Spectacular bit of political theater yesterday in California, if you like that sorta thing. And a certain big name TV fella played the fool.

Gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman attended the Maria Shriver-organized 2010 Women’s Conference yesterday. The candidates took to a stage, sitting beside Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for a discussion moderated by NBC’s Today Show host Matt Lauer. In his Capitol Notes blog, John Meyers—of NPR-affiliate KQED—captured the tone of the conversation:

…it seemed as though the setting — the 2010 Women’s Conference — and the overall mood of the event — life empowering and emotional — were going to force the candidates to spend the entire time praising their families and friends.

“I am my mother’s daughter,” said Whitman in answering a question about her biggest life influences. To which Brown invoked both his late mother and his wife when it was his turn.

But Lauer had a zinger of a question waiting for the two at the end, calling the campaign between the two candidates “a bloodbath” for its bitter accusations and sharp attacks.

Lauer asked a “where is the love?” question that caught Whitman—who has been campaigning heavily negative against Brown—off-guard: Would both candidates pull their negative ads in the week leading up to the election? The responses show Whitman was the less adept on her feet. From the AP report:

Brown, the Democrat, said he would agree to air only an ad in which he talks directly to the camera about his plans to lead the state — if Whitman, the Republican, agreed to do the same.

“Let’s be clear, if she takes her negative ads down … I’ll take mine off, no question. We’ll do it together,” he said to loud applause.

Whitman demurred.

“Here’s what I’ll do: I will take down any ads that could even remotely be construed as a personal attack. But I don’t think we can take down the ads that talk about where Governor Brown stands on the issues,” she said.

Whitman said she needs to tell Californians about Brown’s record as governor from 1975 to 1983 — and she then proceeded to attack it.

“People need to know where I stand. And also Jerry Brown has been in politics for 40 years and there’s a long track record there. And I want to make sure that people really understand what’s going on here. And I’m not doing it in a mean-spirited way,” she said.

Her answer prompted loud boos from the largely female audience at first lady Maria Shriver’s annual women’s conference. At times, the audience response drowned out the candidates, who were being questioned by “Today” show host Matt Lauer about the negative tone of the race.

Naturally, Whitman has copped flak for her response; it was a political opportunity wasted. But others—wisely—have been quick to level their scopes at Lauer for asking the question in the first place.

Steven Harmon of Political Blotter wrote:

It was a cheap trick by Matt Lauer, a pander move for the celebrity anchor of NBC’s Today Show….

… It was an unfair question, really, if you understand the reality of politics and the flow of this particular campaign. And it could be seen as an ambush on Whitman, who has run an exceptionally negative campaign and couldn’t be expected to relinquish the last hope she has, which is to somehow make Brown less appealing than her.

The Atlantic’s Joshua Green was more scathing:

This is reprehensible behavior and should be universally condemned—Lauer’s, I mean. Does anyone believe his stunt was motivated by anything other than Olympian self-regard? Negative ads serve a useful purpose. They draw distinctions that help people who don’t spend all day watching PBS and poring over policy papers make decisions about who to vote for. Yes, yes, some are crass. So what? Voters are grown up enough to punish candidates who overdo it. If you can’t stand the televised assault, there’s always Netflix…. If I were Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman, I’d join hands across the great partisan divide, pool my vast resources, and cut a really nasty ad attacking Matt Lauer.

Harsher still were CalBuzz’s Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine, who wrote an excellent piece on eMeg’s mishandling of the situation:

First decrying the negative ads that both sides have run - which, Lauer emoted, have created a “bloodbath” (puh-leeze) - he asked:

“Would either of you, or both of you, be willing to make a pledge that you would end the negativity? [Big cheer] Would you pull your negative ads and replace them with positive ads and talk to the surrogate groups as well [which would be ILLEGAL, you jackass, which is why they’re called independent expenditures] and express that to them, that you want only positive message out there to give the people of California a break and let them decide what really matters. Would either of you accept that?”

It was a totally inappropriate question and actually unfair to Whitman, who is behind in all the public polls and has no choice in a tough campaign in which she’s invested $140 million of her own money, but to try to pull voters away from Brown. In any event, that’s her decision. And Lauer had no business sticking his scrawny ass into the campaign and trying to broker some deal because he thinks that’s how the game should be played. If he knew anything about politics in general and California politics in particular he could not have asked such a dimwit question.

And later:

Lauer broke in and got up on his high New York know-nothing horse: “There’s been enough slurs and housekeepers. We know you are both flawed people. Everybody in this room is flawed…But what is going to accomplish what Gov. Schwarzenegger is talking about - taking California to the next step, financially in particular, is going to be your strengths not your weaknesses. And I’m asking again, will you both pledge? I’ll give you 24 hours because I know the wheels of a campaign don’t stop overnight,” he said, as if he actually knew anything about how campaigns operate.

In fairness to Lauer, he is Matt Lauer, co-host of the Today show, and Whitman might have been wise to see this kind of campfire sing-a-long coming. But the defense rests there.

While we lament the explosion of slapdash misleading negative campaign ads, negativity in general can serve a purpose, particularly for Whitman, whose opponent has a long history in office from which to draw, and whose last hopes rest on a negativity blitz. That’s the game; you can’t disqualify her from playing. Lauer’s was a cheap trick question; a stunt that belied an ignorance of politics on his part and demonstrated for all of us the tricky territory national journalists face when diving into a race they’ve only glanced from afar—particularly when the journalist is prone to hokey-ness at the outset.

And frankly, if you are going to ask the question, you might want to follow up a little more pointedly than the “think of the children” riff. Brown got off easy here. As he was jumping on Lauer’s white unicorn to Togethernessville, the journalist might have asked this: Do you think it’s easy, Candidate Brown, for you to decry negative campaigning now, after embracing it so readily when Whitman’s undocumented employee came out of the woodwork?

That would have been a cheap trick question, true, but one worth asking.



Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.