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17 September 1999

Our current howler: Bare-naked laddy

Synopsis: Dana Milbank is making a powerful bid to win a Silver Sewer.

All the news that’s fit to print?
Helle Bering, The Washington Times, 9/15/99

Dana Milbank, The New Republic, 9/27/99

Field of Fewer Dreams
Dana Milbank, The New Republic, 9/6/99

Finish Line
Dana Milbank, The New Republic, 8/23/99

Up to Speed: Inside Gore’s Pants
Dana Milbank, The New Republic, 7/12/99

Helle Bering of the Washington Times spoke up on Maureen Dowd's latest effort, in which Dowd ran through a list of White House hopefuls, asking in print if she'd f*@& them (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/15/99). Dowd explained why wrote the column—she was upset because an Esquire piece had "trivialized" Mrs. Clinton. But Bering, tone deaf to Dowd's important insights, trashed her for "stooping to [Esquire's] level."

Dowd, of course, hates trivialization. She tends to stick to lofty remarks about the hopefuls' bald spots:

DOWD (4/21/99, imagining Gore thinking about Bradley): He has a spot, too. You just can't see it, because he's such a beanpole.

Dowd discusses "spots" so often, she doesn't even have to tell readers which kind! More recently, she imagined Mayor Giuliani's inner flow:

DOWD (6/6/99): It's not enough that I have no neck, a bad comb-over, and a scary smile. It will take a lot more than that to make people feel sorry for me.

When bad comedians offer this type of fare, half-drunk patrons ask for their check. But to the editorial crew at the New York Times, that's good, solid, thought-provoking stuff.

But if Bering is upset with the vacuous Dowd, she should check out the New Republic's Dana Milbank. In the current TNR, Milbank continues his practice of overtly sexualizing all the major hopefuls. His victim this week is George W. Bush, who is the governor of Texas—elected by 69% of the voters—and the GOP's leading White House contender. Before long, he may be president of the United States. So who better to portray in this manner:

MILBANK (9/27, first paragraph): This is, perhaps, the wrong forum for the deeply personal revelation I am about to make...[H]ere goes. For six months, I have been engaged in an intimate relationship with George W. Bush. It is an inappropriate relationship. In fact, it is wrong.

In paragraph two, the droll scribe assures us that he hasn't had "sexual relations" with Bush. "But it must be said that Mr. Bush has been touching me in an inappropriate way." He goes on to tell us that Bush has "touched me in a hotel room," and "has touched me in the most intimate of places." "He makes me feel cheap," Milbank says. (We find that part especially hard to believe.)

Milbank continues with an extended metaphor, which draws on the humor of child sex abuse—all the while constructing images of Bush as a sex abuser:

MILBANK (9/27): Each time, I wait with dread as he approaches me and reaches right for my (this is embarrassing—do you mind if I say it with my eyes closed?) hand. Sure, some would call this a handshake. But, to me, it is contact with the intent to arouse my desire for an interview—only so he can frustrate me by saying no.

There's more, but we'll spare you the details.

You might be surprised to learn that TNR thinks child sex abuse begs for humorous treatment, and thinks these images are an appropriate way to picture an important public figure. But Milbank's current, stomach-turning column is just his latest frolic. Over the past few months, Milbank has authored a string of pieces which picture hopefuls in intimate postures. The child abuse gag is his greatest work yet, but it's hardly how Milbank began.

Milbank seems to have no clue at all about the oddness of his conduct. Here he is on September 6, in a review of the Iowa straw poll:

MILBANK (9/6): [Lamar] Alexander, who gambled everything on Ames and lost, has taken a more dignified route; he quit. The candidate was reportedly upset by my profile of him in TNR, which depicted him partially nude.

Indeed, in a profile of Alexander on August 23, Milbank, in his opening sentence, had shown us the hopeful "with his shirt off and his pants unbuttoned, standing in full view of the press corps (which, in this case, consists of me)." It was just another attempt by Milbank to show us hopefuls-as-they-really-are. So what does the naughty author do, informed that Alexander was offended by the portrayal? What else? He helpfully describes the incident again, this time stepping up his language to say Alexander was "partially nude."

But it isn't only Alexander we're invited to picture in the buff. In the same piece where he reported Alexander's displeasure, Milbank slimed Liddy Dole too:

MILBANK (9/6): Dole continues to get no respect from the press. Part of this, no doubt, is plain old sexism. One reporter, returning from a one-on-one interview with Dole on her campaign bus, told his colleagues, "She looks great naked." But there's also a legitimate beef to make about her unwillingness to answer questions.

Milbank, of course, only repeats the comment to show us something about the press corps. He wants us to appreciate the horrors of sexism—so he invites us to picture Dole naked.

But by the rules of this year's campaign game, one nails the vice president first. And sure enough, it was Gore to whom Milbank first turned his peculiar attentions. Here's paragraph one of a July 12 piece, which was subtitled "Inside Gore's pants:"

MILBANK (7/12): A few weeks ago, Tipper Gore hinted to reporters that the vice president of the United States, the man who is a heartbeat from the presidency, sleeps in the nude. Now, I'm no Michael Isikoff, but I think I've got a scoop of my own concerning the vice president's undergarments.

The fun was just getting started. Milbank says he asked a Gore aide why the veep had been delivering his speeches more rapidly. Presumably joking, the aide told Milbank, "We gave him really tight underwear." The unwitting aide hadn't understood that you can't say things like that to Milbank. Milbank, inflamed by the underwear image, treated readers to this embellishment:

MILBANK (7/12): There are other possible explanations. Another aide credited performance-enhancing substances: "He's highly caffeinated." Yet another suggested the candidate was made to drink large quantities of water before his appearance, forcing him to finish quickly. It is not an altogether pleasant image to picture the superhydrated, overcaffeinated candidate hurrying cross-legged through his speech, bolting for the men's room, and peeling off his constricting skivvies.

Which would leave him—you guessed it, folks—naked! It may not be a "pleasant" image—but it's an image that seems to appear with great frequency to Milbank's peculiar mind.

The fact that Milbank has a strange turn of mind doesn't make him a terrible person. It does, though, make him a type of writer the New Republic should reign in fast. From obsessive peeping into underwear drawers, Milbank now drolly portrays Bush as a child sex abuser. The New Republic ought to know better. Sadly, its editor doesn't.


Base, but weak on his basics: But then, you know what we told you this whole past week—when scribes feel free to clown around, they tend to fall down on their basics. And sure enough, in the same article in which Milbank got "inside Gore's pants," he cranked out this load of pure horseshit:

MILBANK: Yes, there were a couple of lapses into the old ways on [Gore's] announcement tour. In Iowa City, Gore, who shrewdly avoiding reading a list of acknowledgments in Carthage, felt it necessary to thank a local fellow from 4-H. "I was in the 4-H club and raised beef cattle," he began, creating a momentary worry that we would hear another yarn about his youth as a farmer on the fertile plains of Massachusetts Avenue.

Milbank borrows directly from the imagery of Michael Kelly's noxious (and false) "Farmer Al." By the time this article appeared in TNR, virtually everyone else in the Washington press corps had abandoned the farm chores baloney. But Milbank, in his reference to another "yarn," clearly implies that Gore had dissembled about his youthful experiences (on Massachusetts Avenue, of course). It's hard to understand why a major journal would publish a scribe who is so uninformed. Maybe if Milbank spent less time on his dirty jokes, he'd find time for some background reading.

One last point: Milbank expresses annoyance at the thought that Gore "felt it necessary" to be polite to a 4-H member. In that sad remark, we get quite a look at the mentality of some in the press corps.