Weapons-Grade Cliche

The secret’s out: Teresa Heinz Kerry is John Kerry’s “secret weapon,” the Agence France Presse reports today.

This sounded all too familiar to Campaign Desk, and it got us thinking: Just how many “secret weapons” has the eagle-eyed campaign press uncovered in the candidates’ stockpiles this election season? We were willing to bet there were many.

We bet correctly. And wives, our research tells us, are in fact the least secret of all “secret weapons” the press has discovered this year. Among the press outlets “in” on the alleged Heinz Kerry “secret”: the Boston Herald, the Boston Globe, the Los Angles Times, the New York Times, MSNBC, and CNN (and they went public with it twice).

Laura Bush, being a wife, is also a “secret weapon” for her husband, reporters report. The following journalists have let this particular cat out of the bag so far this campaign season: CBS’s Dan Rather and Bill Plante (on separate occasions), ABC’s Diane Sawyer, NBC’s David Gregory, and CNBC’s Gloria Borger and Sue Herera (each on their own). Paula Zahn, of CNN, actually called Mrs. Bush “the president’s not-so-secret weapon” in June — apparently, the word had gotten out by then.

And it’s not just current and potential First Ladies. The (New York) Daily News recently dubbed Elizabeth Edwards “Kerry’s secret weapon to capture Southern votes.” Children have also been deemed clandestine arrows in candidates’ quivers — specifically, both Bush’s and Kerry’s daughters (according to Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren), and Kerry’s stepson, Chris Heinz (said CNN). Even other people’s children can be part of the weaponry (the New York Daily News’s Lloyd Grove put Ron Reagan, Jr. in Kerry’s corner), as can a powerful sibling (Gov. Jeb Bush for his brother, CNN informed us). Opponents, too, can be weapons (Ralph Nader is one for Bush, per Fox News), as can issues (the economy for Bush, said CNBC).

That perennial favorite of the political press, the swing demographic, has also earned secret weapon status. Yesterday, the St. Petersburg Times reported that “the usually solid Democratic Jewish vote” might actually be Bush’s “secret weapon for winning Florida’s 27 electoral votes” (or so Bush’s re-election campaign “thinks”). Bush-bashers and disorganized Ohio Democrats could also be “secret weapons” for Bush, said the Christian Science Monitor and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer respectively. Fox News found that “minorities” might be Bush “secret weapons” — or more specifically, as Juan Williams suggested in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “[Bush’s] relationship with black and Hispanic voters.”

For Kerry, radio hosts could be “secret weapons” (the Daily News pointed to Al Franken in March, and The Atlantic pointed to Howard Stern in June, a notion picked up by assorted other media outlets). 527s, tax-exempt independent political groups, are also among Kerry’s weapons, said CBS.

With so many secret weapons floating around, we hereby propose a mutual disarmament treaty with the press corps: You quit using the phrase, and we’ll quit making fun of you for it.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.