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Daily Howler: Hapless Mark Halperin can't seem to kick his life-long addiction to narrative
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NARRATIVE ADDICT! Hapless Mark Halperin can’t seem to kick his life-long addiction to narrative: // link // print // previous // next //

HARD TO FATHOM: After the grief they took for their question to Clinton about “diamonds or pearls,” you’d almost think that CNN would have tried to avoid playing the fool last night. Guess again! We were astounded by the bad judgment involved in the taped question in which a good old-fashioned “gun nut” cocked his rifle and seemed to suggest that the hopefuls were working at gun point.

Could these people get dumber?

Who knows? Maybe Anderson Cooper’s staff came from Mars. (Has the press corps protested a bit too much about the Kucinich UFO sighting?) Or maybe his staff is nine years old—unable to remember the day when the nation’s greatest leaders were being gunned down like tin cans on a fence. But you’d think that almost anyone would see the bad taste involved in that tape. Sorry! Make that anyone but the folk who make up our national “press corps.”

Special report: Flat earth liberal!

BE SURE TO READ EACH THRILLING EPISODE: Kevin Drum limned Halperin’s silly piece—and proved he’s a true Flat Earth Liberal:

PART 1: Nothing has changed, Kevin says. But then, he’s a true Flat Earth Liberal. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/27/07.

PART 2: Pundits avoid saying which hopeful’s best? Spoken like a true Flat Earth Liberal. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/28/07.

In Part 3, we note that Mark Halperin simply can’t kick his life-long addiction to narrative.

PART 3—NARRATIVE ADDICT: Poor Mark Halperin! He’d been led astray—by Richard Ben Cramer! But from now on, he’d be doing things right!

So Halperin told us in Sunday’s Times, in the stirring op-ed piece in which he swore that he’d be changing the way he covers our politics. Here’s his account of how he spent the past dozen years getting everything wrong:

HALPERIN (11/25/07): More than any other book, Richard Ben Cramer's ''What It Takes,'' about the 1988 battle for the White House, influenced the way I cover campaigns.

I'm not alone. The book's thesis—that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office—has shaped the universe of political coverage.

“I’m not alone,” the gentleman said. Cramer had influenced many others. He had done many journalists wrong.

At any rate, after kicking Cramer to the curb, Halperin went on to share the good news—he can now see that Cramer’s approach was just wrong. The best campaigner doesn’t necessarily make the best president, he was now able to tell us. According to Halperin, he has finally seen the light because of the failings of the past two presidents. “In the end, both men were better presidential candidates than they were presidents,” he sadly says. This fact has let him see that Cramer was just badly wrong.

As we’ve noted, this silly “Cramer culpa” by Halperin led to Kevin Drum’s delusional post, in which Kevin continued refusing to tell you how your press corps works. Somehow, Kevin read Halperin’s silly piece and was reminded of the press corps’ endless heroics—of the way they write those detailed health care reports; of the way they struggle not to tell us which candidate has “what it takes.” For ourselves, we were most struck by Halperin’s account of President Bush’s tragic downfall. As Halperin offered this childish account, we could see that old habits die hard:

HALPERIN: When George W. Bush ran in 2000, many voters liked his straightforward, uncomplicated mean-what-I-say-and-say-what-I-mean certainty. He came across as a man of principle who did not lust for the White House; he was surrounded by disciplined loyalists who created a cheerful cult of personality about their candidate.

As with Mr. Clinton, though, the very campaign strengths that got Mr. Bush elected led to his worst moments in office. Assuredness became stubbornness. His lack of lifelong ambition for the presidency translated into a failure to apply himself to the parts of the job that held less interest for him, often to disastrous effects. The once-appealing life outside of government and public affairs became a far-less appealing lack of experience. And Mr. Bush's close-knit team has served as a barrier to fresh advice.

There you see a truly foolish account of Bush’s campaign, and of his subsequent failures. And you see how the Halperins simply can’t kick their life-long addiction to narrative.

