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Caveat lector

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 point—that's how bad it is in Cuba. Reasonable people will risk their lives—and the lives of their children—to escape the regime, they would say.

Many pundits have told preferred stories this week—and 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 about that.

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 said—and 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 law—the 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 governing it.

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 general rule.

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 substance—while fanning excitement—is a hard-and-fast, revered press corps law.

Routinely, our major pundits have discussed the case without addressing its plain, central question. William Raspberry—no showboat he—wrote 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 Television—which must have violated some journalistic ethic when it undertook to interview a 6-year-old without the consent of his parent—says 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 parent—perhaps 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 guy—and 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, and—here we go again, dear readers—Raspberry 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 approach—which represents a break from President Clinton's stated belief that Elian ought to be returned to your custody—has nothing to do with the presidential elections.

But it would also be nice to know if the proposal is right on the merits—and 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 case.

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 language—Gore 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't—you 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 to do.

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 pander—it's a pander with happy results as far as I'm concerned.

MARGARET: No, I think it's—I 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 Cuban-American votes.

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?