Editor's Desk

Simon on the Rise

While Richard Riordan and Ted Koppel lick their respective wounds.

By 3.5.02

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THE DAY OF THE CONDIT: Nationally, the only result from today's California primary like to attract mass attention is whether Rep. Gary Condit is ousted by his own party.

Those, such as the "New York Times," eager to see a Bush setback, will play up the expected defeat of White House-backed Richard Riordan in the gubernatorial primary. The race was his to lose, and apparently he did his best to lose it. Even if he should somehow survive he's unlikely to go on to defeat Democrat Gray Davis without the support of the California's GOP active conservative base, which he did his best to alienate forever by depicting it as a collection of intolerant has-beens. Many conservatives were ready to turn a cheek, but once that Riordan started slapping them -- repeatedly -- across the face, with both hands, he left them no choice.

Perhaps most galling to Riordan is that his sad performance will allow his long-time nemesis, Gray operative Garry South, to have the last word. Last week "Sacramento Bee" political columnist Daniel Weintraub asked South about Riordan's collapse. Here's part of South's reply (which Weintraub included in his e-mailed "California Insider" newsletter):

"When you are running in a party primary it's not a good idea to lecture the voters on which you are going to have to count on, telling them they have to shape up and come over to your point of view or they are going to die a slow and agonizing death. That's basically what he told them. It's just incredible arrogance."

Or as a young elementary school teacher told yesterday's L.A. Times: "[Riordan] is someone who thinks the only way the Republican Party can win is if the conservative arm didn't exist?"

Has recent politics seen anything comparable?

In his desperation Riordan has taken to attacking likely winner Bill Simon, Jr. -- a former friend whom he initially urged to run -- as an unelectable conservative extremist. At the same time, he's seized on reports that Simon was not all that active a Republican -- if Republican at all -- during his pre-political days. So which is it?

The stage is thus set for an interesting gubernatorial race. If Simon wins, he will have done so by winning the backing of the party's most active, conservative voters. But for the general campaign he'll be well-suited to run as a more centrist candidate. Already last year the "California Political Review" established that Simon can appeal to conservatives but is hardly the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Left to his own devices he's likely to be no more conservative than Pete Wilson; he can easily turn into a champion of a conservative-moderate mix that so far has worked for George W. Bush.

Gray Davis and Garry South will doubtless attack Simon on abortion and guns, which they're free to do for lack of anything better to offer in defense of their own unadmired incumbency. But those aren't the issues at the top of voter concerns this year, in which the main matter remains Gray's anemic leadership on energy and an out-of-control, deficit-riddled state budget.

Meanwhile, to neutralize any such attacks all Simon will have to do is appear again with his main supporter in the California race, Rudy Giuliani.

In one of Davis's many recent low points, he tried to earn leadership points by bragging in his state of the state address last January that all four planes hijacked on September 11 were originally headed for California. Simon, by contrast, was having breakfast with Giuliani in New York when two of those planes hit the World Trade Center. And lest anyone accuse him of opportunism, Simon was playing up his ties to Giuliani well before 9/11.

THE LAST REFUGE: Outside of California and its election day, the rest of the U.S. was observing Ted Koppel Day -- all because the $10 million a year, three-days a week anchor has come out swinging to defend his and his "Nightline" shows reputation, relevance, and claims to unprecedented greatness.

Koppel makes his case in a New York Times op-ed, and there are same-day articles about the op-ed in the "Times" itself as well as the "Washington Post."

It's all more than a little much, when everyone knows that Koppel's inflated reputation was put to rest some years ago when he and his show tried to take exclusive credit for stunning tapes of Pol Pot on trial -- a scoop that by rights belonged to a low-key, Cambodia-based American reporter working for the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Then there's the matter of Koppel's show being like a government program that takes on a life of its own. It began as a melodramatic effort to chronicle the Iran hostage crisis. Once Reagan was inaugurated and the hostage released, it had to come up with new justifications for its existence. Throughout Koppel has remained Big Brother, interviewing subjects he can see but who cannot see him. But in fairness, the cut of Koppel's suits has only improved with time.

The op-ed in the "Times" shows a big media ego in full flower. Every word can be savored. I will limit myself to two particular claims.

The first is positively Clintonesque, when Koppel writes that when his show started his bosses at ABC told him late night ratings success would come if "Nightline" finished a "respectable third." He then writes: "We did better than that. Over the past 22 years we have been, and continue to be, a consistent competitive second." But how can he be second when it's widely acknowledge that Leno and Letterman are one-two in Koppel's time slot? Letterman would hardly be worth more to ABC if his numbers were worse than Koppel's.

But the real beaut comes late -- confirming, as it were, that patriotism is the last refuge of a Koppel:

"I would argue that in these times, when homeland security is an ongoing concern, when another terrorist attack may, at any time, shatter our sense of normalcy, when American troops are engaged in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia, when the likelihood of military action against Iraq is growing - when, in short, the regular and thoughtful analysis of national and foreign policy is more essential than ever - it is, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, malicious to describe what my colleagues and I are doing as lacking relevance."

He didn't say it, but you know he meant to. If "Nightline" goes, the terrorists will have won.

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About the Author
Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator and the editor of AmSpec Online.