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Daily Howler: It's easy to be hard on a candidate when novelists pick-and-choose tales
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EASY TO BE HARD! It’s easy to be hard on a candidate when novelists pick-and-choose tales: // link // print // previous // next //

History makes him sick: Yesterday, an e-mailer offered this comment about our new companion site:

E-MAIL (1/13/10): Love the book, but it’s making me sick

Thanks for making my mainstream media nausea come back, like some species of malaria. I'm eager to see where you go in the next few chapters...

Indeed. We think the story told in How he got there is a truly remarkable story. That’s true of the story in Chapter 1 (click here). But the remarkable point is how many such episodes follow and precede it. In a few weeks, Chapter 2 will jump back three months in time, to March 1999. The events of that month were so bizarre, you simply can’t start a book with them.

The vast bulk of the work for the book is done, though some of the story-telling still needs shaping. But we think our country needs a history of the Clinton/Gore era. The story told in How he got there is a ginormous part of that era.

Our pitch for funds thus proceeds apace—in a week when there’s very good reason to be sending funds elsewhere. At this site, we hope to drive discussion this year about some of the ways our side tends to lose. Over there, we plan to keep pounding out that truly remarkable history.

In part, we think our side tends to lose because we’ve agreed to bury our history. In our view, American voters deserve to be told what happened during those years.

Ways we all lose: Could Scott Brown win the Massachusetts Senate seat? Actually, yes—he could. To our ear, Lady Collins shows one of the ways our side has long practiced to lose:

COLLINS (1/14/10): [Brown] is a conservative state senator who believes in waterboarding but not necessarily global warming. When he was 22, he won an “America’s Sexiest Man” contest, the prize for which was $1,000 and a chance to pose naked in a Cosmopolitan magazine centerfold. One of his daughters—this is perhaps the best-known factoid in the campaign—came in somewhere between 13th and 16th on “American Idol.”

“For our family, especially me being on ‘Idol’ but my dad being in politics, there are always so many people who have something negative to say,” Ayla Brown told The Boston Herald this week. Her talent was singing, not sentence construction.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! But then, for another example of imperfect “sentence construction,” see the text of Maureen Dowd’s latest column, apparently before it got some editing from some sentence-construction workers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/13/10). But then, we think you know these rules:

In the high aeries of people like Collins, sentence structure is cause for laughter—when it’s fumbled slightly, if at all, in the extemporaneous speech of a candidate’s 21-year-old daughter. (Darlings! She was on American Idol!) When structure is fumbled by Lady Dowd, editors rush to correct the mess. She keeps the Pulitzer Prize.

Collins’ column isn’t likely to move any votes, unless Howie Carr (or some other talker) cites its unfortunate sneering on Boston talk radio today (click here). But this type of sneering has moved votes against liberal/progressive causes for decades now. Similar impulse: No one mocks the small, empty states quite as reflexively as Lady Collins. Manhattan elites have made themselves big/fat/easy targets in this way since Nixon’s day.

Collins likes to smirk and sneer at her obvious lessers. But how well does she reason herself? In today’s column, she offers a SPECIAL RANT which is a masterwork of political foolishness. From this RANT, you would almost think that 90 percent of the population stands in support of the health reform bill. And of course, she can’t stop the smirking:

COLLINS: Why isn’t 90 percent of the country marching on the Capitol with teapots and funny hats, waving signs about the filibuster?

If Carr decides to work from this text, he’ll cite those “funny hats” too.

Why isn’t 90 percent of the country marching on the Capitol? Could it be because a majority of voters don’t seem to support the health reform bill? Lady Collins’ SPECIAL RANT presents an exceptionally poor analysis. Yes, there’s a problem with the way Senate representation works. But if it’s utter pure nonsense you most enjoy, her attempt to quantify this problem should warm your innards today.