What does Halperin say about Bush? As a candidate, Bush “came across as a man of principle who did not lust for the White House.” But uh-oh! Once in office, Bush’s “lack of lifelong ambition for the presidency” somehow brought him down. It’s hard to find ways to express how silly and childish that blather really is. But it’s built around an utterly bogus narrative the press corps adopted during Campaign 2000. In the best tradition of Richard Ben Cramer, Halperin won’t drop it, even now.

George W. Bush didn’t lust for the White House! And not only that: He didn’t have a lifelong ambition for the presidency! In real time, this silly narrative came straight from the Bradley and Bush campaigns; it was happily adopted by the mainstream press corps—used as part of its two-year effort to bring down Clinton’s successor, Al Gore. Indeed, a great deal of the press corps’ “character assessments” during Campaign 2000 were built around this silly construct—a construct which was always used to take down Candidate Gore:

George W. Bush didn’t lust for the White House! This was one of the three million stories these nitwits invented during Campaign 2000. But the narrative had started with McCain and Bradley, as the press corps busted its keister trying to get the pair nominated.

What are the actual facts of this matter? In quick summary, these:

There was never any evidence that Gore sought the White House from birth. In fact, his electoral history was amazingly similar to Bush’s. Meanwhile, it was Bradley who had most aggressively sought public office—and it was McCain who told a fellow POW, while still in Nam, that he hoped to run for president. Result? As always, the “press corps” reinvented facts, thereby creating the story they liked. Even now, Halperin recites one part of this silly tale, even as he tells the world that he’s done with this “character” piffle.

Below, a bit of HOWLER HISTORY takes you through basic parts of this nonsense. We start with an influential Newsweek cover story from early November 1999. On the cover: McCain and Bradley. The phrase “”Straight Shooters” ran across their chests—and just in case anyone missed the point, Newsweek spelled it out even further. “Straight Shooters/How Bradley and McCain Are Scoring With the Politics of Authenticity,” the cover enthusiastically said.

Howard Fineman wrote the main report. Need we tell you anything more? In what follows, we give you a look at what lay behind the silly formulation in Halperin’s column. Candidate Bush didn’t lust for the White House? Here’s where that brainless narrative started—a narrative still pimped by an addict.

NEWSWEEK LAID IT RIGHT ON THE LINE IN ITS INSPIRING “Straight Shooters” edition. “Bradley and McCain are selling this year’s hottest commodity,” the synopsis to Fineman’s article said, “the aura of authenticity that comes from a life that starts outside politics.” In his actual report, Fineman laid out a set of themes which would dominate press coverage for months.

According to Fineman, we were now in “the anti-slick era,” an age of reaction to President Clinton. “Bill Clinton was the ultimate other directed political figure,” he wrote, “a changeling searching for identity and affirmation” who has “left voters exhausted and jaded by the mechanics of politics.” Fineman explained what that meant for the 2000 race—and he offered the nugget statement that had gone into Newsweek’s synopsis. “Bradley and McCain are hawking this year’s hottest commodity,” he wrote, “the aura of authenticity—and plain-spoken candor—that comes from a life that starts outside politics.” The cover’s key term was in Fineman’s text too. “This is shaping up as the year of the straight shooter,” he wrote. Throughout this edition, Newsweek explained why Bradley and McCain were two such straight-shooting men.

For the record, Fineman had already been pushing the “straight-shooter” thesis about Bradley for months. There was nothing so silly that he wouldn’t say it—usually, with the help of some basketball imagery. In a September 13 profile (“Bradley’s Shot”), Fineman wrote that Bradley “is no saint, but he’s an old-fashioned kind, straight out of Boys’ Life: clean-living, level-headed, perfectly credentialed.” Once again, Bradley was the un-Clinton; according to Fineman, Bradley’s crowds “seem relieved to find a Democrat who could keep the White House but cleanse it after Bill Clinton.” And Bradley had “a Whitmanesque love of the average Joe,” the scribe improbably said. How could Fineman know such a thing? He had it on the highest authority. In fact, two other people had compared Bradley to Whitman in the previous year—Bradley himself, and Bradley’s wife. But then, all through the primary race, Fineman took dictation from Bradley. This utterly silly “song of himself” was an early, dim-witted example.

