IN PRAISE OF VAGUE DREAM-HEADS: This morning, we went to scope a tree house (complete with hanging bridge to the regular house!) constructed by a guy at the bagel joint for his (roughly) eight-year-old daughter. In all the talk of this marvel this week, weve thought of Frost, addressing his window tree. You might want to go there this weekend:
Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.
Vague dream-heads are in short supply these days. Our political/journalistic culture is tilted toward tightly wound narrative-heads, who wrap themselves around hard story-lines. Theres no dream or vagueness about them at all. To see them working, just click here, then marvel at grafs 1 and 3. Its gruesome. But very familiar.
Without even pausing to take a breath, they know exactly what everything means. But then, theyve been framing your world this way a long time. Wed have to say they arent vague dream-head people.
A SWOON RAN UP HIS LEG: Embarrassing. On Wednesday night, Charlie Rose hosted Kurt Andersen, whose column, Imperial City, appears in New York magazine. (His current effort is entitled, About that Crush on Obama.) In our mind, Andersens appearance was an embarrassing match for John Judis recent TNR piece, the one in which Judis seems to say that one current White House hopeful should be held to a different standard.
Our view? Given the record of the past dozen years, youd almost think that major journalists would avoid the grisly word, swoon. But not Kurt and Charliethey started right in! This cohort simply never adjusts, no matter how many people get maimed or killed in the wars their dumbness creates.
Sorry. This swoony stuff was embarrassing ten years ago. At this point, its well past inane:
ROSE (5/21/08): I am pleased to have Kurt Andersen back at this table. Welcome.
ANDERSEN: Great to be back.
ROSE: Here we have The Imperial Cityall right? Look here: About That Crush on Obama. Youlike Michael Kinsley is sayingIm swooning.
ANDERSEN: Oh, and Ive said it from the get-go. I have neverbecause this is a column, because I dont have to pretend like real journalists to be objective
ROSE: Its opinion. Right.
ANDERSEN: Ive been unabashed about my fondness and, yes, my swooning for Obama.
ROSE: OK. Does it grow? And what is it that causes you to be so swoony? Obviously, for you to say this means that youve thought about this, and what is it about him?
Obviously...this means that you thought about this, Charlie fawned. Unaccountably, his guest said, Yes.
Why do we cringe when they use the word swoon? Because of this syndromes track record.
By the fall of 1999, the press corps swoon for Saint John McCain had been discussed for over a year. To set the scene, heres Roger Simon, in a U. S. News report entitled Honest John on the loose:
SIMON (9/27/99): McCain is unique: He sits down with reporters, talks on the record with reporters, jokes with reporters, and just plain schmoozes with reporters... So far, McCain has gotten terrific pressthe praise has been so lavish, it has been dubbed the "McCain Swoon"and he is so open, it is easy for reporters to start feeling protective of him.
Simon described the way journalists tended to cover for McCain when he said things which were rude or stupid. But by this time, the syndrome was already known as The Swoonand the swooning would get deeply gruesome. A few weeks later, Charles Lane embarrassed himself in the New Republic, on the way to his current spot at the Washington Post. Lanes piece was headlined, Swoon Song. Cover the eyes of the children and pets. Heres how he started things off:
LANE (10/18/99): A feeling is building up inside me, and, rather than continue trying to keep it to myself, rather than deny it any further, I think it's time finally to open up and discuss it publicly. I didn't want this to happen. I know it shouldn't be happening. But it is: I'm falling for John McCain, the former POW and current senator from Arizona who finally made his presidential candidacy official on September 27.
Thus, I join the ranks of the largest and most dewy-eyed media fan club to glom on to any presidential candidate, real or wished-for, since the great swoon over Colin Powell in 1995. I hate myself for being a part of this packfor exhibiting so little originality or independence. My family and friends might disown me for succumbing, even tentatively, to the allure of a Republican, and a pretty conservative one at that. But the guy is running such a terrific campaign, speaking so forthrightly about so many matters of real substance, that I just find him irresistible.
