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Caveat lector

5 September 1998

Minor mishaps, Volume IV: The ghost of Steve Glass is still haunting these hallways...

Synopsis: At least one scribe at The New Republicmay still have a flair for good fiction.

Gatsby returns
Jean Bethke Elshtain, The New Republic, 8/31/98

We hung our head and murmured “Et tu, Charlie?” when we read this piece in the New Republic, dismayed that its debonair editor, Charles Lane, would ever publish a screed quite so cloying. But then, Lane’s had his hands full in the past few months, convincing us that no-one-on-earth-could-have-known-that-Stephen-Glass-was-a-nut, and that may explain why the affable editor let a groaner like this one slide by.

Working near the top of the list of the 100 Greatest Novels (even TNR readers draw the line at Ulysses), Elshtain turns to Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsbyfor a “source of wisdom” with which to limn Bill and Hill. Here she gives us, in paragraph one, the rock on which she’ll build her cathedral:

ELSHTAIN: At one point in the book, the narrator describes two of the story’s main characters--Daisy and Tom Buchanan--as “careless people.” They go through their lives, and the wreckage piles up, but they assume little or no responsibility for the devastation they leave behind in their wake. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money, or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess that they had made...”

And you can probably guess what’s coming next, as that celebrity lynch mob appears ’round the bend: “The same, of course, could be said of President Clinton and the people around him.”

It was the “of course” that quickly concerned up. When you’re racin’ around town with celebrity lynch mobs, jes’ generally yellin’ and actin’ real crazy, almost any charge that enters your head can begin to seem absolutely self-evident. It can seem so clear that the panting quarry is Responsible For Everything Wrong In The World that a hopped-up writer can sometimes forget: she actually has to make her casewhen she’s trashing public figures.

Elshtain falls prey to the syndrome. Listen to one example of the Clintons’ awful conduct she bravely shouts out through the din:

ELSHTAIN: And for Clinton--actually, for both the president and, apparently, Mrs. Clinton--such [careless] behavior is by now practically second nature. Lani Guinier tells the story of how, in the midst of her Justice Department nomination debacle, she encountered Mrs. Clinton in the West Wing of the White House. Mrs. Clinton’s breezy remark? “Hi, kiddo.” Guinier, poor thing, had assumed they were friends. Whatever one thinks of Guinier’s positions on racial issues--and I don’t share them--this is pretty shabby treatment. But careless and ambitious people dump other people as easily as they bring them on board. Just like Daisy and Tom Buchanan did.

Wow! Can you even imagine being treated like that? We assume there’s no need to belabor the inanity of this indictment by the outraged Elshtain. But if being accosted with the words “Hi, kiddo” is an example of “shabby treatment” in the world of Guinier, we can only be thankful she didn’t reach a position of authority in enforcement of civil rights law. And keep us away from Guinier dinner parties, if she makes her guests sit through groaners like this!

Isn’t it stunning: that an editor would even think for a minute of publishing this as an example of a public figure’s lack of character? That such absolute nonsense could ever show up in the midst of an impeachment debate?

But the point with which Elshtain begins her screed is more intriguing than her odd Guinier groaner. She starts her screed with very seriouscharges against the president and the people around him. Return to the passage we quoted above, where Elshtain compares the Clintons to Tom and Daisy:

ELSHTAIN: The same, of course, could be said of President Clinton and the people around him. It has been widely reported that the president’s attack dogs stand ready, if asked, to go after Lewinsky...

It was the “it has been widely reported” that quickly concerned us. “It has been widely reported”--by whom? As we’ll see, Elshtain goes on in this passage to make extensive claims about the (nameless) people around President Clinton. But we search for a hint that she’s doing anything more than passing on rumors she’s heard in the din. Have any people around the president said this sort of thing to Elshtain? How does Elshtain know that what is “reported” is true? You’d think, when one makes such charges, one would want to attribute one’s remarks very carefully. One looks in vain for any attribution at all--read carefully, mates, we implore you:

ELSHTAIN (two paragraphs): It has been widely reported that the president’s attack dogs stand ready, if asked, to go after Lewinsky. Indeed, they’ve done so, in dribs and drabs, already. If saving the president’s career means drowning her in the process, so be it. She was notorious around the White House, they whisper to reporters; even after she had been reassigned to the Pentagon, she kept showing up at events--practically stalking the president. She’s either a “nut” or a “slut”--or maybe both--since those seem to be the two labels we apply to women who once enjoyed or proffered certain favors but who no longer serve in the capacity to which they were assigned or for which they quite eagerly volunteered.

How sordid. How vulgar...

Indeed. And, it crosses our mind, how careless--to accuse unnamed White House personnel of calling folks “nuts and sluts,” unless one knows that they actually did so. Elshtain writes a colorful story, but we search in vain for some indication that Elshtain, or anyone she’s willing to name, ever heard these terms actually used. (We think the use of the second term would be especially offensive and revealing.) DidWhite House people call Lewinsky a “nut” or a “slut,” in a campaign to save Clinton? Didthey tell Elshtain they were willing to “drown” Monica--or is that a construction from Elshtain’s muse? Elshtain writes passionately about what saying “nuts and sluts” means. But her constructions are strikingly slippery and vague. Did she ever hear the quoted terms used?

What we’re afraid of here is that the ghost of Stephen Glass is still walking the halls of that poor New Republic. We can’t help wondering if the furious Elshtain hasn’t let her imagination run out far past her facts. She certainly paints a bright, vivid portrait of the sordid, vulgar folks whom one finds in the White House. But she doesn’t tell us who she means; it’s unclear if she’s ever observed their alleged conduct; and even when she describes the conduct as “widely reported,” she doesn’t cite any reference we could check for ourselves. It makes us afraid that Jean Bethke Elshtain--an observer who thinks that “Hi, kiddo” is an insult--has been out there runnin’ with that celebrity lynch mob, and may now be tellin’ a colorful tale that she can’t really vouch for as true.

If we want good fiction, we’ll go read a novel. We’d like TNR to maybe work from some facts.