democratic ticket with what aides said would be Mr. Bush's first effort to set out a second-term agenda."

David Frum says the Dems are delusional:

"The Democrats are not well served by the media bias in their favor. Irritating as conservatives may find these quadrennial orgies of positive publicity for the Democratic nominees, any Democratic nominees, conservatives at least know not to believe it. Liberals though find themselves being whirled about by their own spin until they are dizzy.

"Newsweek's Democratic-leaning readership may be delighted to see the dour and long-winded Kerry compared to a summer's day -- but the nearly 300 million Americans who do not read Newsweek are much more likely to believe the evidence of their own eyes and ears. I sometimes think that Democrats suffer from the same problem as ultimately felled Saddam Hussein: They cannot trust their servants to report the truth. And the truth is that they have nominated themselves the weakest presidential candidate since Michael Dukakis."

Andrew Sullivan tackles the Iran Issue:

"I hope this becomes the central foreign policy question of the campaign: What are the differences between Bush's and Kerry's approaches to Iran? One of our recent failings (and I readily include myself) has been, I think, to conceive of the 'war on terror' in too abstract a way.

"We need to unpack the notion that one guy is 'weak' and the other 'strong' in the war or that one is more 'unilateralist' the other less so - and ask hard practical questions of the candidates. Here are a few that spring immediately to mind: Do you consider Iran an enemy of the United States? How integral is the Tehran regime to the Jihadist terror network? How plausible is democratic government in Iraq with continued obstruction from Iran? How would you grapple with the imminence of an Iranian nuclear bomb? The truth is that, for all its rhetorical bluster, the Bush administration's Iran policy has been all over the map."

The Boston Herald, for some reason, has suddenly become quite interested in Kerry's first marriage:

"The marriage was solid, Julia Thorne has said, until Kerry first ran for office. That bitter 1972 congressional race in Lowell turned Julia against John, especially when a rock came crashing through the family home and nearly hit the crib of their baby, Alexandra.

"Politics, Julia Kerry wrote in a scathing 1996 memoir on her failed marriage, stole her privacy. 'I was alone and overwhelmed, abandoned with a new baby in a town that held political disdain for us,' she wrote.

"Thorne suffered from what she would later call severe depression and contemplated suicide. She wrote that the marriage was 'suffocating.' The two split in 1982 but didn't divorce until 1988, four years after Kerry joined the U.S. Senate. Thorne moved far from Massachusetts and tried to avoid the press, succeeding mostly until a New Yorker Magazine article earlier this year suggested she was too depressed to take care of their children and that she held open disdain for Kerry while they were married.

"'There were times at dinner parties when John would be very pompous, unable to control his impulse to make a speech,' a person described as an 'acquaintance' told writer Joe Klein. 'It was all slightly laughable, and Julia was one of those who laughed' . . .

"Kerry wrote the magazine to dispute many of the story's points and Thorne decided to open up again, talking with Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley for his book, 'Tour of Duty,' and granting an interview to Newsweek magazine in which she said she backs his candidacy."

Wake me up when we figure out the relevance of all this.

Linda Ronstadt is starting to get the Whoopi treatment:

The Los Angeles Times reports that "Three days after the dust-up in the desert, Linda Ronstadt said she had no regrets about using her concert microphone to amplify the politics of filmmaker Michael Moore and his big-screen polemic 'Fahrenheit 9/11.'

"'I think it was a modest thing I did,' the 58-year-old singer said today as she reflected on a Saturday night show at the Aladdin Casino and Resort in Las Vegas that ended with a portion of the audience reacting angrily to her comments. The fans weren't the only ones riled up -- the casino president was in attendance and has since banned her from the venue.

"There have been about 100 calls for refunds but Ronstadt, who is in Los Angeles preparing for her show at the Universal Amphitheatre, said she will continue to give fans some food for thought from the stage. 'This is an election year. I want people to get their head up out of their mashed potatoes and learn something about the issues and go and vote,' she said by phone. 'I'm not telling them how to vote. I'm saying, get information about the issues.'

"What the singer said just before the final encore in Las Vegas was the same stage line she has been using to introduce the song 'Desperado' around the country since she saw the Moore documentary 'Fahrenheit 9/11': 'I'll say, I think there's this guy who is a great patriot and I think he loves his country deeply and that he's trying to get the truth out . . . then I say his name is Michael Moore and I've just been to see his fine movie, "Fahrenheit 9/11."'"

At least there were no Whoopi-style crotch jokes.