And sadly, there was more where that swoony stuff came from; many journalists copped to The Swoon. Lets be sure to include Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate that same month:
WEISBERG (10/4/99): John McCain isn't running in Iowa, and he may get clobbered in New Hampshire. But he's miles ahead in the very first contest of the 2000 campaign: the press primary. Journalists go
weak in the knees around the guy. The few who have attempted to write debunking pieces about him have failed miserably. When I set out to spend a few days with McCain last week, I promised my editor that I wouldn't join in this collective swoon. That proved impossible.
In fairness, Weisberg soon managed to gather himself; he offered some valuable observations amid his paeans to McCains physical courage, defiant character and delightfully subversive ways. Then too, there was this: I think that at this point, even those of us who think [Bill] Clinton has been a good president hunger for a successor more deserving of our respect. Three weeks later, Weisberg had dried his tearsand he was kicking the sh*t out of Candidate Gore at that first debate with Bradley. (Gore arrived on stage like some sort of feral animal who had been locked in a small cage and fed on nothing but focus groups for several days. Upon release, he began to scamper furiously in every direction at once.) By April, he was writing a column under this headline: Gore Plays the Race Card Again. But then, their tools are always the same.
At any rate, thrills were running up quite a few legs in the fall of 99. The term swoon was routinely used with McCain, but they thrilled over Saint Bradley tooas theyd been doing for years. In late 1998, in fact, the National Journals William Powers had written an excellent piece about the corps long-standing crush on the wise/perfect/high-minded hopeful. (Headline: True Confessions: We Love the Big Lug.) Powers did a very good job describing a very bad syndrome:
POWERS (12/5/98): [I]ts a fact that sometimes we newsies are driven by feelings so remote from hate that one can only call them. . .love. Much less noticed than the media's destructive impulses is a powerful
counter-tendency, a weakness for certain politicians, who make journalists' knees knock. This weakness is rarely mentioned by journalists themselves; the pack's little passions are perhaps the last love that dare not speak its name.
One of the targets of our collective affection may be about to run for president, and he is the object of one of the modern media's most intense and long-lasting crushes; we've been carving his initials in our desktops for several decades. Now, then, is a good time to look at what happens to journalism when it falls in love, and to wonder how this particular affaire de coeur may affect the 2000 presidential race.
Let's not beat around the bush: Bill Bradley slays us. We first fell for him when he was a college boy, in the early '60s, leading the Princeton basketball team to greatness, scoring a record 58 points in one famous NCAA tournament game. One of the aces of our trade, John McPhee of The New Yorker magazine, gracefully wrote him up at the time in a profile entitled ''A Sense of Where You Are,'' which became a kind of sacred text of sports writing and commenced the cultural deification of Bradley. For here was not just a great athlete and an Ivy League scholar but a thoughtful, vaguely dark, interestingly conflicted man. And though he emerged at the dawn of the age of celebrity, Bradley was reluctant about his own famewhich only added to his glamour.
Most important, Bradley seemed to have the same cast of mindself-conscious, ironic, attracted to ideasthat journalists tend to possess or at least tend to think they possess. While we are constantly covering people whose
achievements set them apart from the mass of humanity, only rarely do we encounter a subject who is not just a genuine hero but, for us personally, a kind of mirror. Bradley was and is both at once, and so we have always been attracted to him, and the attraction has resulted in a body of journalism unlike anything seen since the last time we had a serious presidential contender who was at once a hero (not a sports hero, but a war hero) and an ironic, self-conscious, man of ideasJohn F. Kennedy.
Even then, they loved the language of man-crush. Charlie and Kurt ran straight to that childish language on Wednesdays program. This week.
Why would you think theyd have stopped this by now? Because their judgment has proven so bad in the past! They swooned for McCain, had a crush on Bradleyand savaged Gore for two solid years. Isnt it now abundantly clear how poorly they judged those three people? Indeed, how brilliant were Andersens judgments back then? Here he is, chatting with fellow Gotham fop [name withheld] as part of Slates Breakfast Table:
ANDERSEN (9/13/99): I too like Bill Bradley, and expect to vote for him in the primary. A friend of mine who's a theater director recently told me that I should tell another friend of mine who's a speechwriter for Bradley that he, the director, would like to help coach the candidate in big-audience performing skills. Which I think would be a good idea. And which I also think is a very rich premise for a comedy sketch.
