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Daily Howler: We chuckled darkly when Fox's Chris Wallace displayed his Millionaire Pundit Values
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LION WITH LAMB! We chuckled darkly when Fox’s Chris Wallace displayed his Millionaire Pundit Values: // link // print // previous // next //

LION WITH LAMB: Pundits have wailed and gnashed their teeth about the end of Tom Brokaw’s reign. Meanwhile, Brian Lamb airs his final Booknotes this Sunday—and we’ll use the occasion as an excuse to limn a recent, revealing episode of the long-running C-SPAN series. We refer to the October 31 program, in which Fox anchor Chris Wallace discussed his inspiring new book, Character: Profiles in Presidential Courage.

We drew amusement from several aspects of Wallace’s oddball performance. First, it was fairly clear, at several different points, that Wallace had only a glancing acquaintance with the material which appears in his book. To his credit, he routinely acknowledged that the book was more-or-less written by committee. Indeed, we had to chuckle when he described the way his project began:

LAMB: How long ago did you get the idea?

WALLACE: About a year and a half ago. And it was a kind of collaborative effort. My—a fellow, an agent, Bill Adler, came up, called me up and said, Have you ever thought of writing a book? And I said, yes, but I never have had an idea. And he kind of had some ideas, and we sort of put the idea together and then we went to, got a publisher, Rugged Land, a small publishing house with a relationship with Random House, and also talked to Richard Neustadt, the great presidential historian.

At this point, Wallace veers into a celebrity tale from his youth. But we couldn’t help chuckling when the anchor told us that, although he had thought about writing a book, he had never “had an idea!” Again, one has to appreciate the gentleman’s candor—but chuckles did bounce off our great walls as Wallace described the source of his concept. And make no mistake, his concept’s a deep one. “And so I thought, Let`s write a feel-good book about American democracy,” he eventually said, describing the outcome of his ruminations with Adler. “Let`s write about presidents who don`t do the poll-driven thing, who don`t do the popular thing, who, you know, don`t do what sometimes seems a little craven but who stand up and do what is in their core conviction, what they believe is right for America.”

Finally, Wallace had his “idea”—he’d write a “feel-good book about America!”Everybody likes to feel good, of course. But we suffered our most mordant chuckles when the millionaire son of the millionaire TV star told Lamb the courageous tale which most stands out in his book. “One of my favorites is Grover Cleveland,” Wallace said. “I love the Grover Cleveland story. Can I talk about it just briefly?” Sensibly, Lamb gave his guest permission—and Wallace provided the perfect profile of Millionaire Pundit Values in action.

What did Wallace admire about Cleveland? The story started somewhat hopefully as Wallace sketched his man’s background:

WALLACE: Grover Cleveland—1894—he was a tremendous friend of labor. He had been a reform mayor in New York state, in Buffalo. Then he had become the governor of New York. Then he`d been elected president. He was the president who helped create the federal arbitration system. He was also the president who legalized labor unions.
Wow! It sounded like Wallace would narrate a tale in which a president bravely stood up for the interests of average working people. Our analysts leaned forward in their chairs; after all, what a brilliant rebuke that would be to the values of the author’s millionaire pundit class! Indeed, after a second excursion in which the author mentioned the pleasures of his privileged youth, he began to describe a troubling situation, in which a group of working people suffered under a wealthy mogul:
WALLACE: On [Cleveland’s] watch in 1894, there had been this big international exposition in Chicago. And it was right around the time when there was a strike, a railroad workers strike that started in Pullman, Chicago. Pullman, George Pullman was the fellow who developed and built the Pullman railroad cars, which was the very great luxury railroad cars that you could sleep in...And he created a town outside, just outside Chicago, which he called, modestly enough, Pullman.
According to Wallace, it was “a classic company town,” where “people had to live in the housing. People had to shop at the Pullman stores.” At first, thought, life there wasn’t half bad; “it was quite nice, quite nice housing,” Wallace said. But uh-oh! Within a few years, things had gone straight in the dumpster:
WALLACE: There was a considerable economic downturn in the late 1890s, and [George Pullman] started cutting back the salaries of the Pullman workers, but he didn`t cut back the rent or the cost of food that all these people—so as a result, when they deducted all of that before they`d give people the paycheck, these guys sometimes ended up owing money, or if they got any money, it was just, you know, pennies.
Classic! Workers owed money, after working all month! Trained on feel-good tales of a different era, our analysts expected to hear that Cleveland stepped in to help the oppressed. But no such luck! When Pullman’s workers protested this turn of events, Cleveland took a different approach. Refusing to do the poll-driven thing, he broke the law—and shut them on down. Choosing from all of American history, this is Wallace’s favorite feel-good tale of inspiring presidential behavior:
WALLACE (continuing directly): And so they decided they were going to strike. And it happened in the context of lots of people coming to Chicago for the international exposition, and it became riots and tremendous civil disorder. And they counted, the labor people, on their friend in the White House staying out, or, if anything, caving in to their demands, Grover Cleveland. Cleveland, who, as I say, was a huge friend of labor, felt that the nation`s security was in jeopardy. And he really went against the Constitution because at the time, there was—you—presidents were not allowed to send troops into a state unless the governor asked for the troops, and Governor [John] Altgeld of Illinois didn`t want them because he was a—he favored labor.

