Former Sen. Rick Santorum's base is probably cheering him to the rafters after he took a vulgar swipe at a New York Times reporter's question Sunday following a Santorum speech in Wisconsin to the effect that Mitt Romney's Massachusetts healthcare law made him "the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama."
After Santorum's remarks, New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny zeroed in on that remark, asking Santorum to elaborate: "You said that Mitt Romney is the worst Republican in the country. Is that true?"
Santorum asked, "What speech did you listen to?"
Zeleny asked again, and Santorum, jabbing a finger toward Zeleny, said "stop lying" and "quit distorting my words. If I see it, it's bullshit. C'mon, man, what are you doing?"
The next day, and evidently in a more cheerful frame of mind, he used the incident as a kind of campaign medal, telling the Fox News Channel, "If you haven't cursed out a New York Times reporter during the course of a campaign, you're not really a real Republican, is the way I look at it." And he told CNN that he was making the case that Romney could not criticize President Obama’s healthcare law because Romney "wrote the blueprint" for it. "And to then say, you know, spin this as Rick Santorum said he's the worst Republican in the country."
Candidates can never go wrong slamming the news media. Santorum may have been referring to an incident during the 2000 presidential campaign when then-Gov. George W. Bush, talking to his running mate Dick Cheney at a Labor Day event, was picked up by an open mike when he indicated the press corps and said, "There’s Adam Clymer, major-league asshole from the New York Times." Cheney evidently agreed and said, "Oh yeah, big-time."
Bush said he didn't realize the mikes would pick up his voice, but he did not apologize.
(Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry made a vulgar comment about a Secret Service agent during the presidential campaign, but he made it on the record to a reporter, after the agent on Kerry's detail accidentally knocked him down on a ski slope in Idaho. "I don't fall down. The son of a bitch" -- the agent -- ran into him, Kerry told the reporter. Different circumstance from Obama's gaffe to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, caught on an open mike in South Korea on Monday: "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.")
Maybe one of the most renowned press attacks was President Nixon's, heard on White House tapes siccing the IRS on L.A. Times Publisher Otis Chandler.
On Oct. 7, 1971, more than a year before election day, Nixon ordered the attorney general to check on whether Chandler's gardener was a "wetback," and mentioned that he had ordered an Internal Revenue Service investigation of the Chandler family. "I want this whole goddam bunch gone after.... Every one of those sons of bitches," Nixon said.
He also told the attorney general, John Mitchell, to have the Immigration and Naturalization Service raid The Times looking for illegal immigrants.
A day earlier, The Times had reported on 36 illegal immigrants taken into custody during an immigration raid at a tortilla factory owned by Romana Banuelos, whom the White House had just nominated for the position of U.S. Treasurer (she would become the highest-placed Mexican American in government).
The president told Mitchell that "as a Californian, I know. Everybody in California hires them. There's no law against it, because they are there, because -- for menial things and so forth. Otis Chandler -- I want him checked with regard to his gardener. I understand he's a wetback. Is that clear?"
The Times had decades earlier steadfastly supported and encouraged Nixon; in the midst of Nixon's 1952 ''slush fund'' scandal, The Times' headline had been "Sen. Nixon's Defiance of Smear Hailed."
And George McGovern, the Democrat running against Nixon in 1972, didn't say it to a reporter but to a heckler. McGovern leaned forward and whispered in the man's ear, "Listen, you son of a bitch, why don't you kiss my ass?"
Like Santorum, McGovern too made some political capital out of the incident.
By the next day, McGovern supporters were showing up at rallies with buttons reading "KMA."
-- Patt Morrison
Photo: Rick Santorum speaks on March 25 at South Hills Country Club during a public rally near Racine, Wis. Credit: Gregory Shaver/Journal Times, AP Photo