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MARGARET’S CHOICE (PART 4)! Carlson seems to have made a choice. It’s been made all over the press corps:


I ALWAYS SAID YES: In a rational world, American citizens would be deeply troubled by what Carlson said to Don Imus (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/16/03). She appeared on his program on October 10, 2000—four weeks before Election Day. Why was the press corps pursuing trivia, and ignoring much more serious matters? And why was the corps so much tougher on Gore? Carlson didn’t mince her words. The press was pounding Gore—and giving Bush a pass—because it was “more fun” to do so, she said. “I actually happen to know people who need government, and so they would care more about…the things we kind of make fun of,” she continued. “But as sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us.” So spoke one of America’s leading pundits, describing the values of the American press corps. And so spoke the pigtailed terror from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania—the ball-fisted battler who says she learned, because of her severely challenged brother, to fight on behalf of the weak.

On the one hand, Carlson was simply being honest about the way our modern press functions. If you want to understand that group, you should be glad that she spoke so directly. And you should also be glad for the 26-page autobiographical chapter which drives her new book, Anyone Can Grow Up. As Carlson tells her personal story, she traces a familiar narrative arc. Do you want to understand your press corps? Almost surely, many pundits have made the same choice that Carlson describes in her book.

In her book, Carlson doesn’t exactly “grow up.” She does something different—she moves up and out. The child of working-class Irish-American parents ends up at the right hand of Katharine Graham. Along the way, silent choices are made—and a pig-tailed terror stops the battling that was described on page one of her book. She scarfs the lobster on the Bush campaign plane, and rushes past her judgment about Bush’s actual policies. His policies “favor the strong over the weak,” Carlson says. But something unstated is now fairly clear. It’s fairly clear that this no longer matters.

This represents the end of the ball-fisted kid who had once been Margaret Carlson. As a young adult, Carlson’s choices reflect the values she claims at the start of her book. One year after graduating from Penn State, “I wanted to do something worthwhile,” she writes, “and went off…to teach third grade in the Watts section of Los Angeles.” Dudes! She didn’t even need a draft deferment! In Los Angeles, she hears Ralph Nader speak. “He fit my idea of making the world a fairer place, reining in the big guys who enlarged themselves at the expense of the smaller ones,” she writes. A year later, she’s working for Nader on auto safety, making $75 a week. “I’ve never toiled so hard for so little to so much purpose.” But Carlson begins to climb the ladder, and the purpose begins to go out of her work. It’s fairly clear that Carlson’s triumph is expressed at this point in the story:

CARLSON (page 22): My friends didn’t change from year to year, but their jobs did. It was Michael Kinsley…who first took me to dinner at the big, intimidating mansion of Katharine Graham, the reigning queen of Washington and publisher of The Washington Post. Every few weeks, when Henry Kissinger or Barbara Walters was stuck on the tarmac at LaGuardia, I would get a late call asking if I’d like to fill in. Following the Meg Greenfield rule—call anytime before the main course—I always said yes. Eventually, I would go as me. Like the rings on a tree, my evenings with Graham charted my evolution from rookie journalist to old timer.
Carlson’s growth as a journalist is now measured—how else?—by her dinner invitations. As she continues, the triumph deepens:
CARLSON (continuing directly): One day Mrs. Graham complained that she’d never been asked to my house. A few months later, I was giving a going-away party for Kinsley, who’d been wooed to be editor of by Microsoft’s Bill Gates. It seemed the perfect occasion to hide behind. She came, she tossed salad, she scooped ice cream. She became a fixture at my house.
Time passes. The arc becomes clear:
CARLSON (page 23): When Courtney decided to get married in 2000, Kay asked if she would get married in her garden, and that began a wedding my [late] mother would have been proud of. I didn’t make Courtney’s wedding dress, as my mother (and I) had made mine. She preferred one by Vera Wang, proving there can be progress from one generation to another.
“But oh, what kind of love is this, which goes from bad to worse?” In this book, the arc of “progress” is fairly clear; Carlson exchanges her nagging, working-class mother—who never understood why she wanted to read—for Graham, the sophisticated queen of D.C. But has there been any actual “progress?” A home-made dress makes way for a Wang, but in other areas, no uplift is evident. In fact, a cultural continuity is abundantly clear. Just as Carlson’s mother hectored Carlson, telling her to stop reading those books, we now see Carlson rolling her eyes, amazed to think that major pols would want her to listen to policy chatter. Bill Clinton is mocked when he tries to talk welfare reform; Gore is derided as the “smartest kid in the class” on every available occasion. But one key difference can be seen as Carlson enacts her anti-intellectual inheritance. Carlson’s late mother was doing her best. Carlson has squandered the chances she got. Her preference for what is “greatly entertaining” is a familiar preference of the feckless rich. Carlson’s endless mockery of our public discourse is one simple thing. It’s a choice.

“Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us,” Carlson said. So, apparently, is all the clowning she crams inside this book. Carlson puts fake words into Bill Clinton’s mouth; presents an absurd new account of his life; and even dares to suggest that the Clintons somehow cost Vince Foster his life. It’s hard to get much nastier than that—but Carlson now entertains the strong. Of course, store-bought bootblacks all over D.C. have traced this very same narrative arc. This evolution has been widely pursued. Carlson has been more candid than others. For that reason, we’ve called this arc “Margaret’s choice.”

TOMORROW: All pundits know to trash Clinton’s book. Tomorrow, we’ll listen to Charlie Rose do it. His program aired last Monday night. His guests? Chris Matthews, Margaret Carlson. [The Real Audio clip]

The Daily update

CHARLIE’S CHOICE: Here at THE HOWLER, we too grew up Irish-Catholic (don’t let last names fool you). And we weren’t from the Camp Hill crowd. We were the real deal—Boston Irish! At any rate, we were also the first in our family to go to college, and we too felt the homegrown blasts of Irish-American working-class anti-intellectualism. “They’re just filling your head full of that nonsense,” our own sainted mother would often say, sharing her “take” on the college experience. Of course, then we read Wittgenstein, in our junior year. And he said they were doing that, too…

Like all people, our mothers sometimes had limited views. But they generally tried to do their best. After the death of Carlson’s mother, her brother comes to live with her in her Washington home. She marvels at how hard her mother worked to give him a home despite his great challenges:

CARLSON (page 25): In those first few weeks with Jimmy, I came to see how frustrated my mother must have been. Every day she would try to find a friend for Jimmy; every day she would fail. Every day she would teach him to dial 911 and tie his sneakers, and every day he would forget. How did she retain any cheerfulness in the face of constant failures?
All praise to Carlson’s mother! Our mothers almost always tried. But listen to that Charlie Rose program. The segment only lasts seventeen minutes. Ask yourself if you hear people trying.

For the record, Carlson’s mother did have some help. As you will recall, Carlson notes that her brother found “a fulfilling career” because he got a set-aside job at a navy depot. “The American with Disabilities Act is a godsend,” she says. Do the Charlie Rose Three give a fig about that? Or as you hear their loud guffaws, have they chosen what is “greatly entertaining?”