Companion site:


Google search...


Daily Howler: Charlie and George behaved like country squires. But then, that's what they now are
Daily Howler logo
PLUTOCRAT MODERATION! Charlie and George behaved like country squires. But then, that’s what they now are: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, APRIL 18, 2008

BUT WHAT ABOUT PHILOSOPHER FRIDAYS: Controversy continues to swirl around our “Philosopher Fridays” series. For example, we received this e-mail not too long ago:

Hi Bob,

I liked Philosopher Fridays myself. Are you going to bring it back?


You can see the way these people try to goad us into a fight.

Here’s the problem: We’ve gone back to work on a previous project which is now gobbling our extra time. We started our controversial “Philosopher Fridays” series as a way to avoid the cosmic tedium of the ongoing primary coverage. Now, our avoidance is taking a different form.

Yes, we plan to semi-finish the series. Next Friday? Could be.

COINCIDENCE: We were pleased to find this performance by Elizabeth Cotton (with Pete Seeger) posted at Eschaton, by echidne.

As happenstance would have it, we prepared a post, just a few weeks ago, about Cotten’s connection to the (extended) Seeger family—more specifically, to Mike Seeger, our favorite performer of all time (of any kind). For extremely complex reasons, we decided not to post it. Now, we might do so! On Monday!

The humor—and beauty—of this primordial story isn’t captured in this Wikipedia post. It falls under an ancient rubric: The jewel found here in our midst.

MEANWHILE, ANOTHER AMERICAN VOICE: In a week of nonsense from Charlie and George, it can’t hurt to hear an American voice. At this link, the excerpt starts with Mike Seeger and Maybelle Carter. And then, it’s Carter alone.

How do we restore our voice? Perhaps by listening to examples of how it has actually sounded.

Warning: Some of our greatest American voices belong to people who care(d) about flag pins.

PLUTOCRAT MODERATION: Poor George! George Stephanopoulos has been given the task of defending the conduct of Wednesday’s debate. In fairness to him and to Charlie Gibson, you can make a case—a tortured case—for the emphasis the gentlemen placed on Wednesday night’s “flag pin” questions.

In fairness, the questions weren’t pulled from thin air; they’ve been present in the current debate. (Some have been more present than others.) Some people will cast their vote on this basis. If there were no other topics to ponder, you could perhaps tolerate these topics—if not the gruesome frameworks Charlie and George tended to run with.

In other words: If there was no mortgage meltdown, no health care problem, no war in Iraq and no climate crisis, one might imagine tolerating questions of the “flag pin” type. Unfortunately, those problems (and others) exist—though it often seems quite hard to get Major Journos to notice or care. Before we suggest the cause of this problem, let’s review the fumbling tendencies put on display Wednesday night:

The instinctive waste of time: Even before posing their “flag pin” questions, Charlie and George displayed a familiar journalistic tendency—the instinctive waste of time. We started with (worthless) opening statements—though one can’t help suspecting that this was scheduled to set up that instant commercial break. But even then, before the flag pin questions, we had to suffer through several groaners in which Obama and Clinton were encouraged to name each other as running-mates. Before asking them what they would do as president, Charlie Gibson wanted to know what they would be doing it with. This instinctive wasting of valuable time is a hallmark of modern press culture.

The frequent childishness of the questions: Then, it was on to the “flag pin” queries! For a moment, let’s assume that those questions concerned valid topics. That assumed, the childishness of some of the questions was striking. Can this really be the way these journalistic giants think?

