WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2002
SEPTEMBER 11: We love the use of the word pretend in Ileana Schinders letter this morning. More and more, pretending seems to drive our public discourse. We strongly endorse Schinders suggestionthat we go out in search of whats real.
WAVING THE BLOODY POLO SHIRT: Thats right, folks. According to Michael Crowley, John Kerry evinces a distinctly self-indulgent streak because he likes to play the guitar. And not only thatKerrys biography suggests an almost lifelong grooming for power because he went to Yale. Crowley made these puzzling claims in his profile of Kerry for the New Republic. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/9/02.
And Michael Crowley wasnt alone in taking weird pot-shots at Kerry. Last month, the New York Times Bill Keller joined in, sneering at Kerrys Vietnam service because he took home movies in Nam. Four weeks later, Keller seemed to say that his statements about those meaningless movies had turned out to be factually bogus (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/02). So it goes as our major publications get ready for Campaign 2004.
Do we plan to put up with this nonsense again? Are we going to stand around while pundits clown through another election? Crowleys profileand Kellers putdownstrongly evoke the oddball coverage of Candidate Gore back in Campaign 2000. How do our modern pundits behave when they plow through a crowd of Democrats? The pattern is becoming rather clear:
So it went through Campaign 2000. Will we accept this again?
- They offer sweeping judgments about character flaws, generally based on bizarre forms of reasoning.
- Their evidence rarely comes from the pols career, and rarely involves his policy stands. More often, the pundits base their sweeping judgments on trivia from the pols private life.
- The evidence is preferably decades old.
- The judgments dont have to make any known sense.
- The facts involved dont have to be accurate.
- Nothing is too trivial to obsess on.
Meanwhile, just how silly was the 2000 coverage? The opening of Crowleys profile reminds usand help us see that modern pundits often write novels, not news. As he opens, Crowley describes two Dems on the trail. We highlight two small bits of triviatrivia which are mercifully treated as same:
CROWLEY (pgh 1): It is the comic beauty of presidential politics that someone like John Kerry, a Boston aristocrat and U.S. senator known for self-important statesmanship, is forced to spend his Friday night in this downtown Columbia municipal parking lot. Local Representative James Clyburn has assembled 200 people on the oil-stained first level of a multistory garage to gorge on greasy whitefish with Wonder Bread served on paper plates. R&B music blares, and, while the acoustics are horrendous, the beer-swilling crowd happily grooves as the deep fryer sizzles away. Wearing a light-blue cotton shirt tucked into khaki pants, Kerry glad-hands his way through the crowd, his six-foot-five-inch frame easily located by the head of thick salt-and-pepper hair that floats above the throng
Kerry wears a light blue shirt and khaki pants; Edwards wears a red golf shirt. There isnt the slightest signnot a hint; not a cluethat Crowley finds this strange or significant. The hopefuls outfits occasion no comment. Nor is there any reason why they should. Major White House hopefuls have campaigned in such clothing for many years, through many campaign cycles.
But there is intrigue afoot. North Carolina Senator John Edwards, one of Kerrys chief rivals for the 2004 nomination, has arrived, looking sharp and at ease in a red golf shirt. A buzz goes through the crowd. Edwards is the man of the moment, having just been dubbed the next Bill Clinton by The New Yorker and a perfect politician by Vanity Fair.
But in Campaign 2000, pundits pretended to be disturbed when Gore showed up in such clothing. For many pundits, Gores polo shirts and khaki pants somehow exposed his strange character flaws. In TNR, Crowley drew absurd conclusions from the fact that Kerry likes to play the guitar. But in Campaign 2000, the absurd conclusions about character flaws often were drawn from Gores clothing.
Next week, we plan to do a five-part series on this subjecta series designed to let you see how thoroughly pundits will fake and dissemble. But how absurd was the press corps conduct when it obsessed about Gores clothes? Now we see: What was endlessly clucked at with Candidate Gore occasions no comment with Edwards or Kerry. A different script is being drawn; this time, the nonsense involves guitars and home movies. What everyone pretended to find surprising now passes with no hint of interest.
NOBODY DID IT BETTER: No one was more obsessed with Gores clothing than NBCs vacuous Brian Williams, now Tom Brokaws anointed successor. Gore was wearing polo shirts twenty-four hours a day, he complained on his October 6, 1999 program. (Williams anchored a nightly, hour-long show on MSNBC, The News with Brian Williams). The polo shirts dont always look natural on him, he grumbled two nights later. On and on the grousing went. Plainly, Williams thought Gore was wearing the shirts in some sort of effort to fool female voters; he repeatedly asked his guests when Gores clever strategy would all start becoming so transparent [that] no one is fooled (October 6) or (October 8) whether the strategy would become absolutely transparent when they go out into the hinterlands and try to sell it? Incredibly, Williams raised the question of Gores polo shirts on five separate occasions in one week alone, from October 4 through October 11. And his obsession continued when Newsweeks Bill Turque appeared on his show four months later. Deeply troubled, Williams asked Turque, a Gore biographer, why Gore would wear such strange shirts:
WILLIAMS (2/9/00): He has become the first vice president to campaign in kind of three-button sweaters and polo shirts, though were seeing him in a rare moment in a suit on the screen right now. [Oops.] What in his personality, when an adviser came to him and said, Ditch the suits, what aspect of his personality said, You know what? Youre right. Theyre gone. Here I go.
For the record, Gore never campaigned in a three-button sweater. Williams had his Official Press Talking-Points confusedhe was supposed to feign concern about Gores three-button suits (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/14/02) At any rate, confronted with a ludicrous question, Turque knew the Preferred Press Reply:
TURQUE (continuing directly): I think the aspect was a willingness to do whatever it took to survive. And that has been a thread throughout his career, his willingness to reinvent, if you will, himself and to take on whatever coloration he needed to, tactically and strategically, to survive.
Gore was willing to do whatever it takes. Why, hed even wear polo shirtseven that! Kerrys character flaw? He owns a guitar. Gores character flaw? He wore polo shirts.
The pundits flogged Gores shirts for a year. Now, in Crowleys description of Kerry and Edwards, we see how fake those colloquies were. Remember, though, this is part of a pattern: Your pundits draw scripted judgments about character flaws based on utterly ludicrous trivia. Theyve elected one president playing this game. As we prepared to let our public discourse be mocked in this way once again?
TOMORROW: The Boston Globe is usually dependable? Why on earth would Bill Keller say that?