Indeed, it’s intriguing to note when the themes in Fineman’s cover story had first appeared in the press. In fact, the “straight-shooter” theme dated to 1998, when Bradley conducted a national tour for his new book, Values of the Game. As an example of the press corps’ fawning reaction to the thought that Bradley might run for the White House, consider an October 26, 1998 column by the New York Post’s Jack Newfield. Opening and closing with the requisite basketball imagery, Newfield presented the basic points of Fineman’s piece—thirteen months before Fineman wrote it. In fact, when Fineman wrote his Newsweek cover story, he was simply rewriting Newfield’s work. Elsewhere, this is called “plagiarism:”

NEWFIELD (10/26/98): People see [Bradley] as the Last Honest Man, as a straight shooter…And he lacks the ruthless ambition of Clinton and Gore, who knew they wanted to be president at 16. But Bill Bradley’s particular virtues do seem to match this moment of disgust with sleaze, slickness, lying, and excess. He does have integrity, intellect, empathy, self-knowledge, authenticity, discipline, curiosity, respect for opponents. And a life before politics that makes him a whole human being. The 24-second clock is winding down, Bill. Don’t pass. Take the shot.

Thirteen months later, Fineman rewrote Newfield’s piece, restating point after point. According to Newfield, people saw Bradley as a straight shooter—as a man who had authenticity. He was the answer to Clinton’s slickness. He lacked the “ruthless ambition” of Clinton and Gore—and he’d experienced a life before politics. Here was Fineman’s basic thesis—point by point, phrase by phrase—presented a year before Fineman wrote it. One of the ironies of the press corps’ coverage was played out, then, in Fineman’s piece. Throughout the fall of 1999, journalists praised Bradley for being “unscripted”—even as they themselves worked from remarkably rigid scripts.

At any rate, Newfield had stated the basic thesis: Al Gore, a man of “ruthless ambition,” knew he wanted to be president at age 16. This punishing theme would drive press coverage for the next two years. It appeared again, in a mutated form, in Halperin’s silly piece this Sunday. But it was endlessly found in the campaign coverage which took shape in the fall of 1999. Example: One month before Fineman’s cover story, Sebastian Mallaby wrote a laughably fawning profile of Bradley in the Washington Post. (“His smiles are not unctuous; he makes no special effort to remember strangers’ names; he can shake hands warmly without feeling compelled to throw his arms around voters.” Good God. Where do they find them?) Even by now, it was Hard Pundit Law. So Mallaby recited the story:

MALLABY (10/9/99): Bradley can appeared bored, bland and therefore appealingly genuine because he has one huge advantage over his Democratic rival. Becoming president is not his life’s sole goal.

“Gore is the son of a senator who aspired, passionately, to higher office,” Mallaby wrote. “Gore seems driven to realize the ambition that eluded his father.”

Please note: Even when Bradley appeared bored and bland, it made him “appealingly genuine!” But this kind of logic drove the corps’ work—as did the requisite tales about Gore. By clear inference, becoming president had been the “sole goal” of Gore’s life. Mallaby knew that he had to say it. But by now, so did everyone else.

By November, it was the Standard Account. Gore was driven to be president—always had been!—while Bradley could take it or leave it. Some variant of this general message was found all over the press. In the Post, Geneva Overholser said it: Gore’s “entire life has been an impeccable training for the top job.” The hapless Steve Roberts, on CNN: “Al Gore, Al Gore. This man has been running for president his whole life.” (Roberts also found himself troubled by Gore’s deeply troubling cowboy boots.) In the course of the 2000 campaign, it became a standard claim, used first to distinguish Gore from Bradley, then to separate Gore from Bush: Gore had always wanted to be president! Bradley, though, was a “quirky, nonpolitical type” with a “compelling nonpolitical story...a life that begins outside politics.” For scribes reacting to their own idea of the Clinton era, this was clearly a critical difference. Gore was ruthlessly ambitious, just like Clinton. Bill Bradley couldn’t care less.

