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THAT MAGIC MOMENT! A pundit cult chooses a few magic moments from a long White House campaign: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 13, 2010

It continues: Our first-ever fund-raising drive, that is! Meanwhile, we hope you’ll sample Chapter 1 at How he got there, our new companion site.

At that site, we’ll be describing some deeply consequential history from the Clinton/Gore years. We think it’s very unwise for the liberal world to let this history get disappeared by the very people who worked to create it. In Chapter 1, we start to explain how George W. Bush found his way to the White House. This is deeply consequential history. And as history, it’s really quite recent.

Over here, we’ll keep discussing foolishness from the mainstream press—and from its conservative and liberal branches. In our view, the mainstream has been very foolish this week, as it types novels from Campaign 08. If you think our twin efforts are worthwhile, we hope you’ll consider making a contribution.

Revealing Dowd’s true expertise: Finally and at long last, Maureen Dowd has given the world a look at her true expertise. Discussing NBC honcho Jeff Zucker, Dowd explains the way Americans most enjoy watching TV. The text is a mess in various ways. But this is the way the text appears in our hard-copy Times:

DOWD (1/13/10): Certainly, Zucker greatly underestimated the deeply ingrained viewing patterns of Americans, who have always watched TV in a very specific way.

The kids come home, do their homework, the family has dinner. They’re in front of our [sic] sets by 8, and 8:30 is known as the dog-walking slot. At 9, it’s time for more comedy. As they get tired, they like to watch a fictional drama that leads into the real drama of the late local news, and then they like to laugh again so that those images of Iraq or Afghanistan or some local murder are not the last thing you [sic] go to bed to.

America has been watching a very specific sort of guy at 11:30 p.m. for half a century, who chuckles as Mary Tyler Moore or Sarah Jessica Parker tells an amusing story and then is asleep by the time some stand-up comic or blow-up starlet tells a salacious joke.

Yes, that text is a jumbled mess. (According to Dowd, the standard late-night host “chuckles as Sarah Jessica Parker tells an amusing story and then is asleep by the time some starlet tells a salacious joke.” If only it were so! That’s a show we’d stay up to watch!) But clearly, Dowd has given a lot of thought to the “deeply ingrained viewing patterns of Americans, who have always watched TV in a very specific way.”

Just a guess: We’ll guess the lady could tell us a lot about the way we watch daytime soaps too.

(Again: That’s Dowd’s text from our hard-copy Times. For the on-line version of her column, just click here.)

Dowd is one of the utterly fatuous people who have driven our public discourse over the course of the past twenty years. She has invented quotes, imagined motives, and driven the nation’s focus to candidates’ hair-dos, spouses and wardrobes. She’s one of the biggest gender nuts in American journalistic history. Each December, she writes a column about her family, apparently so we’ll know that her lunacy isn’t exactly her fault.

You live within a very strange, deeply self-destructive culture. Dowd is an obvious barrel of air—and she’s the soul of our “press corps.”

THAT MAGIC MOMENT: [permalink] Within the codes of American speech enforced by America’s pundit brigade, it’s OK to claim that a candidate’s accent, or pattern of speech, may affect his electoral chances. We know this because of something we read on the front page of today’s New York Times.

Michael Barbaro profiled Harold Ford, who may run for the Senate from New York. Right there in his second paragraph, Barbarao alluded to a possible problem:

BARBARO (1/13/10): In a wide-ranging discussion, Mr. Ford said that he had missed politics since leaving Congress four years ago and believes New Yorkers would be open to his candidacy, despite his Tennessee roots and intermittent Southern accent.

Ford thinks he can win New Yorkers’ votes despite his “Southern accent.”

Could Ford lose votes in the state of New York because of his intermittent accent? Presumably yes, he could. We say that because considerations of speech and accent have commonly been discussed with regard to recent American pols, with the steady suggestion that accent counts when it comes to getting votes. We may be wrong, but we think we’ve heard Chris Matthews suggest that Governor Haley Barbour (R-MS) might have trouble as a national candidate due to his very strong Deep South accent. (This topic is hard to search.) Meanwhile, pundits have often caught big national candidates affecting their accents to suit a region’s preferences.

In 2007, pundits worried when they thought they heard Hillary Clinton affecting a southern accent in some venues. A similar complaint was lodged in March of that year, when Candidate Obama spoke at a black church in Selma, Alabama. Along the way, Candidate Gore had sometimes been accused of jacking up his accent too. In a somewhat similar vein, it was sometimes observed that Candidate Kerry had largely abandoned—indeed, improved—the upper-class accent of his youth. (Todd Purdum, New York Times, 7/29/04: “His accent, though less plummy than in his youth, still bears an unmistakable upper-class stamp.”)