And so Cleveland went against the law, went against Altgeld, sent in federal troops, restored order.

Heroically, Cleveland “went against the Constitution” and “went against the law,” intruding on the governor’s judgment and shutting down the demonstrations. (We have no idea how bad the “civil disorder” may have been. Based on Wallace’s overall presentation, we doubt that he has any clue either.) “Of course, the labor—you know, the union types, Debs, all the organizers felt that he had betrayed his background, his history, certainly the popular will at the time,” Wallace said. “And his feeling was, I`m going to protect and save the security, the civil order of the country. And you know, it was a profile in presidential courage.”

Good grief! With all of American history to choose from, this was Wallace’s favorite tale of presidential courage? Our analysts looked around in slack-jawed surprise—but we thought they were getting a helpful look at the values which keep emerging from America’s millionaire pundit class. Indeed, how strange are Wallace’s instincts and reactions? In response to a follow-up question from Lamb, the author said he had tried to keep his writing lively and journalistic. Quoting the start of his chapter on Cleveland, the anchor revealed more of the strength he saw in this wonderful man:

WALLACE: I begin the chapter on him, called “Constitution be damned:” “Grover Cleveland once killed a man. Two, actually. Of course, they`d already been sentenced to death. As sheriff of Erie County, New York, to avoid wasting government money on a hiring a hangman, he simply hanged the men himself.”
“You know, I just love that story,” the inspired author ghoulishly said. Indeed, from the standpoint of today’s pundit class, what’s not to like in Cleveland’s class action? Cleveland didn’t just break the law to shut down a strike. He even saved the government money by hanging his convicts himself!

“There are a lot of stories in here that I didn`t know,” Wallace told Lamb as he continued. “And I got a lot of help in research from this wonderful team at Rugged Land.” The author had never had an idea—but he plainly did have his values. With all of American history to choose from, he was drawn to the story of Grover Cleveland. He loved it when Cleveland hanged his own convict—and when he took the side of a millionaire mogul whose employees were working for nothing. But then, who among us doesn’t love vibrant stories which reek so of character?

Lamb’s long-running series concludes Sunday night. But looking back on the years of Booknotes, has any session done a better job of laying out the puzzling new values which continue to emerge from today’s millionaire pundit class?

TEAM EFFORT: Wallace’s book was a team effort, which may explain why he seems unfamiliar with so much of its content. For example, here’s an exchange about Lyndon Johnson’s alleged drunkenness:

LAMB: The chapter right after Andrew Johnson is Lyndon Johnson. And I just want to read what you wrote. "Serving as Kennedy`s second-in-command tortured the competitive Johnson. He soaked his misery in Cutty Sark. Often too depressed to get out of bed, aides had to lift him up and move his arms about to get him circulating." Was this while he`s president?

WALLACE: No, no. This is when he was vice president. This is—

LAMB: Well, I mean—but it was while he was a politician

WALLACE: Yes, absolutely.

LAMB: Not after he`d retired.

WALLACE: No, no, no, no. No. This was—

LAMB: Aides had to lift him up and move his arms about to get him circulated? Where did—do you have any idea where that came from?

WALLACE: You know, I`m trying to—I mean, you`re asking me about something I wrote a year ago. I mean, it`s in the source material. I can`t—I don`t know that I can find—I couldn’t say specifically which one of those books it`s from.

Speaking of aides having to lift the boss up and get his arms moving, this haziness extends through the hour-long session. (At one point, Wallace is so surprised by a quote from the book that he asks Lamb to let him see it.) Times change. Cleveland insisted on hanging his very own convicts. By contrast, Wallace seems to have let other people type up his inspiring book.