It was a powerful contrast, expressed many times. But was there any sign it was accurate? In fact, Fineman’s portrait of Bradley, so frequently stated, was quite hard to square with the facts. In December 1999, the Washington Post published an unusual, six-part biographical profile of Bradley. Written by Barton Gellman and Dale Russakoff, the series was one of the best bits of journalism in the entire campaign. The writers offered a detailed look at Bradley’s life, from his boyhood in Crystal City, Missouri, up through the start of his run for the White House. Their work was both sympathetic and searching—a rare combination in a Washington press corps increasingly driven by script and blather. But it’s hard to read the writers’ work and sustain the image which the press corps so loved—the image of one hopeful (Gore) seeking the White House from birth, and another (Bradley) who was “quirkily nonpolitical,” with a “compellingly nonpolitical story” to tell. For better or worse, Bradley’s life didn’t fit that mold, no matter how hard scribes tried to make it.

What’s the truth about Bradley’s life story? There’s nothing wrong with the facts which follow. They just happen to fly in the face of the tale which was pimped by the press.

For better or worse, it’s plain that Bradley had dreamed of a political career at least since his days at Princeton. Bradley was already famous as a student-athlete; even while he was in college, several magazine profiles urged him to run for president in the future. Meanwhile, Bradley had been interested in a political career since his youth, according to Russakoff and Gellman. In their profiles, Bradley is quoted at age 12 declaring that he intended to be president—the kind of irrelevant childhood moment endlessly flogged in the profiles of Gore. (In those profiles, it was Gore’s parents who had made one or two such remarks, not Gore himself.) But Bradley’s interest in a political career plainly extended past childhood. In his Rhodes Scholarship application—filed in his senior year at Princeton—he wrote, “I can best serve mankind as a politician.”

This interest continued in Bradley’s years at Oxford. In January 1967, at age 23, he met with Rep. Morris Udall, another former athlete; “he wondered how pro basketball and politics might mix,” Udall later said. (Udall told Bradley to meet with Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, another famous athlete. Bradley huddled with White two months later.) And there’s little doubt that Bradley was planning a political career during his time with the Knicks, where his nicknames among teammates included “Mr. President” and “Senator.” In 1972, at age 28, he considered running for Missouri state comptroller; urged to do so by former senator Thomas Eagleton, he consulted on the matter with Richard Gephardt, then a young St. Louis alderman. According to Phil Jackson, Bradley’s roommate, Bradley even took a poll in Missouri to see how prospects for the race looked. Prospects didn’t look very good, and Bradley decided not to run. But he still hoped to seek public office that year; according to the Post, Bradley “sounded out prospects for the newly created 10th District congressional seat” in Missouri. Again, he met local opposition. As a result, Bradley gave up the idea of running for Congress—from Missouri. But two years later, Bradley “made elaborate preparations to run” for the New Jersey congressional seat of Republican Rep. Joseph J. Mazariti, only “deciding at the last minute to pass,” the Post said. Finally, Bradley set his sights on the New Jersey Senate race which he entered and won in 1978. In an interview that year, he was quoted saying this: “Basketball was a means to this end. It gave me the time and opportunity to prepare for politics.”

For the record, Bradley’s lifelong interest in public office was hardly a secret. Except for the 1972 Missouri congressional race, he had discussed all these episodes in his 1996 book, Time Present, Time Past. Bradley was frank in his book about why he considered the 1974 New Jersey House race. “[I]f I had run,” he wrote, “I would have been running only so I could position myself to run later for the U.S. Senate.” In early 1974, when these deliberations occurred, Bradley was 30 years old. By that time, the quirkily nonpolitical young man who had a life story which begins outside politics had actively pursued runs for the House from two states, plus a race for state office in Missouri.

