moEven Steve Scully—the mild-mannered, straight-shooting face of C-SPAN who’s preparing to moderate the Oct. 15 presidential town hall debate—isn’t safe from the slings and arrows of outraged Trumpkins.
On Thursday night, Scully became the Republican Party’s latest media pinata as FoxNews.com published a story headlined “Trump campaign calls out second debate moderator who interned for Biden, worked for Ted Kennedy.”
Forty-two years ago, when he was an 18-year-old communication and political science major at American University in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania-native Scully obtained an unpaid, college-credit internship with the office of first-term Republican Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania.
When that internship fell through, Scully—today a former president of the White House Correspondents Association and C-SPAN’s longtime senior executive producer and political editor—was assigned for six weeks, from September to October 1978, to the mailroom of Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.
The following spring, when he was still 18, Scully answered phones at the front desk and worked as a lowly assistant in the press office—also unpaid and for college credit—of Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Albeit long ago and far away, that scant resumé of civic-minded volunteerism has energized right-wing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, scandal-ridden Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller, and many other Trump acolytes to question the now-60-year-old Scully’s ability to be fair and non-partisan when he referees the back and forth between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger two weeks from now in Miami.
“Everyone agrees Tuesday’s debate was a train wreck. A major contributing factor was the moderator Chris Wallace, a registered Democrat, repeatedly interrupting to try to help Joe Biden,” Cruz tweeted on Thursday morning. “The next debate is set to be moderated by a former intern to…Joe Biden. (And Ted Kennedy.)”
Without name-checking Scully, Cruz added: “This is NUTS. And no Republican should allow this bias to continue in future elections.”
Cruz had more to say about Scully during Friday’s pre-taped installment of The Megyn Kelly Show podcast.
“In the next debate, Scully was literally an intern for Joe Biden and an intern for Ted Kennedy. I mean that’s pretty remarkable,” Cruz told Kelly, who reacted with amazement.
“I didn’t know that—the guy moderating the next debate was an intern for Joe Biden?” Kelly marveled.
“Yes!” Cruz replied. “It’s pretty stunning!”
Cruz’s former 2016 presidential campaign aide, staunch conservative Rick Tyler, these days a vehement Never-Trumper, told The Daily Beast: “Ted has obviously been prompted by his boss to set the table and to call into question everything Trump can’t win at, like debates, like elections, to rig the game. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t know why Cruz would ever participate in that.”
Tyler, who knows the C-SPAN host well and has occasionally been a guest lecturer for a college course Scully has taught, added: “He’s instantly recognizable. In many ways he’s an American institution. He’s just a quality individual. Attacking Steve Scully is like attacking America itself.”
Lauren Aronson, Cruz’s communications director, responded: “Sen. Cruz does not know Steve Scully personally and the Senator’s concerns about how debates are moderated long predates any announcement of Steve moderating the next presidential debate. The bottom line is that moderators should be impartial. If there is a Democrat selected to moderate a debate between two parties, there should be a Republican as well. It’s that simple.”
The married Miller—who recently lost his CNN political commentary gig after the release of court papers (filed by his former mistress and fellow Trump 2016 campaign staffer A.J. Delgado, the mother of their out-of-wedlock child) alleging that he got a stripper pregnant then secretly slipped her abortion-inducing drugs—reposted a four-and-a-half-year-old Scully tweet linking to a David Brooks New York Times column headlined “No, Not Trump, Not Ever.”
Scully repeated the headline in his widely retweeted link, prompting Miller to note sarcastically: “I know Steve didn’t mean this. He’ll be fair at the debate, amirite?”
Other anti-Scully attacks included this one from the official account of the College Republicans: “You can't make this up. Steve Scully, the moderator for the second presidential debate, was an intern for Joe Biden in 1978. Nothing to see here folks!”—accompanied by a friendly photo of Scully and the then-vice president grinning together at the 2016 “Biden Beach Bash,” the sort of chummy social gathering of press and politicians that is frequently criticized but commonplace in Washington.
Equally jolly photos exist showing Scully making nice with Republican pols, including then-president George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, the Team Trump Twitter account reposted the Biden-Scully photo with the caption: “This is the guy @debates [the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates] wants in control of @realDonaldTrump’s mic at the next debate.”
Scully, C-SPAN, and the debate commission didn’t respond to requests for comment.
All of which might strike anyone who has followed Scully’s three-decade career—in which he has conducted thoughtful interviews with presidents and vice presidents of both parties, among other politicians, including then-rival candidates Trump and Cruz—as a tad bizarre.
Scully—who spends nearly every morning on C-SPAN fielding on-air phone calls from Republicans, Democrats, and Independents from across the country, with barely a comment except “thank you”—is famous in the nation’s capital, where everyone on the power grid seems to know and like him, for never ever venturing a political opinion, much less a partisan one.
“He’s a good choice [to moderate the second debate] because unlike the last guy, he’s not going to make himself the center of the show,” said Grover Norquist, the Trump-supporting, conservative judge-loving, tax-loathing president of the influential advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform. “He’s not the lion tamer, he’s not the lion. He’s civil. He’s well-informed…When I saw that [the announcement of Scully’s debate role], I thought that this won’t be gotcha politics.”
Ardent Trump supporter Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast: “Scully will probably bend over backwards to be fair—his bias cant be worse than virtually any establishment reporter they could pick.”
Another Scully defender is former Dubya White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who tweeted Thursday night in response to a story in the conservative Washington Times that Scully “is one of the most fair and decent people anyone will meet. I don’t care who anyone interned for for one month when they were young. Steve is a professional who, as a journalist, always treated people with neutrality and respect.”
An unlikely Scully defender, meanwhile, was far-right firebrand Michelle Malkin, another Trump supporter, who exhorted: “Quit the lame attacks on @SteveScully of @cspan, who’s scheduled to moderate the next debate. He was a mailroom intern for Biden 42 yrs ago. So? I was a mailroom intern for Dem Sen Bill Bradley 29 yrs ago. Many good reasons to challenge biased debates. This is NOT one of them.”
Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, yet another Trump partisan, seemed to agree. “If we held people’s teenage views against them, then Ronald Reagan would have made a pretty crappy president.”