But my problem with politics these days...is that politics don't and really can't matter all that much in this country right now. There are rough, large consensuses on all the big issueseconomics, social welfare, civil rights, women's rights, war and peace, even abortion. And they will continue as long as the economy chugs along like this and we stay out of wars any longer than a mini-series. Sure, there's a biggish, scary lunatic rightthe Gary Bauerite creationist anti-gay regimentsbut they're not going to be running the country or amending the Constitution any time soon. In fact, Pat Buchanan is right about the virtual indistinguishability of the Democrats and Republicans. I sympathize with both Buchanan and Warren Beatty viscerally, if not ideologically. I really think national politics kind of needs to be blown up and rebuilt. For the couple of weeks seven years ago before he revealed himself to be a horrible, crazy gnome, Ross Perot seemed to me like a great idea. And if next November the candidates are George Bush, Al Gore, and Jesse Ventura, it isn't inconceivable that I would pull the lever for Ventura. And I certainly wouldn't be very upset if Bush won, even if he can't name a single book he's ever read.
That December, Jonathan Chait rolled his eyes at this cluelessness. This small piece of political anthropology embodies many of the stylistic and intellectual tics that are shaping coverage of the presidential race, he wrote. There is little in the way of substantive philosophy other than the social prejudices of the yuppie class, which holds the simultaneous beliefs that the current arrangement is producing highly satisfactory results and, at the same time, is somehow terribly wrong.
But then, this whole gang of palace dwellers have endlessly shown their cosmic bad judgment over the course of the past sixteen years. Routinely, theyve stroked their throbbing thighs as tiny thrills ran up their legs. No matter how badly their swoons may turn out, they never decide to abandon the practiceto return to the business of sane, adult judgment. They seem to enjoy fainting dead away, reciting their endlessly childish language. On Wednesday, one scribe was swooning againand Judis was telling us why.
Special report: When hacks take your side!
PART 2JOE KLEIN PLAYS THE FOOL: Angels were dancing on heads of pins when e-mailers swore that Obama hasnt changed his position about meeting foreign leaders. What he said last week is barely distinguishable from what he said last July, readers said.
Last July, Obama said he would be willing to meet with unfriendly foreign leaders without preconditions, in his first year (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/21/08). Has Obama changed his position? You can decide that for yourself, after reading this part of Rick Kleins report for ABC:
RICK KLEIN (5/20/08): Asked about Obama's original statement Tuesday morning on CNN, former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a top Obama adviser and supporter, said top-level meetings would not be immediateand would not happen without preliminary extensive diplomatic work.
"I would not say that we would meet unconditionally," said Daschle. "Of course, there are conditions that we [would] involve in preparation in getting ready for the diplomacy... 'Without precondition' simply means we wouldn't put obstacles in the way of discussing the differences between us. That's really what they're saying, what Barack is saying."
Man! It sure is easy once Daschle explains it! According to his bone-simple limning, Obama will still be meeting without preconditions; he just wont be meeting unconditionally! Indeed, when Obama said hed be willing to meet without preconditions, he really meant that he wouldn't put obstacles in the way of discussing the differences between us. And of course, none of that alters a basic fact; there are conditions that we would involve in preparation for the diplomacy.
But these clarifications surely dont mean that anything Obama said has changed! (Careful! John Judis might recoil if you said that.) A few grafs later, Klein explained Obamas own thinking, as explained to Jake Tapper:
RICK KLEIN: "I have to say I completely disagree that people have been walking back from anything," Obama said. "They may be correcting the characterizations or distortions of John McCain or others of what I said. What I said was I would meet with our adversaries, including Iran, including Venezuela, including Cuba, including North Korea, without preconditions, but that does not mean without preparation."
Preconditions and preparations are different! What an outrage, that McCain has been out there distorting these simple adumbrations!
Has Obama stuck to his position, as Glenn Kessler rushed to assert in his news report in Wednesdays Post? Has he merely clarified? That, of course, is a matter of judgment. But we think it was very poor news reporting when Kessler asserted Obamas position (a position which is less than obvious) instead of simply doing his jobinstead of reporting what Obama has said in the past and what hes saying now. But as we told you: That is how the world starts to look when the press corps starts to hack for your team. No matter how jumbled your candidates statements may be, scribes will insist that nothing has changed! Endlessly, they performed these services during past swoons. And they seem to be at it againthis time, at last, on your side!
