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19 December 2001

Our current howler (part I): "N" was the loneliest number

Synopsis: Red plus blue made purple prose—and foretold a conservative crack-up.

Andrew Sullivan,, 12/11/01 (4:14:42 P.M.)

It simply can’t get dumber. Here is Andrew Sullivan on his dotcom, reminding us all that the ancients said the human race was too dumb for democracy. We’ll include the whole passage, since any fair paraphrase of what Sully wrote would almost surely be dismissed as invented:

BLUE AND RED AGAIN: You may well have read the astonishing piece in the
New York Times today about the divergent paths of John Walker and John Spann. The thing that stood out most starkly is the blue-red split. In fact, both are almost absurd stereotypes of each part of America. Here’s Spann’s background: "Mr. Spann grew up foursquare in a four-stoplight Alabama town. Life in Winfield revolved around family, church, duty and high school football, and Mike Spann embraced them all. He took apples to his teacher, played soldier at recess and prayed on Sunday with his family at the Church of Christ." You couldn’t make that up. Then here’s Walker: "Encouraged by his divorcing parents to seek his own spiritual path, he found himself by rejecting teenage culture in the name of Islam. He sold off his hip- hop records, immersed himself in the Koran and started wearing a long white robe." One is from Alabama; the other is from Marin County, California. One is a national hero, the first American casualty at the hands of the enemy. The other is the enemy. Does it get any starker than that?

Not only that, but Lincoln once had a secretary named Kennedy, and Kennedy once went for a ride in a Lincoln. (Please insert your favorite example of coincidences that speak to the world’s feeble minds.) Reading Sullivan, we somehow thought of a recent quote: "You couldn’t make that up."

Sullivan seemed to be deeply impressed by some utterly meaningless facts. Here they are: John Walker came from a "blue" state (California). Mike Spann came from a "red" state (Alabama). "Does it get any starker than that?" he asks, pulsing with the thrill of discovery. We’re not quite sure if it gets any "starker," but we’re pretty sure it can’t get any dumber. Whatever Sullivan thinks this all means, you surely can see that it doesn’t.

Ah yes, the thrill of research! In this passage, Sullivan—using a "N" of one—seems to feel that he’s made a discovery about the twenty-one "blue" states. He then runs out and grabs that same "N" and limns all those states that are "red." Is there anyone living who can’t quickly see the absurdity of such risible research? There are roughly 150 million people in each set of states. In each case, our correspondent draws some sort of meaning from the conduct engaged in by one!

Here at THE HOWLER, our analysts roared as we worked through this confection. And, as we read the Sullivan piece, a brilliant light began to shine, a light that almost seemed to show a Coming Conservative Crackup. Rush’s gang has had its own way for so many years that Sheer Stupidity has become the right’s Bible. Thirty years ago, Jerry Rubin—behaving this way—pointed the way to the death of the left. Trust us. When Sullivan cranks out nonsense like this, another Great Shipwreck is coming.

Next: On the right, Sheer Stupidity is now de rigeur. Why, they’ve even dragged David Brooks into it!

They too saw red: Last Friday, the Washington Post profiled "three young friends," also from those inspiring "red" states. The tale loses something without the mug shots. But you know what to do. Just click here.


The Daily update (12/19/01)

From our Institute of Howard Fineman Studies: If you thought you caught Fineman playing the courtier—praising President Bush’s masterful changes of attire (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/10/01)—then you should have caught his act back in ’99, when Bill Bradley was still in the race. Eventually, Fineman’s allegiance would shift to McCain, but before the authentic Arizonan began catching on, Fineman was Washington campaign chief for Bradley’s White House effort.

Early on, Fineman’s pandering produced some high comedy. A Newsweek profile—"A Man on the Move"—allowed him to showcase his skill with a basketball metaphor. The NBA thing was always presented as something that set Big Bill apart. Fineman rarely missed the chance to stress the great man’s noble background.

