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Caveat lector

8 June 2001

Our current howler: Pretty in pink

Synopsis: Williams and Dionne condemn press corps shrinks—now that it’s Real Safe to do so.

Spinning the Jenna Story
Marjorie Williams, The Washington Post, 6/6/01

Give the Bush Twins A Break
E.J. Dionne, The Washington Post, 6/5/01

Bradley’s New Gains
E.J. Dionne, The Washington Post, 9/24/99

Marjorie Williams gave some good, sound advice about the big Jenna Bush hubbub. Reviewing the pundits, she hammered them hard for the "tendentious," "nonsensical" conclusions they’ve drawn. Early on, the scribe rolled her eyes: "Here are just a few of the Big Thoughts we have magically drawn from Jenna’s behavior:"

WILLIAMS (pgh 3): (1) Jenna has a Problem with drinking. You know, the problem, the one her father conquered but never entirely acknowledged, having quit drinking at 40 while insisting he was not actually an alcoholic. Now it’s quite possible that the president’s daughter is on the way to developing what we know to be a profoundly heritable disease. But it’s also possible that she is just doing what college students do, in mulish protest of the awful truth that different rules now apply to her from the rules applying to the hundreds of thousands of other college students who scheme to score a margarita on Saturday night. The point is that none of us blabbing about this has the faintest idea which possibility is closer to the truth.

In this—the first "Big Thought" which Williams mocked—she scored the press for pretending to know things which it cannot. We would have cheered lustily, except for one thing. Opening her column, two paragraphs earlier, Williams herself had said this:

WILLIAMS (pgh 1): I, for one, really liked Jenna’s choice of pink Capri pants and a toe ring for her May 16 court appearance concerning her first underage-drinking rap. If you’re going to get your life dragged through the spin cycle of pundits, political enemies, rent-a-shrinks and public scolds, it may be the better part of valor to wear your Bad Girl rags with pride.

Did Bush dress as she did for the reasons suggested? Williams doesn’t have "the faintest idea." But she drags more details of this case into print while having fun with things she can’t know. Two paragraphs later, she scolds other scribes for doing what she did two paragraphs sooner.

Why should the press corps stick to the basics? Because our celebrity press corps—unaccountable, inept—reasons exceptionally poorly. Williams doesn’t have the slightest idea why this young person wore pink pants to court. But she starts her column pretending to know, and ends her column in the same way (see postscript). In between, she gets in a wad about other scribes who "magically" know things like that.

Say hello to the Washington press corps—people who can’t foresee, in paragraph one, what they will assert as Key Principle two graphs later. Where have you seen such attention spans? It’s like this whole gang walked out of Memento. Next week, we’ll look at Bill Sammon’s exciting new book, in which he serves pleasing tales about Gore and the networks. In his book, Sammon puts this same attention disorder on display, careering from pleasing tale to tale, routinely forgetting, when he gets to page x, what he argued two pages before.

Here at THE HOWLER, we think our Big Pundits should stop yapping about Texas teens. And that’s exactly what Williams thinks—when she isn’t shrinking their toe rings herself. Indeed, she and her colleague, the Post’s E.J. Dionne, both complained this week about the corps’ Jenna Tales, correctly saying (in Dionne’s words) "there is absolutely no case for wide public scrutiny of two 19-year-olds who did not themselves choose to run for office, have not sought to cash in on their father’s fame, and seem inclined to preserve their privacy." Williams added the second point—those who offer psychiatric analyses have no clue what they’re talking about.

We agree with all these points. So why were we so peeved with these scribes? We were peeved because of what happened last year, when the scribes put up with tons of sheer garbage because it was politically incorrect to complain. And one scribe played the shrink then herself. In the course of the last election, the doctor was IN again and again when Williams wrote about (George) Bush and Gore; she was perfectly happy to play the shrink then, often while seeming to have no idea of the facts which were under discussion (links below). Meanwhile, Dionne took a pass on the press corps’ misconduct during the course of the White House race; he’s upset when pundits misbehave with the kids, but not when they scam an election. How polite can a good Press Man be? Here was Dionne in the fall of ’99:

DIONNE (pgh 6): …The Gore camp also has reason to complain that national political commentary treats the vice president with about as much respect as the Russian economy.

(7) If he wears a suit, he’s a stiff guy in a suit. If he wears an open shirt, he’s a stiff guy in a suit faking it. He gets no credit for Clinton’s achievements, inherits all the baggage—and finds his political skills compared unfavorably with Clinton’s. To paraphrase an old Chicago political joke, if Gore walked on water, the headlines the next day would read: "Gore Can’t Swim."

Unfair? Absolutely. But that’s the way of presidential campaigns. Geoff Garin, a neutral Democratic pollster, cites two immutable rules of politics: "Nothing succeeds like success; and never miss a chance to kick a man when he’s down."