As a general matter, KesslerThe Manhas a lot on the ball. But we think he did poor work in that piece. And given the way press corps outlooks are running, well guess that poor work lies ahead.
Readers! It may be hard for some Dems to believe, but an increasing number of mainstream scribes are now hacking away on your side! And yes, this brings us around to Joe Klein, playing the fooland impressing Josh Marshallas he de-sanctified Saint John McCain down in Savannah this week.
Somehow, Klein had gotten it into his head that Obama never specifically said that he was willing to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (as opposed to other Iranian leaders).But then, thats the way things start to seem in their heads when they start hacking for your side! Everything your guy ever said simply has to be wise and consistentand scriveners like Klein will set out to prove it! (Then too, Susan Rice had apparently floated this groanerso Klein simply knew it was right!) How silly are such scribes willing to be when they decide to play on your side? Under the ludicrous headline, Stop Lying About My Record, Klein somehow conjured up this:
JOE KLEIN (5/19/08): It seems the only way the neoconservatives are able to attack Barack Obama's foreign policy proposals is to exaggerate and misrepresent them.
The evidence? On Friday, I promised to check into whether Obama had ever said that he would negotiatespecifically, by namewith Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, according to the crack Time Magazine research department and the Obama campaign, he never has. He did say that he would negotiate with the Iranian leadershipbut, on matters of foreign policy and Iran's nuclear program, the guy in charge is the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As of today, John McCain was still accusing Obama of wanting to negotiate with Ahmadinejad. Why doesn't the McCain campaign and other assorted Republicans ever accuse Obama of wanting to negotiate with Khamenei? Well, because Khamenei isn't quite the flagrant anti-Semite Ahmadinejad is...and, as we keep hearing, Obama has a Jewish problem.
Except Obama has saidspecifically, by namethat he would negotiate with Ahmadinejad. Theres nothing automatically wrong with that, of courseespecially after adding all the qualifiers, buzzers, gadgets and doodads which have now been employed to clarify Obamas position (without walking anything back, of courseunless you want to distort things). But Klein was sure that Obama hadnt said such a thing. (He doesnt seem to know that the crack Time Magazine research department isnt real good at crack research.) Using Nexis, it took us roughly a very few minutes to find the event last September where Obama was asked about this matterand answered. In real time, Beth Fouhy reported it for the AP. And uh-oh! On Thursday, Robert Novak ran transcript:
NOVAK (5/22/08): Time columnist Joe Klein turned up in Savannah, Ga., on Monday for McCain's news conference, declaring that McCain had misrepresented Obama as proposing unconditional talks with the Iranian president. After asserting that "I've done some research" and "also checked with the Obama campaign," Klein said that Obama "never mentioned Ahmadinejad directly by name. He did say he would negotiate with the leaders."
In fact, Obama has repeatedly been questioned specifically about Ahmadinejad. At a news conference in New York last September, Obama was asked whether he would still meet with Ahmadinejad. He replied: "Yeah...I find many of President Ahmadinejad's statements odious....But we should never fear to negotiate. On NBCs Meet the Press in November, he defended "a conversation with somebody like Ahmadinejad."
Obama to Russert, last November: Look, part of the reason it's important for us to talk to countries we don't like and leaders we don't likeit's not that I think that in a conversation with somebody like Ahmadinejad that I am going to somehow change his mind on everything. But what we do is we send a signal to other leadership in Iran, to the Iranian people, and to the world community that we are listening, and that we are willing to try to resolve conflicts peacefully. But Joe Klein simply knew in his soul that Obama couldnt have said such things. (Apparently, Times crack research staff hasnt heard about Meet the Press yet.)
Can we talk? Joe Klein played the fool in that postand when he badgered McCain in Savannah. But thats the way the world starts to look when major journos start taking your side. Theyve run these games against your hopefuls for yearsbut now, theyre tired of the GOP War Machine. Result? More and more, excited scriveners are playing dumb games on your side.
Wed like reporters to do their jobs. It seems that just isnt an option.