SATURDAY, JUNE 14, 2003
CONTRADICTION: Lets face it. Carlson doesnt much care for Bill or Hill, or even for Al, for that matter. When Hillary makes a phone call to a bed-ridden journalist, that shows how cold the senator is. When Gore throws a Halloween party for kids, it shows hes a major-league *sshole (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/12/03). And try to believe that Carlsons New Delhi anecdote really came from a grown persons pen! In Carlsons anecdotes, everything shows that the Clintons are vile. Reason and logic go right out the door. Of course, Carlson makes herself look foolish in the process. But inside the Washington press of today, no one will notice or tell.
But when Carlson limns Bush, things are different. In the eighteen-page chapter she pens on The Dub, Carlson is almost always respectful, often fawning. There are endless invidious comparisons to Gore. And it goes beyond that. Carlson misses him:
CARLSON (page 100): I miss George Bush. Sure, I see him every day up on a podium, breezing into a fund-raiser, or walking across the South Lawn to Marine One. True, I was only a few dinner plates away from him at Katherine Grahams house and within joking distance at the White House Christmas party, where he charmed my goddaughter.No, Carlson is not confessing to a campaign romance, although thats the tone she seems to affect here.
Meanwhile, this book spills over with fatuous reasons underlying the preference for Bush. As modern journalists feel free to do, Carlson confesses the press corps lack of professionalism right at the start of this section:
CARLSON (page 101): The campaign, or specifically the campaign plane, is the last time the press gets to see the man who would be president more closely than an attentive viewer of C-SPAN. Bush didnt like campaigning, so he treated the time on the press like recess, a chance to kick back between math and chemistry classes. He was seductive, playful, and most of all, himself. Its a failure of some in the presswell, a failure for methat we are susceptible to a politician directing the high beams of his charm at us. That Al Gore couldnt catch a break had something to do with how he was when his hair was down. Only it never was.Needless to say, that was because Gore was (next paragraph) intent on proving he was the smartest kid on the planet. But your press corps never seems to tire of making these odd confessions. Routinely, they report that they judge your pols, and tilt their coverage, based on trivial matters of personality and personal preference.
Carlson goes on, at considerable length, about how Bush bond[ed] with the goof-off in all of us on that plane. Persistently, she portrays the press corpsand herselfas if they were feckless teen-agers. On the plane, [Bushs] inner child hovers near the surface, she writes. And not only that; Bush knows how to push the buttons of your high school insecurity. But then, a campaign is as close as an adult can get to duplicating college life. Bush wasnt just any old breezy frat brother with mediocre grades He was proud of it, Carlson writes, approvingly. This seems to explain the press corps preference. Gore elicited in us the childish urge to poke a stick in the eye of the smarty-pants, she writes. Bush elicited self-recognition. Yes, those sentences actually appear in this book, and yes, they seem to be Carlsons explanation of Gores lousy coverage. Its not hard to dislike Bushs policies, which favor the strong over the weak, she writes. But it is hard to dislike Bush.
Carlson spends little time on those Bush policies, which favor the strong over the weak. By contrastas noted in Thursdays HOWLERshe spends lots of time complaining that the Clintons would subject her to tedious policy chatter. It is perfectly clear that the goof-off in Carlson has little interest in such major tedium. In India, she falls asleep when Mrs. Clinton limns health care, and she cant understand why Candidate Bill Clinton, in 1992, would talk to her about welfare reform. Talking to Bush is much more fun. As he propped his rolled-up sleeves on the seat back in front of me, his body leaning into the conversation, he waggled his eyebrows up and down like Groucho Marx, mugging across the aisle, she relates. Youll probably think that were being unfair. Read this book and youll see that we arent.
No, Carlson spends little time on Bushs policies, though its clear who she thinks they favor. For example, she briefly mentions Bushs legislative approach after the 2002 elections. After his big win in the midterm elections in 2002, she writes, Bush lurched further in the direction of protecting those who have against those who dont. But she spends much more time discussing the way Bush provided better food on his plane. Mmmm! There were Dove bars and designer water on demand, she recalls, and a bathroom stocked like Martha Stewarts guest suite. Dinner at seven featured lobster ravioli. Apparently, Bushs policies reflect the tastes of those that have even when dinner bells chime.
For us, Carlsons limited mention of those Bush policies sets up a striking self-contradiction. Because of what Carlson says about herself as a person, its odd that she spends so little time on those policies. Carlsons book begins with a 26-page autobiographical chapter. And right on page one, she defines herself in a way that makes the rest of her book somewhat puzzling. Carlsons beloved older brother, Jimmy, suffered brain damage at birth. This shaped her outlookand made her a journalistshe says at the start of the book:
CARLSON (page 1): My brother had suffered serious brain damage at birth, and [my parents] struggle to give him a normal life stamped my view of the world. I learned quickly to dislike those who slight the weak or different or unlucky Like some tiny, pigtailed Mike Wallace, I tracked down the parents of kids who didnt play fair and squealed on them.Carlson learned to fight for the weakand to question the strong. I learned that when no one is looking, those who think of themselves as the best people can behave like the worst, she says. It wasnt the pale kid with asthma who taunted my brother, it was the tall, good-looking one with the Schwinn three-speed. And Carlson claims that this early experience made her into a journalist. Because of their struggles on her brothers behalf, my parents propelled me toward journalism as surely as if they had the Alsops over for cocktails. On page one, Carlson says that her concern for the weak is what later led her to journalism.
But fifty years later, there she was on that plane, glossing over a public policy which, by her own assessment, favors the strong over the weak. She scarfs down the lobster, eats at Kay Grahams, and mentions Bushs policies in passing. And when others show concern for the weak, she rolls here eyes and wails in protest. Mrs. Clinton talks health care after midnight in India; Carlson instantly falls asleep, notebook clattering to the floor. Somehow, though, Joe Klein stayed awakeand in his subsequent Newseek piece, he described the reactions of Indias weak to that American First Ladys attentions. They were a third Untouchables, another third Muslims; rag-pickers, street vendors, the most desperate of the poor, Klein said. Klein recorded their reaction. Youve come into our courtyard and filled our hearts with joy and we will never forget you, one woman said.
To Carlson, this is boring. Thats why, for us, an intriguing contradiction jumps out from these pages:
Page 1: I learned quickly to dislike those who slight the weak or different or unlucky.Whatever became of that pigtailed terror who battled on behalf of the weak? We suspect that the bright-eyed crusaderlike many press colleaguesmay have secretly made Margarets choice.
MONDAY: Many of Washingtons leading scribes seem to have made Margarets choice.
FOOD FIGHT: Why did Gore give the press lesser food? Why else? Because hes a nerd:
CARLSON (page 105): Gore wanted the snacks to be environmentally and nutritionally correct, but somehow granola bars ended up giving way to Fruit Roll-Ups and the sandwiches came wrapped and looked long past their sell-by date. On a lucky day, someone would remember to buy supermarket doughnuts. By contrast, a typical day of food on Air Bush consisted of five meals with access to a sixth, if you count grazing at a cocktail bar. Breakfast one was French toast, scrambled eggs, baconAnd so on. We dont vouch for the accuracy of this portrait. But is there any chance that Bush gave the press corps better food because he collected so much more money from the strong than his know-it-all rival? For the primary campaignextending through the conventionsBush collected roughly three times as much money as Gore.