Example: Clinton had said that she wouldn’t have stayed in Jeremiah Wright’s church. “Do you honestly believe that 8,000 people should have gotten up and walked out of that church?” Gibson weirdly asked her. Soon after, Stephanopoulos continued with Obama, asking this: “Number one, do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?” Whatever one might think of this topic, these questions were written on second-grade level. But then, we were soon forced to sit through this now-famous taped groaner: “I want to know if you believe in the American flag.” And Stephanopoulos followed with this: “I want to give Senator Clinton a chance to respond, but first a follow-up on this issue, the general theme of patriotism in your relationships.” Egads! Even the Pennsylvanian who appeared on that tape knew that she had to say that she wasn’t questioning anyone’s patriotism. Weirdly, Stephanopoulos had no such compunctions. Which leads to our third complaint:

The persistent conservative/Republican frameworks: There are many ways to be childish. But in Wednesday’s outing, Charlie and George were persistently childish in pseudo-conservative ways. Good lord! In persistent questioning, Gibson seemed to have no idea that the president is the commander-in-chief; he persistently marveled at the idea that a Democratic president might adopt a policy in Iraq with which the generals differ. (“Are you essentially saying, I know better than the military commanders here?” he asked Clinton, seeming amazed.) And then, the squires moved to tax policy. Stephanopoulos took his framework straight from a pledge from a famous Republican campaign:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Can you make an absolute, read-my-lips pledge that there will be no tax increases of any kind for anyone earning under $200,000 a year?

In this, as in some other areas, it didn’t occur to the country squires to ask the Dems what they would do; their questions automatically seemed to start with the other party’s perspective. This isn’t automatically wrong in such sessions. But you have to marvel at the way Stephanopoulos introduced this discussion:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me turn to the economy. That is the number one issue on Americans' minds right now. Yesterday, Senator McCain signaled that the number one issue in the general election campaign on the economy is going to be taxes. And he says that both of you are going to raise taxes, not just on the wealthy but on everyone. Here's what he said in his speech yesterday.

Presumably, these questions were written out in advance; Stephanopoulos had time to consider his words. And in these words, he seems to give McCain the right to decide what “the number one issue in the general election campaign on the economy is going to be.” He didn’t ask Obama or Clinton what they thought the number-one issue should be. He simply explained what McCain had “signaled,” then moved to “read my lips.”

The rise of the plutocrat journalist: But it was Gibson’s heart attack about capital gains that really cemented a portrait. After lazy questioning on many topics—except about Obama’s patriotism—Gibson provided a striking “tell” as he pursued the troubling thought that one of these Dems might even decide to raise the capital gains tax rate. Suddenly, Gibson transformed himself into a tiger, examining each subordinate clause as the Dems suggested that, yes, they might even ask the idle rich to pay something like the same tax rate that working stiffs have to fork over. In a truly remarkable display, Gibson asked five separate follow-up questions about this deeply troubling topic. And these follow-up questions came on the heels of his bungled—but familiar—opening framework. Suddenly, Charlie was Socrates, questioning endlessly out in the square. And uh-oh! He seemed to insist that lowering the capital gains tax rate would inevitably produce more revenue:

GIBSON: Senator Obama, you both have now just taken this pledge on people under $250,000 and 200-and-what, 250,000.

OBAMA: Well, it depends on how you calculate it. But it would be between 200 and 250,000.

GIBSON: All right. You have however said you would favor an increase in the capital gains tax. As a matter of fact, you said on CNBC, and I quote, "I certainly would not go above what existed under Bill Clinton, which was 28 percent." It's now 15 percent. That's almost a doubling if you went to 28 percent. But actually Bill Clinton in 1997 signed legislation that dropped the capital gains tax to 20 percent.

OBAMA: Right.

GIBSON: And George Bush has taken it down to 15 percent.

OBAMA: Right.

GIBSON: And in each instance, when the rate dropped, revenues from the tax increased. The government took in more money. And in the 1980s, when the tax was increased to 28 percent, the revenues went down. So why raise it at all, especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?

In his follow-ups, he continued this theme—arguing the familiar idea that a lower tax rate will produce extra revenue. We’re not expert on the matter of capital gains, but Gibson’s presentation was far from convincing. Surely, everyone has heard the standard explanation for the phenomena he kept describing. In case you haven’t, or in case you’ve forgotten, Joe Klein glossed it in this post:

“Charlie Gibson really needs a lesson in capital gains taxation,” Klein wrote. “Yes, the revenues go up (temporarily) when the rates come down, but only because traders hold onto the stocks in anticipation of the rate reduction so that they can gain higher profits.” (At TNR, Jonathan Cohn posted a slightly more detailed treatment.) For ourselves, we’d like to see this explored much further. (We think we saw such treatments yesterday, but can’t recall where.)

