TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2002
WHILE HIS GUITAR GENTLY WEPT: We learned it in the last election: When our press corps evaluates White House hopefuls, they seem to pattern themselves on the mentally ill. Forget Bill Kellers worthless jibes about John Kerrys Vietnam service (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/9/02). In June, Michael Crowley profiled Kerry for the New Republic, perhaps our brightest political periodical. Incredibly, the following passage appeared in the piecetyped up by a TNR scribe, put into print by its editor. Because the passage is so utterly strange, we reprint it here at some length:
CROWLEY: The very fact that Kerry is so obviously running for president is, to some, a perfect illustration of the character flaws that make it impossible for him to become president: a degree of personal manifest destiny and self-love rare even among politicians. Indeed, his biography suggests an almost lifelong grooming for power. A descendant of the plutocratic Forbes clan (Forbes is his middle name), he is the son of a diplomat who was stationed in Europe for much of Kerrys boyhood. He was schooled in Switzerland before going on to the elite prep school St. Pauls and then Yale. Even as a young man he had a reputation for intense ambition; in 1971 he was devastatingly lampooned in a Doonesbury comic that depicted him singing to strangers the virtues of a man named John Kerrywithout revealing that he was John Kerry himself. Wealthy for most of his life, in 1995 Kerry married Teresa Heinz, the widow of Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz and heiress to a fortune of nearly half a billion dollars. And he evinces a distinctly self-indulgent streak. Kerry speeds around on a motorcycle and in a convertible, Rollerblades and wind surfs, and plays classical pieces and Broadway show tunes on his guitar. Feeling introspective two years ago, he told The Boston Globe that he might like to become an artist someday.
We are told two things in this passage, which begins with a note about character flaws. According to Crowley, [Kerrys] biography suggests an almost lifelong grooming for power. And Kerry evinces a distinctly self-indulgent streak. The evidence for these claims is so strange that it deserves to be limned in detail.
Does Kerrys biography suggest an almost lifelong grooming for power? This claim was routinely made about Al Gore in Campaign 2000generally backed by the kinds of evidence which Crowley brings forth about Kerry. What is the evidence suggesting Kerrys lifelong grooming? Kerry went to private schools, were told, and after that he went to Yale! And his father was stationed in Europe! Of course, George W. Bush also went to private schools and to Yaledoes this mean that Bush had an almost lifelong grooming for power? Does Crowley think that every Yale student has had such a grooming? Crowleys presentation is simply bizarre. He is typing a novel, not history.
But Crowleys second statement is stranger still. According to Crowley, Kerry evinces a distinctly self-indulgent streak. And the evidence? According to Crowley, Kerry evinces a distinctly self-indulgent streak because he sometimes drives a convertible and because he plays the guitar! And not only thathe wind surfs! On the basis of these unremarkable facts, Crowley draws his bizarre (and unflattering) judgment. Lets say it again, as it deserves repeating: Because Kerry plays show tunes on his guitar, he is described as distinctly self-indulgent.
Is mental illness too harsh a term to apply to such deeply bizarre statements? Nowhere elseexcept in the press corpscould such inanity be so routine and expected. Could high school students pass in work in which they made such ludicrous judgments? Sorry. Only in our press corpsand in mental homesdo people make such oddball statements.
But then, we learned it all in Campaign 2000: When we conduct our modern White House elections, our press corps will showcase its puzzling dysfunction. It will draw bizarre conclusions about candidates character from utterly oddball pieces of evidence; usually, the evidence on which they base those judgments will involve utterly trivial biographical detail. Nowhere else do we find such weird thought patterns, except among the mentally ill. But in our press corps, its now standard practice. As we continue to limn Kellers column this week, well continue to ask you: Why is that?
WATCHING OUR LANGUAGE: Is mental illness too strong a metaphor? Consider Crowleys opening sentence:
CROWLEY: The very fact that Kerry is so obviously running for president is, to some, a perfect illustration of the character flaws that make it impossible for him to become president: a degree of personal manifest destiny and self-love rare even among politicians.
Granted, Crowley hides behind the phrase to some. The thinking here belongs to others, unlike the judgments in the rest of the paragraph, where Crowley speaks in his own voice.
But consider the view which Crowley records. What do Crowleys sources say? They say this: The fact that Kerry is running for president illustrates his character flawsthe flaws that make it impossible for him to become president. But of course, every pol who ends up being president starts the process by running for president. If running for president shows a disturbing self-love, then every recent hopeful has had it. Kerry is weirdly singled out.
Kerry is singled out for a trait which is shared by all of his rivals. Yet this weird sentence appeared in the New Republic, perhaps our brightest periodical. A TNR writer typed this nonsense; a TNR editor put it in print. All of us, as American citizens, need to understand the strange press culture in which our most important political eventsour White House electionsare reported in such bizarre ways.
All through Campaign 2000, our press corps produced such oddball writing. Indeed, pundits regularly quoted old Doonesbury strips about Gore just as Crowley does about Kerry. Literally, we live in a time when our brightest periodicals routinely quote thirty-year-old comic strips! As we limn Kellers statements about Kerrys war record, we must attempt to figure out why were in the throes of such endless dysfunction.
WEDNESDAY: The Boston Globe is usually dependable (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/9/02). Given the papers odd past performance, why would Bill Keller think that?