One last point: Lady Collins seems to think that “the voters sent a clear, unmistakable message” in the 2008 election. But guess what? When it comes to health care, no—we didn’t! If Howie Carr can make some hay from her ladyship’s latest sneering, Bay State voters may show us next week how true that sad fact is.

(For ourselves, we have no idea what will happen next Tuesday.)

Why are progressive interests commonly thwarted? In large part because, for the past forty years, the Carrs have been smarter than the Collinses. The Carrs go after the sneering elites. The elites makes fun of the daughters.

EASY TO BE HARD [permalink]: Here at THE HOWLER, we haven’t read Game Change, the sizzling new Halperin/Heilemann best-seller. On a first-hand basis, we can’t judge its fairness or balance.

But often, pundit reaction to such a book is more important than the book itself. And we’ll admit it. When we read Ben Smith’s treatment of Game Change, we incomparably thought this: At least the way Smith describes the book, Game Change sounds like a novel:

SMITH (1/11/10): That is the book's central theme: that Clinton, John Edwards, and John McCain were all brought down by their personal flaws, and probably deserved to be. Obama alone matches up, more or less, to his public portrait. McCain shoots as wildly from the hip as observers ever imagined. Edwards is more the empty suit, his wife more Lady Macbeth, than their worst enemies alleged.

Bill Clinton, too, appears to confirm the worst campaign-trail gossip: shrewd but uncontrollable, believed by his own aides to be philandering, and the source of catastrophic decisions in January 2008. (His spokesman declined to comment on the book and on the allegations of infidelity.)

Hillary Clinton though, had been at least partially protected in previous tellings of the campaign, her role vanishing into a haze of dueling and disagreeable advisers. “Game Change” puts her at the center of the action and systematically hacks away the attributes she spent a decade acquiring in the public eye: humanity, humility, competence.

In this passage, Hillary Clinton gains in one way; the standard comparison to Lady Macbeth is passed from her to Elizabeth Edwards. But as described by Smith, Game Change seems to offer novelized treatments of its players—simplified portraits in which, as in Greek drama of old, a long string of central characters are brought down by their personal flaws.

Presumably, these people all have personal flaws. But it’s easy to overstate flaws, if we choose to type pulp fiction—simplified tales in which we pick-and-choose the incidents we feature. In the case of Harry Reid, a punishing portrait has now been built from one single comment Reid apparently made. On cable, pundits were planning to thrash it all week—until disaster struck Haiti.

Is Harry Reid really a snarling racist? We’d be inclined to doubt it. But when you get to choose one comment from a lifetime of deeds and comments, almost any portrait can emerge—almost any novel can be written.

Can pundits really type any novel? According to reviewers, an unflattering portrait of John McCain is sketched in Game Change—a portrait in which, according to Smith, McCain was “brought down by his personal flaws, and probably deserved to be.” That portrait may be perfectly fair. But it’s hard to forget an earlier novel, a Group Novel the press corps typed years ago. During that era, the press corps picked-and-chose its incidents carefully, turning McCain into a Man Without Flaw, a deeply sanctified solon. In November 1999, Richard Cohen typed a definitive account of how this process works:

COHEN (11/16/99): A few times at some campaign stop, we would hear McCain described as a hero. Yes of course—but not in the sense of someone who had a surge of courage, a moment of virtual insanity, and won a medal as a result. No, McCain's heroism was a day-to-day affair, a marathon of agony, terror and despair over a matter of principle. That says something. That says everything.

The column was called, “No One Like McCain.” In those days, pundit novelists routinely picked-and-chose incidents which showcased McCain’s alleged high character. They presented all the good things the man had said and done in his life. In the process, they insisted that these selected examples “said everything” about this great man.

To appearances, that old novel has been abandoned as Game Change perhaps types another. Where heroic incidents were once selected, now we pick-and-choose McCain’s “personal flaws.” They show that he “deserved to lose.” They show a new McCain.

Alas! It’s very easy to be hard when we calculate the world on this basis. Almost anyone can be Lady Macbeth if we work in so childish a manner. Let’s consider some of the ways Smith’s piece drags down Hillary Clinton. Let’s consider the handful of (alleged) incidents the new novelists have picked and chosen.