Let’s be fair to Dionne, a bright, decent scribe who doesn’t go trashing politicians. In the fall of 1999, Dionne was one of the only pundits willing to state an obvious fact—Gore was being badly mistreated by the press. He was being beaten up over trivia—the color of his suits—and the pundits routinely would have it both ways, calling him stiff when he wore a blue suit, phony if he chose others colors. But also note Dionne’s politeness. He says he is talking about "the national political commentary, "a courteous euphemism for "the press corps," and in paragraph 8, he cheerfully seems to say that "unfairness" is the press corps’ real job! That’s the way of presidential campaigns? Really? It’s an "immutable law" that the "commentary" will be "unfair?" Actually, of course, that isn’t true, but there was a third "immutable rule of politics" to which Dionne was paying obeisance this day—political scribes don’t knock brother scribes, at least not when the lynch mob is running. It’s politically safe to complain today about the coverage of Jenna Bush. So Dionne bravely writes a whole column about it—but he knew enough to watch what he said when Gore was being battered about. Similarly, Williams runs with the mob this week, safely complaining about psychiatric assessments. But she drenched the media with such nonsense last year, telling us All About Gore and Bush. Gore was not "a normal person," she said. We asked at the time if she knew any.

Cowardice seems to be a requirement for membership in the corps’ Special Club. Dionne and Williams are quite bold this week. In past times, they knew when to hold ’em.

Next week: Speaking of short attention spans, we review the strange work of Bill Sammon.

Visit our incomparable archives: Two groaners from the Williams election oeuvre, when the doctor quite clearly was IN:

Williams helpfully let us see that the hopefuls were hopeless on character. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/00.

Gore isn’t "a normal person," Dr. Williams advised. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/00.


The occasional update (6/8/01)

As it was in the beginning: Having scolded all those idiots for pretending to know things they don’t, Williams closes like this:

WILLIAMS: My impulse to suspend judgment here feels slightly unnatural to me…But more than anything, Jenna Bush seems simply like a daughter struggling with an outrageously magnified version of any child’s resistance to a parent’s demand—be it a demand made directly or a demand made by the circumstance of the presidency—that her top priority be to reflect well on him.

I like her for making noise about it. When a president’s child breaks the law, we have to report it. But let’s spare her the symbolic freight, the crocodile tears, the knowing psychoanalysis. Free Jenna Bush!

Is Jenna Bush "making noise" about the demand that she reflect well on her father? Williams doesn’t have the faintest idea. Williams is correct in asking folks to pipe down. When will we see an example?

By the way, how bad was the psychiatrizing during the campaign? Here is an embarrassing passage from the Hotline on 12/1/99, the day that Gore was misquoted about Love Canal by the New York Times and the Washington Post. (Gore did not say, "I was the one who started it all.") Gore was not only instantly psychiatrized, as this selection makes appallingly clear. He was done so on the basis of a doctored quote. (A variety of "doctors" were IN.) But don’t bother searching the documentary record for Williams’ complaints about any of this. In this utterly embarrassing case, it was perfectly OK to deduce Big Thoughts because they supported a tale which the press corps liked. Williams and Dionne said nothing about it. From the Hotline, 12/1/99:

Gore took credit for being the first to draw attention to Love Canal. Gore, during speaking to NH students: "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I was the one that started it all." Gore held the first cong. hearings in 10/78, two months after Pres. Carter had declared Love Canal a disaster area and after the gov’t had offered to buy the homes of residents (New York Times, 12/1). Gore’s "shorthand description…and failure to note" that his hearing followed Carter’s action "were reminiscent of earlier attempts to embellish his role" in development of the Internet and the movie "Love Story." Gore yesterday "poked fun" at his Internet claim, touching on sprawl: "I am not the inventor of urban sprawl" (Washington Post, 12/1). Cox News’ Shepard writes, "longtime observers suggest that Gore is still trying to win the approval of a father who was absent during much of his childhood—one of the reasons, some believe, that his rhetoric occasionally strays into overstatement." Newsweek correspondent/Gore biographer Bill Turque said some of Gore’s gaffes are "a reflection of the great expectations that his parents, and particularly his father, had for him. The script that his parents wrote for his life called for him to be heroic and save the world." Other WH 2000ers "often rebelled against their fathers," but Gore was "the dutiful son—responsible, conscientious, eager to please." Gore biographer Bob Zelnick: "In all likelihood, his exaggerations reflect a yearning for a kind of approval and admiration that he never got from his dad…These aren’t serious character flaws so much as a notion that he has not accomplished as much as he should have."

Doctors Shepard, Turque and Zelnick were IN, apparently prepared to make house calls. Again, this was all spawned by a baldly false quote, one which the Post and the Times were quite slow to correct. Williams complains about press-as-shrinks now because now it’s politically correct to do so. In the past—with the White House at stake—the psychiatrists were given free range. Again, the words for this work are "appalling" and "embarrassing." So where were our press critics then?