Cox and Bull

On election night at Newport Beach's Sutton Place Hotel, teary-eyed Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren and weeping supporters locked themselves in their hospitality suite. Somber GOP activists huddled in corridors, whispering about unexpected Democratic triumphs throughout the state and, of all places, Orange County. Others cussed energetically and tried to drink away their misery.

But Chris Cox was having none of it. The permanently smiling Newport Beach congressman--who had handily won a sixth term in a district that, thanks to gerrymandering, no Democrat can ever capture--worked his way through the despondent assembly, pushing a stroller that carried his 2-month-old son, Kevin. Every few feet, Cox gleefully shouted: "Baby. Coming through."

No one in this "traditional"-values crowd seemed bothered that the crafty 46-year-old politician with an eye on higher office toted an infant to the intense affair or that--at 10 p.m.--it was well past Kevin's bedtime. People stepped aside, ogled at the miraculously sleeping baby, then stared in near-reverential awe at the diminutive, natty congressman. "That is so precious," said one young woman who was wearing a bright-red dress with matching earrings. "Well, bless his heart."

Questioning Cox is, of course, something few people do. For years--as Robert K. Dornan slashed and burned his way through the political landscape--the rest of Orange County's six-member congressional delegation escaped even cursory scrutiny. Dornan is now history, and an ambitious Cox desperately wants to burst onto the national scene.

In recent days, Orange County's ranking member of Congress gained national recognition when he tried--albeit briefly and unsuccessfully--to beat aw-shucks Louisiana Representative Bob Livingston for the right to replace resigning House Speaker Newt Gingrich. There was Cox touting himself as worthy of becoming the most powerful man in Congress and second only to the vice president in presidential succession. It would have been the ideal time for the mainstream media to seriously probe the USC graduate's public record, stances and background.

But no. The man known for his frat-boy smugness, icy-lawyer demeanor and petty vanity received nothing but high-sounding accolades from the "liberal" daily press corps. Cox--who was born and raised in Minnesota--is a "cool, telegenic Californian," reported the Associated Press. A USA Today reporter noted that Cox is a "fresh face" on the political scene and is a "laid back intellectual"--even though he's been in Washington, D.C., for a decade and wears conservative suits in the most casual of circumstances. The New York Times reported without attribution that Cox is an "intellectual dabbler," "telegenic" and--don't make me laugh--bipartisan. A reporter for The Orange County Register editorialized that Cox "has always preferred to concentrate on perfecting the details of a piece of legislation" rather than raw politics. The Chicago Tribune newsroom unilaterally claimed that Cox is a "solid conservative with a keen intellect and a telegenic presence." Even the granddaddy of the Washington press establishment, The Washington Post, told its readers that Cox is "smart and a perfectionist" and, of course, "telegenic." Odd that being smart and telegenic would mean so much nowadays to President Bill Clinton's most vociferous critics.

Although posing as neutral and thorough, not a single reporter in the mainstream media even bothered to hint about a critical fact: a Cox speakership would have been a wet dream for corporate America. Indeed, on the very day that Cox dropped his run for speaker, the Wall Street Journal broke with its tradition of neutrality on "internal leadership races" to announce that "Chris Cox of California . . . strikes us as standing out as the best of the current or likely candidates." Four years ago, The New York Times got it right when they effectively reported that Cox's rise in congressional power under Gingrich meant corporate lobbyists would get much of their legislative "wish list." After the GOP took control of Congress in 1994, the former $500,000-per-year corporate-securities lawyer was so adamant about shielding corporations from liability after they profit from misleading investors that other ultrapro-business Republicans privately considered the Newport Beach rep an extremist. One of Cox's more hair-raising ideas was that corporate executives should legally be allowed to defend themselves in lawsuits by literally employing an "I forgot" defense.

The press also forgot to mention the case of Steven Olsen, a 6-year-old boy who was left brain damaged and blind after medical malpractice. Olsen's parents took exception to Cox's dogged work to lower "pain and suffering" awards to just $250,000, a rate that translated to a measly $4,000-per-year for the permanently disabled boy if he lives to 60. Cox called such awards "feelings damages," which deserve negligible compensation, and he refused to meet with the family. A Cox aide callously told the Olsens that his boss was injured in an automobile accident and "he lives with it; he doesn't complain." Mainstream newspapers noted the congressman's "popularity" but didn't mention that the Olsen incident prompted the formation of a local "Chris Cox Cruelty Society."

Remarkably, the press was also silent about Cox's close personal and business relationship with William E. Cooper, a major Republican Party contributor and local corporate executive who was convicted of fraud in 1994 after stealing $136 million from 8,500 mostly senior-citizen investors. In a related civil action, Cox--who counseled Cooper on his business plans and partied with him at his elaborate Villa Park mansion--was accused of knowing about the fraud and trying to conceal it. Later, the congressman's attorneys got Cox dismissed from the case after arguing that there was not enough evidence to link him directly to the illegal schemes.

The good news for the press is that they will have additional chances to redeem themselves. Despite the appearance that he fears public fights, Cox seems determined to run again--even if briefly--for higher office. By our count, the man who is supposed to be the local Republicans' next great hope has prematurely aborted or failed in four key contests: the 48-hour public-relations campaign for speaker, two meek attempts in 1994 and 1996 to win the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, and a pathetic behind-the-scenes effort to be Bob Dole's vice presidential nominee. After Cox quit against Livingston, a Republican congressional aide told the Los Angeles Times: "His running was just a joke. He talks about running for everything: the Senate, vice president, House majority leader. He's the serial candidate. He's becoming our new Bob Dornan--do anything to get on the talk shows, whether or not it has credibility."

Despite such sentiment, Cox continues to search for easy victories. With an assist from the mainstream media, he will also keep working on perfecting his public persona: a kind-hearted, smiling, telegenic intellect. Perhaps the most bizarre yet inadvertently insightful comment about Cox came earlier this year from pal and neighboring Huntington Beach Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

"If you look at his smile," explained Rohrabacher, "his smile looks the same whether you are looking from the top of his head down, or the bottom of his head up. He has a smile that slopes downwards, very unique, so you can actually turn his picture upside-down, and he's still smiling."

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