6 April 2000
Our current howler (part IV): What's it like?
Synopsis: What is it actually like in Cuba? Few pundits bothered to say.
Commentary by William Kristol
Hardball, MSNBC, 4/5/00
We've All Gone Boy Crazy
William Raspberry, The Washington Post, 4/3/00
Fools for Elian
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 4/6/00
Commentary by Margaret Carlson, Tucker Carlson
Inside Politics, CNN, 4/5/00
Bob Herbert said that the "rickety tub of a boat"
on which Elian sailed "never should have been put to sea"
(see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/5/00). In context, he was plainly saying
that Elian's mother had been careless with Elian's life. Herbert,
like many other pundits on various sides, was telling a form of
the story he likes. But many Cuban-Americans would say that he
missed the whole pointthat's how bad it is in Cuba. Reasonable
people will risk their livesand the lives of their childrento
escape the regime, they would say.
Many pundits have told preferred stories this weekand few
have been trying to clarify. Obviously, the whole custody question
comes down to the claim that Castro's Cuba is a severely evil
place. In the end, no one would say that Elian Gonzalez should
stay in this country because that would give him greater access
to toys. And the case shouldn't turn on who has the best motives,
however much our romance-novel pundits love to speculate and rhapsodize
Opponents of Elian's return to his father have made two major
claims. We can't know if Elian's father is speaking freely, they
have saidand Cuba is a uniquely vile place. They have compared
Castro's Cuba to historically evil regimes, and asked if we would
have returned children to them. William Kristol stated the case
on Hardball just last night:
KRISTOL: This is an important issue. Cuba is governed by a
special lawthe Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, signed by a Democratic
president, supported in a bipartisan way for over thirty years.
Clinton modified the law by executive order in 1994 so that if
you're caught at sea you're sent back to Cuba, if you make it
to land you're entitled to be a political refugee here. That
is not the case with other countries. Maybe it should be the
case with some more countries. I'm open to that too. But the
notion that we're going to treat this kid as if he were a refugee
from Ecuador is ridiculous. He's a refugee from the last totalitarian
state, the last dictatorship in this hemisphere. We have laws
So what is it really like in Cuba? This entire case turns
on that question. Here at THE HOWLER, we simply can't say;
we don't have a whole lot to go on. Sure, we took the analysts
to see The Buena Vista Social Club, but we hardly
think that makes us experts on Cuba. To be honest, most Americans
have almost no knowledge about what life in Cuba is actually like.
Since there's a general presumption that children should be with
their parents, one would think that our pundits would want to
help us decide if there are legitimate reasons to set aside that
But good luck to you if you're actually trying to figure out
what it's like down in Cuba. Our pundits have had their usual
field-day speculating freely about big pols' motives; but they
have rarely tried to fashion discussions addressing the heart
of this case. But then, this is hardly anything new for this tribe;
always-avoid-substance is a cruel Pundit Dictum. Avoiding substancewhile
fanning excitementis a hard-and-fast, revered press corps law.
Routinely, our major pundits have discussed the case without
addressing its plain, central question. William Raspberryno showboat
hewrote an open letter to Elian's absent father:
RASPBERRY: I mean, what is best for Elian? He seems
to be having a terrific time, with more things than you could
ever afford to give him back home. ABC Televisionwhich must
have violated some journalistic ethic when it undertook to interview
a 6-year-old without the consent of his parentsays the boy said
he doesn't want to go back to Cuba. [Raspberry's emphasis]
Raspberry, no dope, doesn't buy into that. But he doesn't get
around to the central point either:
RASPBERRY (continuing directly): That, if it's true, is sad,
because what it means is that the boy has been "bought"
with goodies and lavish attention by people whose motives must
at least in part be political. As far as I can see, Juan Miguel,
nothing in the record had suggested that he didn't love you or
want to be with you. The early hints of your unfitness were never
backed up with either specifics or credible evidence. Only last
weekend, some of the Miami relatives were suggesting that maybe
they've turned up evidence that you've been an abusive parentperhaps
speaking too harshly to the boy, this sort of thing.
It made for excellent melodrama, but what does it have to do
with the central questions involved here? What does it have to
do with Raspberry's own question: "What is best for Elian?"
The central claim here is that Cuba is evil, not that Elian's
father is a bad guyand a central claim is that Elian's father
can't express his real wishes (as Raspberry's letter-format ironically
suggests). None of this is addressed in this piece, andhere we
go again, dear readersRaspberry eventually drifts away and starts
dreaming about peoples' motives:
RASPBERRY (continuing directly): Vice President Al Gore has
weighed in with a recommendation that Congress pass a bill granting
both you and Elian permanent residency status...It would be nice
to believe Gore's approachwhich represents a break from President
Clinton's stated belief that Elian ought to be returned to your
custodyhas nothing to do with the presidential elections.
But it would also be nice to know if the proposal is right
on the meritsand the press corps hates talking about that. Raspberry
goes on to say that "it would be nice to believe that Cuban
politics has nothing to do" with Castro's actions, and he
lists off the motives of the Miami relatives. These concerns are
almost completely tangential to the dispute at the heart of this
At THE HOWLER, we don't have the slightest idea of what life
is really like in today's Cuba. Neither do our major pundits,
and they don't seem to want to find. In this morning's Post, Mary
McGrory upgrades her past languageGore is guilty of a "jarring
pander," she says. But is the proposal Gore favors right
on the merits? She doesn't say, nor do other top scribes. Dare
we think a horrid thought about motives? Dare we think that the
scribes don't much care?
Tomorrow: A rollicking look at a press corps script
from the 1996 election.
You too can be a top pundit: Those pundits
can do it all week! In this morning's Post, Richard Cohen
continues informing us about all the world's motives, without
telling us how he can know. He tells us that Al Gore has been
"looking like a caricature of a pandering politician."
"Next on the list is George W. Bush." It seems he's
in bad faith, too. "All those conservatives who have been
exalting the family all these years?" They're big hypocrites,
and they're "blithering idiots," "oblivious to
how foolish they look." (Cohen's reasoning is especially
specious.) And "we must not neglect Elian's Miami relatives."
As is so often the case when modern pundits get going, almost
everyone involved is "crazy" or an "idiot,"
or part of the "list of fools."
The only pols who don't make the list are President Clinton
and attorney general Janet Reno. They are "guilty of enforcing
the law," Cohen says. He doesn't tell us how he knows that
the president's motives are pure. We suspect, of course, that
Cohen knows that Clinton's motives are good because he
agrees with Clinton's actions. It's the type of reasoning
we've observed this whole week.
Finally, here was the latest pander discussion, by the Carlsons,
on yesterday's Inside Politics:
JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about Elian Gonzalez. Al Gore, very
visible position on this. Has he helped himself , Tucker?
TUCKER CARLSON: I don't think he has. I think this may be
Gore taking a position on principle. I know that's hard to swallow,
hard to believe, but I think that the polls don'tyou know, if
you're his adviser, you don't tell Gore to take the stand he's
taken...Maybe he took it because he thinks it's the right thing
MARGARET CARLSON: I don't think soHowever, since Bush has
the same position, it may have been an ineffective pander.
But it looks like a pander.
TUCKER: Well, it's a panderit's a pander with
happy results as far as I'm concerned.
MARGARET: No, I think it'sI think it's
TUCKER: If you're going to pander
MARGARET: It's a non-constructive pander, because Bush
is going to out-pander him. And he's going to get the
TUCKER: Oh, it's a pander-fest.
MARGARET: Yes, or it's a wash.
That was the entire discussion. Is there anyone on earth who
can't be a pundit if that's all the skill the job takes?