So what was up with our "Man on the Move?" While portraying the candidate as "a relaxed public man unusually comfortable in his own skin," Fineman said that Bradley had "kept his eye on the ball," had "his elbows out," and now was finally "taking his shot." Where did Bradley stand on the issues? "Always a good ball handler, Bradley is trying to dribble left and right at the same time," Fineman said. The piece was so stuffed with silly basketball imagery that it read like a work from the Harvard Lampoon. But Fineman kept pushing the character angle—the same spin the Bradley campaign was presenting. "Now he’s playing one-on-one in the biggest contest in American life," Fineman wrote, "and professes not to be worried if he loses." In Fineman’s iconography, Bradley was always portrayed as a man outside politics, one who wasn’t obsessed with the outcome. And that of course made perfect sense. Everyone knows that world-class athletes never care about who wins or loses a contest. And everyone knows that a three-term senator running for president has absolutely no connection to politics. (In Bradley’s own book, of course, he describes how he went into a long, deep funk in late 1990. Why? He had won his re-election campaign, but not by a wide enough margin!)

In short, Fineman has long been a courtier. But our curiosity was piqued by one sobriquet which appeared in a later profile. Once again, Fineman was splainin’ how great Bradley is. But we wondered just where he got this one:

FINEMAN (9/13/99): Bradley has a Whitmanesque love of the average Joe, a romantic view reinforced by thousands of encounters in what he proudly calls his life on the run.

"His life on the run" was bad enough, but we’d never seen "Whitmanesque" used for Bradley before. In fact, Bradley is often described as standoffish. There’s absolutely no shame in this, but "aloof" is a term often heard.

Here at the HOWLER, we were puzzled. One thing we knew about Howard Fineman—he’d never put something like that into print unless he was sure it was accurate. Had someone said that of Bradley before? At THE HOWLER, we swung into action. We ran a check on that great LEXIS grid, and sure enough, someone else had said it. And the person who said it—well, she really should know. Here was an item straight from the Hotline, two months before Fineman’s profile:

THE HOTLINE (7/6/99):
Ernestine Bradley appeared on "The Charlie Rose Show" on PBS 7/1, and viewers who turned in got "a surprise jolt when they heard" Bradley describe her husband Bill as "Whitmanesque."…Bradley said her husband, like the Civil War-era poet, "is trying to get a sense of where the American people are, rather than, at this stage of the campaign, inundate them with the ideas he will propose when" the Dem pres. contest heats up this fall.

For the record, the Hotline was using quotes from the July 5 Trenton Times.

So now we saw—and it made good sense that Fineman would go with this term. After all, Frau Bradley surely knew her man; if she said it, it surely was true. But we also knew that all top scribes carefully follow that "two sources" rule. We were sure that someone else must have said it. We kept looking—and here came Da Judge.

On June 27, Melinda Henneberger had profiled Bradley for the New York Times Sunday magazine. At one point, she was talking about the way lots of guys still idolize Bill for his ball:

HENNEBERGER: This kind of adulation has allowed, and probably even encouraged, Bradley to run, as he says, "a different kind of campaign." To run on trust. Who should be President? "The decision," he says, "boils down to who do you trust with your life? Who do you trust with your job?"

Of course, this nicely contrasts his own clean slate to the Clinton-Gore scandals, which he never mentions. (Unless you think Bradley notes that he’s been compared to Walt Whitman only to remind us of the events that put "Leaves of Grass" in the news last year.)

So there you go—we finally had it! Fineman did have two strong sources, each of whom said "Whitmanesque." Fineman was able to go to print, being fairly sure it was true. How did he know that Bradley was Whitmanesque? Two informed sources had said it was true—Bradley himself, and his wife!

P.S. Every other word Fineman wrote that year came straight from the Bradley camp also.

A Man on the Move
Howard Fineman, Newsweek, 7/19/99

Bradley’s Shot
Howard Fineman, Newsweek, 9/13/99

The Aura of the Aura
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 6/27/99