ANSWERING DIGBYS IMPORTANT QUESTION: For the record, we do have one factual disagreement with this important post by Digby. For the record, Chris Matthews really didnt hate John Kerry in 2004. Matthews says he voted for Kerry, and thats almost surely true. Quite plainly, he took Kerrys side in the Swift Boat matteraggressively but ineffectively.
(Similarly, Lawrence ODonnell got himself kicked off MSNBC for his hapless, over-the-top defense of Kerry. Like Matthews, he screamed and yelled on Kerrys behalfbut he didnt acquaint himself with the basic facts of the various Swift Boat complaints, and was therefore grossly ineffective. Nothing will ever make these people take the time and the trouble to prepare. But in fact, the whole NBC Irish Catholic crowd supported Kerry in 2004, including honorary Irishman Don Imus. These people loathed Clinton, Gore and Clinton; but they really didnt treat Candidate Kerry the way theyve treated the other three. But people like Matthews are only good at one thingtearing targeted pols to the ground, through the use of inane, nasty narratives. Though Matthews clearly favored Kerry, he wasnt willing to do that to Bushand he has no other skills.)
That said, Digby raises a basic question in her important post. She discusses the way Obama is now being portrayed as an effete arugula liberaleven as McCain is being called the coolest guy in the school by 20-something reporters. If Obama becomes the Dem nominee, were not sure how widely this portrait will be peddled. But Digby raises a primal question at the end of her post:
DIGBY (4/27/08): Nobody should be surprised or unprepared for this by now. I think Obama's campaign people underestimated how this label could be applied to their guy and they allowed it to play out in Pennsylvania in ways that should have been anticipated. But then I have always wondered why Democrats are always off guard every time this hits them.
Maybe this election will change all that. I hope so. But so far, I'm seeing the narrative playing out exactly as I thought it would and it leads me right back to where I started. I believe that Democrats are nearly guaranteed to win due to the fundamental forces driving this election. But I'm not so sure the Democrats will win with any kind of progressive mandate if they let the media frame the election in these terms and I'm definitely not so sure that our new president will be able to enact a progressive agenda if he (or she) moves right thinking to disable this narrative. (That's the whole point.) The silver lining is that it's being deployed early in the game due to the long primary and that offers a chance to change the storyline before the general. They need to get to it.
Read literally, Digby asks why Obamas campaign has been caught off guard by the return of this narrative. Beyond that, she says that the Democrats cant let the media frame the election this way. Those frameworks dont involve the journalistic entities we discuss here at THE HOWLER. But well offer a wider answer to the questions implied by her post.
Putting Obamas campaign to the side, lets answer this implied question: Why does this narrative return every time, driven along by utter trivia (arugula) or by fake stories (Campaign 2000's fancy hotel)? Twenty years after Belgian endive, why is arugula back? Why does this narrative never die?
Two partial answers (though there are others):
Democratic Party elites: Wed have to suggest that Democratic Party elites may not care a great deal about who wins elections. Yes, they would probably prefer to see Democrats win. But the people who run the Democratic Party are just as wealthy as Big Reps are. They gain large sums from Republican tax cutsand sometimes, this interest seems to show in the way they fight (or decline to). They have made very few efforts down through the years to confront the way Democrats lose elections. Yes, the Clinton have helped establish some orgs which have begun to address these issues. But today, Democratic strategists run to Michelle Cottle to tattle on Candidate Clinton, just as they once ran to major news orgs to tattle on Candidate Gore. (Passing out the dirty parts of Naomi Wolfs books, for example.) Many people at the top of your party seem to look out for Number One only. Simply put, these are truly horrible peopleand they seem to be found all through your partys bloated elites.
Liberal/progressive journalistic elites: Twenty years ago, it was Belgian endive. Today, arugula reaches the cover of Newsweekand McCain is still the worlds greatest man. In all that time, have you ever seen your liberal journals address these destructive, trivia-fueled narratives? Overwhelmingly, noyou have not. But you have seen their honchos run off to do Hardball; you have seen them turn up at the Post for their next jobs. (In recent months, you have seen your brightest progressives tell you how brilliant Chris Matthews is.) If you still cant see why this narrative never dies, you need to stop trying to figure things out. In the past several decades, this has largely been a mainstream press narrativeand your liberal journalistic elite are part of the mainstream press structure. They get wealth and fame from the mainstream pressand they dont discuss its misconduct.
