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The House’s new boss: An early media swoon (by some) for Kevin McCarthy

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CNN’s ‘documentary’

The House’s new boss: An early media swoon (by some) for Kevin McCarthy 

When a politician wins an election or a promotion, the press often scrambles to answer the question: Who is this guy?

The ostensible reason for these pieces is to introduce readers and viewers to the new power player and provide a sense of the person behind the title.

But it also serves as an opportunity to write a “beat sweetener”—a bit of a valentine to the official you’ll be covering. It turns out he has all these wonderful qualities that have somehow remained hidden from public view. And if this causes the newly powerful person to return the reporter’s phone calls more quickly, well, that’s just a nice fringe benefit.  

With Eric Cantor stepping down as majority leader after unexpectedly getting pummeled in his primary, the Beltway spotlight has turned to Kevin McCarthy, the California congressman who quickly lined up the votes to succeed him. But it looks like the pieces all missed an important angle.

Here’s how Politico paints his portrait:

“He hangs out with billionaire Elon Musk, rides bikes with actor Kevin Spacey and counts Arnold Schwarzenegger and Condoleezza Rice as buddies.

“He visits Silicon Valley almost every month…When schmoozing with celebrities, the onetime deli owner often snaps a selfie on his iPhone — he’ll show his collection to anyone who wants to see it. He gushes about the painting of President Abraham Lincoln in his office or the modernized version of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” displayed in his conference room.

“But don’t let the affability and toothy smile fool you. Kevin Owen McCarthy lives and breathes the House of Representatives. He even sleeps in his office.”

Wow. What a guy.

In fact, the three authors say, “in a Capitol filled with jealousy, envy and an endless supply of backbiting, McCarthy has a huge base of members willing to go to bat for him.”

Not until the 14th paragraph does Politico get around to mentioning that “McCarthy definitely has his detractors. There are those who privately question his policy chops and intellectual abilities.”

Oh. That was an interesting detour.

But soon it’s back to “McCarthy’s political skills are key to his success…McCarthy is described as warm and friendly…McCarthy banters easily with reporters.”

The Washington Post takes a more skeptical approach, highlighting criticism in the third paragraph:

“A win by McCarthy, in just his fourth term, would complete a remarkable transformation for the affable Californian, who just a year ago was dogged by criticism that he wasn’t tough enough to persuade recalcitrant GOP lawmakers to vote with the leadership on critically important issues. He also faced questions about whether his policy chops were substantive enough for the job.”

Not until deep in the piece does the Post dip into the softer stuff: “An early practitioner of the P90X workout regimen, he once spent every morning working out with colleagues. Nowadays, his favored move is long bike rides with lawmakers through Rock Creek Park and along the C&O Canal, with his Capitol Police security detail pedaling alongside.”

The New York Times, by contrast, casts its story in ideological terms.

“For all the talk of a lurch to the right after the primary election defeat this week of the House majority leader, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the race to remake the Republican leadership may actually leave its top ranks more moderate.”

Once McCarthy ascends, “the new majority leader will have a less conservative voting record than the man he is replacing.”

And the missing angle I mentioned? Conservative anger at Kevin McCarthy.

RedState’s Erick Erickson writes: “McCarthy is not very conservative and, for all of Cantor’s faults, lacks Cantor’s intelligence on a number of issues. Lest we forget, McCarthy had several high profile screw ups as whip and has not really seemed to ever improve over time.

“If House Republicans wish to not find common ground with the conservatives who make up their base, McCarthy is a fine pick. But if they want to get everyone together as we head into November and then into 2016, they should consider someone else. McCarthy is a non-starter for conservatives and the bad blood will continue.”

Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein makes a similar point:

“If House Republicans respond to the shocking primary defeat of Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., by elevating his handpicked successor Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., it would be beyond tone-deaf. It would be pure absurdity…

“By elevating McCarthy, who is next in line as whip, they'd be sending the opposite message — that they're determined to crush conservatives.”

Sure, sure but what about hanging with Kevin Spacey and the P90X workout??

CNN’s ‘documentary’

On yesterday’s “Media Buzz,” David Zurawik really unloaded on the CNN prime-time special “41 on 41.”

This is no knock on the indefatigable George H.W. Bush, who amazingly jumped out of an airplane at age 90 last week. But here is Zurawik’s Baltimore Sun column on the program:

“It's not a documentary as the word is used to describe the work of a filmmaker like Ken Burns or Frederick Wiseman. It's not even a documentary as the word might be used to describe an extended report of 30 minutes or so about a historic building airing on your hometown TV news station.

“This is two hours of hagiography paid for by the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation. One of its two producers, Mary Kate Cary, is a former speechwriter for Bush when he was in the White House.

“The film is called ‘41ON41’ and it's filled with family members, friends and colleagues of Bush saying things like, "You can't be around George Bush and not come away a better person." (Bush was the 41st president and there are apparently 41 people saying such things about him. I stopped counting after I was told that a verse about being ‘true’ and ‘pure’ shaped Bush's life.)”

Here’s the response that CNN gave Zurawik:

“The film presents a portrait of a former President of the United States and the 41 voices in the film are notable individuals who know him well, and add interesting, lesser-known insights to the personal side of an otherwise well-documented life.  The film airs near the remarkable occasion of the 90th birthday of this historic figure and, as with our other acquired CNN documentaries of biographical figures, the network will present a diverse variety of voices surrounding the film that will add additional perspectives on his policy decisions and place in history.” 

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.