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Daily Howler: A farm-state pol was seen without socks! To Brokaw, this was a key detail
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THE SMALL, INANE DETAIL! A farm-state pol was seen without socks! To Brokaw, this was a key detail: // link // print // previous // next //

They can’t stop loving her: To borrow from the Ray Charles hit, They can’t stop loving her! Last night, Howard Fineman was Olbermann’s very first guest. Fairly quickly, his ardor exploded:

FINEMAN (1/6/09): Don’t forget, as chief of staff under Bill Clinton, [Leon Panetta] saw the intelligence briefings every day, although some people have pointed out he didn’t know what was going on with Monica Lewinsky, so how good a spy could he be?...

OLBERMANN: Well, congratulations! Six days into the new year and I heard that old familiar name once again. And that was Lewinsky.

FINEMAN: Oh, why not?

OLBERMANN: Well, that’s the record so far. Six is the longest I’ve ever gotten into a year since then.

For certain male pundits of Fineman’s daft class, all roads still lead to Miss Lewinsky! They keep choosing to live their lives in dreams of yesterday.

To Olbermann’s credit, he expressed mild pique with Fineman’s drift. But when his next guest drifted off to the same place, he was too tired to bother:

JONATHAN ALTER: [Senate Democrats] are in a pickle here. And it`s a pretty amusing one for those of us who remember Roland Burris going back to the 1970s when I first met him in Chicago, and he was Casper Milquetoast of Illinois politics. And here he is in one of the most dramatic, you know, showdowns in recent Washington history.

I was with a cameraman out there today, Keith, and he said that this was the biggest "cluster F" since Monica Lewinsky. You know, this was a big dramatic deal today when they had that little standoff outside the Capitol.

OLBERMANN: Or, as I suggested, the greatest excitement in the senate since the caning of Senator Sumner.


Readers, can you see the way these people think? When Fineman was asked about Leon Panetta, it made him think of Miss Lewinsky. But then, when Alter was asked about Roland Burriss, he ended up there too.

Those happy hours that they once knew! Olbermann himself was egregious last night; we’ll probably look at some topics tomorrow. But it’s been ten years since these fellows met Miss Lewinsky—and they still can’t quit her.

Special report: Tell me a story!

PART 2—THE SMALL, INANE DETAIL: Wouldn’t you know it? Another heartwarming-but-bogus, feel-good tale is debunked in today’s New York Times! (Motoko Rich does the honors again. You know what to do—just click here.) This time, it’s a plagiarized Christmas tale—a heartwarming story which was published, then taken down, by As we noted in yesterday’s post: People love to tell Simple Stories—the type of tale which is “too good to check.” And uh-oh! Such stories have dogged American journalism over the past many years.

In a rational world, journalists would be inclined to doubt Simple Stories—and they’d be inclined to fact-check. But in the past few decades, our public discourse has been fueled by a string of daft, inane tales. Consider the insulting nonsense penned by Tom Brokaw in the December 28 New York Times magazine. Dumb stories don’t get much dumber than this—or more typical of the dreck which has shaped our political discourse.

Brokaw was penning a remembrance of the late Tim Russert, his long-time friend and colleague. As is required by Hard Pundit Law, he shaped his piece around an Approved Standard Notion: Russert was Everyday Man. After a bunch of silly blather comparing Russert to football’s John Madden, Brokaw got around to his story. It helps us appreciate the depth of the nonsense which still drives the multimillionaire, pseudo-journalist world:

BROKAW (12/28/08): Tim had a special appreciation of Madden's powers of observation, like Madden's admonition to hotel guests not to sleep on the side the bed where the telephone is located because the mattress is more likely to sag from overuse. Tim believed the small, telling detail can say a great deal about the larger failings or vulnerabilities of a politician.

A few years ago, he asked me to check on the prospects of a farm-state candidate for governor who spent part of every year on Nantucket and adopted some of the local customs. I called a friend in the candidate's state to get an assessment, and he said simply, ''He doesn't wear socks.'' Tim roared when I passed along the observation, and we often used that expression—''He doesn't wear socks”—as shorthand for politicians who were tone-deaf.

We must rely on Brokaw for the truth of this story. But the tale is sadly typical of the way your discourse has been dragged down in the hands of these millionaire ciphers.

Alas! “Tim believed the small, telling detail can say a great deal about the larger failings or vulnerabilities of a politician,” Brokaw reports. Sadly, this belief has led us down the path to ruin in recent decades. In recent decades, public ciphers like Russert and Brokaw have persistently peddled Silly Group Stories built around “small, telling details”—small details said to help us see some Big Major Pol’s tragic failings. Often these details were patently ludicrous: John Kerry ordered the wrong kind of cheese for his cheesesteak! Often, these details were factually bogus: Al Gore said he discovered Love Canal! (The press corps repeated this crap for a month, although it was patently false.). But transparent losers like Brokaw and Russert have dined out on such silly stories for decades. Way back in 1972, Ed Muskie cried about his wife Jane —until it turned out, twenty-four years later, that he quite probably hadn’t. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/28/07.

By now, you’d almost think that people like Brokaw would have been shamed, by public events, into dropping this practice of telling these stories. But there he was, in the Times magazine, recalling yet another take with a “small, telling detail.” Good God! Some politician “spent part of every year on Nantucket”—and while he was there, he didn’t wear socks! To people as foolish as Brokaw and Russert, this is the sort of “telling detail” which lets us peer into pols’ souls.

The sheer stupidity here is obvious. So too the apparent hypocrisy, if you know a fact Brokaw forgot to mention—if you know that Russert, the middle-brow king, “spent part of every year on Nantucket” too. In fact, he summered there, in a $6 million home; he’d jet there to write his self-glorying books about his sad, working-class background. And it didn’t take long for one savvy scribe to show the total hypocrisy involved in Brokaw’s silly new tale (just click here). At The New Republic, Jason Zengerle posted this photo of Russert on the island. The great man was wearing a pair of loafers—and sadly enough, no socks:

Tim Russert without socks.

Brokaw’s story was inane on its face—but people like Brokaw have ruined your lives with stories like this for at least several decades. Through some spreading mental defect, they seem to believe that their “small, telling details” actually show us the souls of Big Pols. Of course, the “small, telling details” they choose to spread tend to be aimed at Big Pols they disfavor. And uh-oh! When no such “telling details” exist, they have tended to dream details up. What kind of nation lets palace dwellers of this type keep changing the shape of world history?

One more photo, from Brokaw’s actual piece. This photo shows the great Average Joe at one of his son’s high school football games:

Tim Russert cheers his son.

If you understand the genre, you know what this photo is supposed to convey: Timothy Russert, great though he was, was just a regular sports fan and dad. This has been standard NBC cant ever since Russert’s ascension to power. Russert was the working-class Buffalo fan; Brian Williams is the guy who adores all things NASCAR. In this way, NBC builds its audience, permitting the network to pay these ciphers their $10 million per year.

Russert was just like the other dads, as we can plainly see in that photo. Except the other dads sat up in the stands, while Russert went down and posed by the scoreboard—posed there for a professional photographer who just happened to be nearby. The game was tied—and time was expiring. Why wasn’t he up in the stands?

Yes, Brokaw and Russert have been deeply inane—but then too, they’ve also been deeply dishonest. At any rate, they and their cohort have simply loved the stories with those “small, telling details”—the “small, telling details” behind the daft tales which have now changed all our lives.

By the way: Three cheers for Zengerle.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Did Kristof fact-check?