Belgian endive has turned into arugulaand Digby is asking some very good questions. Why has this narrative persisted down through all these years? (Why did they hand you that fancy hotel?) We think a large part of the answer is obvious. Why wont we say what it is?
LIFES A BEACH (NOVEL): How do these life-forms instinctively function? In her column in Sundays Times, the life-form known as Maureen Dowd gave us a look at their standard behavior. Having already called Clinton Nixonian, she described a recent set of press interactions with troubling starlet Obambi:
DOWD (4/27/08): At Joes Junction gas station in Indianapolis, Obama did his best to shoo away the pesky elitist label. Accused by an Indianapolis reporter of looking like a GQ cover, he said he has only four pairs of shoes and buys five of the same suit and then I patch them up and wear them repeatedly. But his campaign refused to reveal the brand, presumably because its not J. C. Penney.
Lets review what occurred in this sadly typical episode.
First, some unnamed reporter asked Obama why he looks like a GQ cover.
Forced to respond, Obama made a self-deprecating remark about the suits he wears. And then, of course, it happened again; the New York Times asked Obamas campaign to reveal the brand of his suits! They wanted to talk about clothing againthe only subject they truly care for. Typing from the fancy house Jack Kennedy once owned, the crackpot Dowd then voiced her judgment: Barack Obama doesnt buy his suits from J. C. Penney!
To state the obvious, this is how your highest-profile journalists have behaved for a great many years.
But every so often, we get a surprise! Yesterday, someone from the highest Democratic Party circles stood to complain about this nonsense. That person was Elizabeth Edwards, presenting a spot-on complaint on the same op-ed page which gave us Dowd-on-Penney! Bowling 1, Health Care 0, read her self-explanatory headline. And lets give three cheers for Elizabeth Edwards! Beneath that banner, she penned the kind of complaint our side almost never makes. (To read her full column, click here.)
Edwards complained about the prominence given to bowling scoresand the flight from things like health care. She mocked the way journalists pimped smartsexyhandsome Fred Thompson, even before he got into the race. She presented those punishing data from that Pew study; during the early months of the 2008 presidential campaign, 63 percent of the campaign stories focused on political strategy while only 15 percent discussed the candidates ideas and proposals.
But in our mind, her most striking passage was the one which follows. We know, we knowwe use the same language. But in this paragraph, Edwards defines the way our press coverage works. In the Washington Post, ombudsman E. R. Shipp said much the same thing, more than nine years ago:
EDWARDS (4/27/08): Watching the campaign unfold, I saw how the press gravitated toward a narrative template for the campaign, searching out characters as if for a novel: on one side, a self-described 9/11 hero with a colorful personal life, a former senator who had played a president in the movies, a genuine war hero with a stunning wife and an intriguing temperament, and a handsome governor with a beautiful family and a high school sweetheart as his bride. And on the other side, a senator who had been first lady, a young African-American senator with an Ivy League diploma, a Hispanic governor with a self-deprecating sense of humor and even a former senator from the South standing loyally beside his ill wife. Issues that could make a difference in the lives of Americans didnt fit into the narrative template and, therefore, took a back seat to these superficialities.
It was like they were writing a novel, Edwards wrote. Issues that didnt fit their narrative took a back seat to trivia which did. That is why colleagues of Dowd (or Dowd herself) asked about Obamas suits. And thats what Shipp wrote nine years ago in her column, Typecasting Candidates:
SHIPP (3/2/00): [R]eaders react...to roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick"; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass.
Shipp went on to cite a negative story about Candidate McCaina story the Post had chosen to dump. And she cited Ceci Connollys famous misquotation of Gore about Love Canal. Readers have questioned a Post article that portrayed Gore as delusional, she said, referring to Connollys work. Indeed: That bungled quotation of Gore fits the role The Post seems to have assigned him in Campaign 2000, Shipp wrote.
To Edwards, it was like the press corps was writing a novel. Nine years ago, Shipp said it was like the Post was typecasting a dramaassigning roles to the different candidates. But then, this has persisted through many cycles. And our side almost never complains.
Do you see why we offer three cheers for Edwards? Its like theyre writing a novel, she saidstating the worlds most obvious fact. Indeed, they wrote a destructive novel in Campaign 2000and the liberal worlds big shots all looked away, even after Shipp pointed it out. Your leaders all knew they mustnt complain. George Bush ended up where he is.
So three big cheers for Elizabeth Edwards! Liberal leaders almost never say this. Well ask you again: Why is that?