Candidate Kerry’s plummy accent was discussed in 2004. That same year, James Fallows observed a change in President Bush’s speech patterns—a change so pronounced that some were saying its cause must be strategic. Writing in the Atlantic, Fallows described a man whose speech patterns had changed dramatically, in just ten years:

FALLOWS (7/04): This spring I watched dozens of hours' worth of old videos of John Kerry and George W. Bush in action. But it was the hour in which Bush faced Ann Richards [in a 1994 gubernatorial debate] that I had to watch several times. The Bush on this tape was almost unrecognizable—and not just because he looked different from the figure we are accustomed to in the White House. He was younger, thinner, with much darker hair and a more eager yet less swaggering carriage than he has now. But the real difference was the way he sounded.

This Bush was eloquent. He spoke quickly and easily. He rattled off complicated sentences and brought them to the right grammatical conclusions.

[...]

Obviously, Bush doesn't sound this way as President, and there is no one conclusive explanation for the change. I have read and listened to speculations that there must be some organic basis for the President's peculiar mode of speech—a learning disability, a reading problem, dyslexia or some other disorder that makes him so uncomfortable when speaking off the cuff. The main problem with these theories is that through his forties Bush was perfectly articulate. George Lakoff tried to convince me that the change was intentional. As a way of showing deep-down NASCAR-type manliness, according to Lakoff, Bush has deliberately made himself sound as clipped and tough as John Wayne.

“I say: Maybe,” Fallows judged, after fleshing Lakoff’s view out a bit more. For our money, we thought it was obvious that Candidate Romney dumbed his speech patterns down in Campaign 08, though we don’t recall anyone saying so. Except ourselves, that is.

That said, it’s plainly OK, within our speech codes, to talk about a candidate’s accent or speech patterns. It’s OK to suggest that a candidate’s accent may affect his ability to win votes; it’s OK to suggest, as Harry Reid once did, that a candidate may even adjust his accent or speech pattern, depending on the setting. But uh-oh! Instead of referring to Candidate Obama’s “accent” or “speech pattern,” Reid referred, in a single statement, to this candidate’s “Negro dialect,” or general lack of same. This has produced a Wide Pundit Uproar—an uproar which only calmed down this morning because the disaster in Haiti forced grumbling pundits to pretend to discuss some real news.

Reid referred to Obama’s general lack of a “Negro dialect.” In the process, he used one word which is largely outdated, and another which is hard to define. He also energized the priests and adepts of a powerful cult—The Cult of the Offhand Comment. Those adepts did what they always do:

They seized upon one odd remark—one odd remark from a 70-year life. They then posted impressive signs which clearly announced, “The doctor is IN.” Working from one lone remark, they let us know the state or Reid’s soul—the value of Harry Reid’s life.

This Cult has functioned this way for decades. Can our nation survive?

We’ve suggested, for several years, that this is a very dumb way to do business. It’s true—Reid made a somewhat odd remark, using a two-word term which is surely archaic. But people make odd remarks all the time; they make such remarks for various reasons. Those odd remarks don’t necessarily mean a bloomin’ thing about the state of their souls, about their outlook or their character. Typically, such odd remarks will be ignored—unless they can take discussion in a direction our Pundit Brigade likes.

Pundits may favor particular offhand remarks for a wide range of reasons. But when they seize on the random odd comment and act as if it Shows Us Everything, our pundit brigade is actually showing its own achingly low IQ.

Did Reid’s use of that peculiar term give us a window into his soul? Some have been troubled by the word “dialect”—a word we ourselves would not have used because of its odd suggestions. But a very bright progressive academic used the same term, in the very same context, on the Maddow Show, this Monday night (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/12/10). Should she be called to task? Some have been troubled by the word “Negro”—a word we ourselves haven’t used in decades, although it used to be the standard, non-insulting way to refer to African-Americans. (Like Pepperidge Farm, Sully remembers. We remember presenting that poem to fifth-graders, in 1970.) But: Did Harry Reid’s use of that two-word term tell us something about his soul, his character, his “real” inner views? If so, there would likely be other incidents in his long life in which his soul would have self-revealed.

Have you seen your squealing Pundit Brigade discuss such moments this week?

At present, your country is stuck with a pundit brigade which is almost defiantly unintelligent. One of their dumbest pastimes is this: They seize the single, stray comment or event and use it to flesh out their novels. In this case, cable pundits often seem to love stray events involving race—perhaps for their own psychiatric reasons, perhaps because race can drive cable ratings. (We refer mainly to white pundits here.) It’s best, of course, when race and sex appear in one package, as in the matter of O.J.

(Why, oh why, can’t Carrie Prejean please have a Negro boy friend?)

The dumbest thing these people do is search for the one Magic Moment. In the case of this week’s thrilling new book, pundits have rummaged through a million events from a long campaign; in the case of certain candidates, they have seized upon the two or three events which create a novel they enjoy telling. This new book was written by Halperin and Heilemann; for ourselves, we haven’t read it yet. But how dumb can our pundit cult be when its adepts thumb such a book? Using the adept Ben Smith for our text, we’ll discuss that matter tomorrow. And we’ll ask a major question about the claims in this new book:

If we question its claims about Major Dems, can we simply assume the truth of its claims (or suggestions) about Major Reps? Should we encourage the work of this cult when it’s defining The Other?

Tomorrow: The nature of picking and choosing