Please note—until the press corps decided that something was wrong with such conduct, thinking about a career in politics was considered perfectly honorable, even admirable. This was certainly true in the era in question; to state the obvious, Bradley’s long interest in such a career betrays no defect of character. But Bradley’s election to the Senate was the fruit of a lifetime’s ambition. And, after winning his seat in 1978, Bradley served three six-year terms, then left to prepare his run for the White House. Nor was this the first time Bradley had thought of running for president. In his book, Bradley says that he had considered such a race ten years earlier.

Was Bradley a quirky nonpolitical type, whose life story was compellingly nonpolitical? Fineman’s portrait was simply absurd on its face, a ludicrous effort to produce preferred narrative; it’s clear that Bradley’s entire life had involved the desire to hold office. But so what? As the Campaign 2000 coverage started, the idea that Bradley was quirkily nonpolitical was being churned by the Bradley campaign—and Gore-hating pundits were quick to repeat it, insisting that it had really been Gore whose “sole goal” in life was the White House. For the record, Gore ran for the House of Representatives in 1976, at age 28, when the long-time congressman in his Tennessee district unexpectedly retired. Bradley was trying to arrange a congressional race in Missouri at the same age.

Meanwhile, had Gore’s “sole goal in life” been the White House? There is nothing in his history supporting that claim, although it became a treasured press narrative. Gore’s biographers paint a quite different picture. (Long story short: There is no sign that Gore ever tried to pursue a run for office before the unexpected retirement of his congressman presented the chance.) The treasured claim was a press corps invention—as was the perfectly foolish claim that Bradley was quirkily non-political.

So it went with Bradley—but how about Bush, whose inspiring lack of life-long ambition Halperin noted again this past Sunday? During the general election, reporters continued flogging the notion that Gore had sought the White House since birth; they now presented Bush as the low-key “non-political type,” the guy who could take it or leave it. (When Fineman wrote his original story, he had lumped Bush in with Gore. Script is malleable.) Indeed, in the press corps’ standard presentation of Bush, the ne’er-do-well “frat boy” lazed his way through forty years of life, coming to an interest in public service intriguingly late in the game. The Bush campaign also pushed this tale hard; like Bradley before him, Bush used this narrative as a way to distinguish himself from Gore—and from the vile, horrid Clinton. Again, the construction created a pleasing contrast with Gore—but it was quite hard to square with the facts.

In fact, Bush’s early political interest and history is remarkably similar to both Bradley’s and Gore’s. Bush ran for Congress in west Texas in 1978, announcing his candidacy in 1977, when he was 31 years old. Why did he enter the race at that point? Like Gore, Bush jumped into the race when his local congressman unexpectedly announced his retirement. But this wasn’t the first time Bush had shown interest in running for office. In 1971, he had actively considered a run for the Texas state senate; he was eventually talked out of the run by his family. (The Houston Chronicle published an article about Bush’s ongoing deliberations; he was just 25 years old at the time.) Despite his tender years, Bush had already worked on three of his father’s Texas campaigns; the following year, at age 26, he served as paid statewide political director for the Alabama Senate race of Winton Blount, the former postmaster general. In short, Bush’s interest in running for office is abundantly clear in his early biography. But, as with Bradley, this part of his life was played down in the press, creating pleasing contrasts with Gore.

(By the way: Bush allies have told reporters that, after Bush’s loss in the House race, they knew his next race would be for governor. Below, we post a passage from Lois Romano. We believe we’ve seen Don Evans quoted on this point, but we couldn’t find it this morning.)

With Bush and Gore, the similarities were striking. Each grew up in a political family, watching his namesake father run for office and taking part in the campaigns. Each ran for Congress as a young man when the local House member retired. The only difference? Gore narrowly won his Tennessee race; Bush narrowly lost his Texas race two years later. But from these strikingly similar stories, the press corps chose to devise a contrast (encouraged by the Bush campaign, which constantly said that Bush’s happiness didn’t depend on reaching the White House). But then, you should write it down and never forget it—spinning bio is remarkably easy. Out of the wealth of detail in a middle-aged candidate’s life, reporters can write any story they like—especially given the rock-bottom standards which prevail in the national press corps. In the case of Campaign 2000, the press corps would spin the candidates’ bios for the better part of two years. Last Sunday, Halperin continued reciting one part of the ginned-up, silly set of tales.