Many have noted that Gibson worked hard, trying to keep his capital gains tax rate low. But fewer people have noted his second problem: As he argued (and argued; and argued), he took on the air of a plutocrat stooge. Lower tax rates produce extra revenue! Arguing thusly, he promoted the world’s most familiar pseudo-conservative line. Does any one think he really knows enough about this to have argued so long and so hard?

What explains the conduct of Wednesday’s debate? For our money, we were watching the latest instance of “IPJ:” Inevitable Plutocrat Journalism. In particular, the moderators’ instinct for trivia has an unfortunate, growing history. As we pondered Wednesday’s debate, the more we recalled Gore and Bradley’s first debate, on October 27, 1999:

On that evening, a serious dispute was joined about the two Democrats’ health plans. It was an impressive evening—so impressive that conservative pundit Kate O’Beirne praised the depth of both candidates’ knowledge on that weekend’s Capital Gang. But here’s how the Washington Post’s Mary McGrory began her Sunday column. There’s one word for this—disgrace:

MCGRORY (10/31/99): Vice President Albert Gore came to his fateful encounter with newly menacing challenger Bill Bradley carrying heavy baggage. He was wearing an outfit that added to his problems when he stepped onstage at Dartmouth College: a brown suit, a gunmetal blue shirt, a red tie—and black boots.

Was it part of his reinvention strategy? Perhaps it was meant to be a ground-leveling statement—"I am not a well-dressed man." It is hard to imagine that he thought to ingratiate himself with the nation's earliest primary voters by trying to look like someone seeking employment at a country music radio station. Maybe it was the first step in shedding his Prince Albert image.

He had other personal issues on his mind. It was plain as he plunged into pre-game activities...

Disgraceful—and widely applauded. No, McGrory never got around to discussing the new dispute about the nation’s health care. But then, very view journalists ever discussed it—except as a vehicle for promoting their scripted narrative about Gore’s and Bradley’s alleged characters. (In this novel, Bradley was too noble to live on this earth; Gore was a nasty attack dog.) The sheer stupidity of McGrory’s column was an insult to American voters. It was also an announcement of the press corps’ emerging plutocrat culture.

There’s a bottom line to all this: As a general matter, millionaire journos don’t care about health care. (Or about mortgages. Or about warming.) It was plain in the fall of 1999, and it seemed fairly plain Wednesday night. To all appearances, the country squires had formed their questions in the plush leather chairs that are found at the club. They worried hard about capital gains, while pushing dumb pseudo-con notions.

Unfortunately, many liberals have shut their traps about this growing plutocrat culture. This has been especially true at our “career liberal” journals. It’s hard to avoid an obvious thought: Some are in line to get that same swag. They have no plans to blow it.

POLMAN’S FACT: In the Philly Inquirer, columnist Dick Polman criticized Obama’s performance. But in the process, he noted the following highlighted fact about the whole “flag pin” matter:

POLMAN (4/17/08): John McCain doesn't even wear a flag pin. In fact, when eight Republican candidates debated last autumn, seven of them did not wear flag pins.

You can’t necessarily defuse such “issues” by making observations like that. In fact, it can be very hard to convince some voters that this may not be the greatest basis for making a character judgment. Just in terms of winning this election, Obama might have been better off if he’d withheld last fall’s explanation of why he stopped wearing that flag pin.

But here’s our question, about Polman’s fact: Did ABC’s squires consider that fact when they did their debate preparation? When they decided to give such a wide public airing to that “flag pin” question? Did Stephanopoulos consider what Polman noted when he explicitly talked about “patriotism?” In leather chairs, near mahoganied walls, scruples like that may not prosper.

In many ways, Charlie and George behaved like plutocrat squires. But alas! Given the power of human nature, that may be what they now are.