One final note: What about straight-shooting McCain, Fineman’s other quirkily non-political type whose “aura of authenticity” seemed to come from “a life that starts outside politics?” Here too, the biographical similarities with Gore were quite startling—and so, they were widely suppressed. Like Gore, McCain spent his teen-aged years in Washington, attending a local prep school. (Many of you have never heard that.) Like Gore, McCain was the son of a name-sake, high-achieving political father; like Gore, McCain sat in his family home as a teen and listened as his father conversed with Washington’s biggest political players. These facts were widely recited—about Gore—and widely suppressed—about McCain—thereby maintaining the more pleasing tale in which Gore alone was the “creature of Washington.” Also suppressed was McCain’s declaration, while in his early thirties, that he wanted to run for the White House one day. Late in the game, Nicholas Kristof wrote it up in a New York Times profile. We’ve never seen it repeated:

KRISTOF (2/27/00): Mr. McCain let the scope of his ambitions slip out again in fall 1970, when he was in Vietnam and four of the prisoners of war were put together in a cell. They spent a couple of weeks talking nonstop, and the conversation soon touched on their dreams...

"We asked John what he wanted to be—chief of naval operations?" recalled Richard A. Stratton, one of those present. "He said, no, the best job in the Navy is commander in chief of the Pacific forces, because then you're chief warrior. But he said that what he really wanted to be was president.

"With him, it's no flash in the pan, no sudden dream," Mr. Stratton said. "He's been thinking of this for a long time."

Obviously, there was nothing wrong with what McCain told Stratton—except, it killed the contrast with Gore, and with Clinton. So did the facts of his teen-aged years. And so, they were widely disappeared.

Al Gore’s sole goal in life was the White House! All the robots knew to recite it. As they did, they insisted that McCain and Bradley—and then Bush—were very, very different. And last Sunday, Halperin just kept reciting this bull-roar. These silly story-lines come from the shops where spinners create standard scripts for the “press corps.” On Sunday, Halperin swore he was throwing this rot-gut away—and then, he just kept on imbibing.

In 1988, Richard Ben Cramer thought he could tell which of the candidate had “what it takes.” We think that’s a very risky notion; a wise person might describe it as hubris. But so what? During Campaign 2000, the press corps also thought they knew which of the candidates had “what it takes.” (And which of them was vile, like Bill Clinton.) So they invented an endless set of tales, tales designed to persuade their readers. Sunday, Halperin swore off the sauce—then proved he’s a narrative addict.

AFTER THE HOUSE: In 1978, Bush narrowly lost his race for the House. He was now 32 years old. In a Post bio, Lois Romano explained what happened next. We’re fairly sure that we’ve seen Don Evans quoted about this on the record:

ROMANO (7/29/99): After the congressional race, Bush's friends decided that he was ill-suited for the minutiae and tedium of Congress. They began to see him as someone who would thrive in a broader management position. Like CEO of a company. Or governor of a state.

Two years after Bush's defeat, however, his father was elected vice president, and eight years later he became president. Bush decided that he could not run again until his father was out of public office.

As young men, Bush and Bradley showed a great deal of interest in running for public office. Except, of course, in the well-crafted tales which Halperin kept sampling this Sunday. In those tales, Gore sought the White House from birth—just like Clinton. Nobody else ever gave a good damn. The others were all non-political.

ALSO DISAPPEARED: In campaign 2000, who had the truly awkward National Guard history? Maybe you can guess by now. Hint: The press corps just knew who had “what it takes.” So this story too disappeared.

Yes, this is how your press corps works. We liberals just sit back and take it.