At least, she’s no longer Lady Macbeth! But anyone can be cast in any role if we allow ourselves to reason in the manner which follows:

SMITH: Clinton can, of course, survive the [book’s] judgment. She has one of the world's best jobs, and one with an unparalleled capacity to change the subject from uncomfortable political stories, as well as to get out of town: She has conveniently scheduled a trip for this week to Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea.

Clinton “conveniently” scheduled a trip? Plainly, Smith suggests that she scheduled the trip to avoid release of this unflattering book. But alas! Smith suggests this idea, but doesn’t quite say it—nor does he present any reason to believe that his insinuation is true. This is very silly work—silly work which should have ended on the cutting-room floor. But this is the way our press corps has “reasoned” its way through its novels over the past twenty years.

That, of course, is a moment from Smith, not from Game Change itself. But let’s consider the incidents Smith has chosen to highlight from the new book. According to Smith (see quote above), Game Change “systematically hacks away the attributes [Hillary Clinton] spent a decade acquiring in the public eye: humanity, humility, competence.” As he continues directly, these are the first examples he pulls from the book. Smith italicizes the passage he quotes from the sexy new book:

SMITH: “Game Change” puts her at the center of the action and systematically hacks away the attributes she spent a decade acquiring in the public eye: humanity, humility, competence.

Much of the disillusion comes in Iowa. The authors write:

The Iowans didn't seem to be listening to her, just gawking at her, like she was an animal in a zoo. Hillary would hear from her staff the things voters were saying about her: "She's so much prettier in person"; "she's so much nicer than I thought." It made her ill. She found the Iowans diffident and presumptuous; she felt they were making her grovel. Hillary detested pleading for anything, from money to endorsements, and in Iowa it was no different. She resisted calling the local politicos whose support she needed. One time, she spent forty-five minutes on the phone wooing an activist, only to be told at the call's end that the woman was still deciding between her and another candidate. Hillary hung up in a huff.

"I can't believe this!" she said. "How many times am I going to have to meet these same people?"

The public Clinton was humble and hard-working. The private one is depicted as "extravagantly self-certain," believing so devoutly in her own destiny that she quietly began planning for her presidential transition during the primary.

In this passage, we’re asked to think poorly of Clinton because, we are told, “she quietly began planning for her presidential transition during the primary.” But if Clinton did begin planning at that time, why exactly would that be a bad thing—a sign of a personal flaw? In Tuesday’s New York Times, an “Economic Scene” column by David Leonhardt recalls that Candidate Obama began his own transition planning before he was elected—and that Candidate McCain accused him of “measuring the drapes” when he did so. But at the end of his column, Leonhardt suggests that Obama may not have planned his transition quite carefully enough. (The president still hasn’t made a nomination for the head of Medicare.) In Smith’s passage, we’re supposed to imagine that Clinton showed one of those “personal flaws” when she began to plan a transition. But why should we see this alleged conduct that way? Smith doesn’t quite explain.

But then, other aspects of that proffered passage don’t parse real well for us either. In the passage Smith quotes from the book, we are told that Clinton “detested pleading for anything, from money to endorsements”—that she “resisted calling the local politicos whose support she needed.” Immediately, we’re offered a portrait of Clinton spending 45 minutes on the phone with someone who hasn’t endorsed her! This is an odd bit of conduct from someone who allegedly resisted making such calls—although it may be the case that Clinton did tend to avoid such conduct. But please note: In many novelized portraits of the past fifteen years, this very sort of conduct has been treated as a sign of a hopeful’s good character. It’s a sign of good character when a candidate resists such groveling; it’s bad character when she’s willing to do it. Alas! In the kind of silly novel our major pundits most enjoy typing, you can pretty much take any behavior and novelize it any damn way.

Of course, the quoted passage from Game Change performs another service, one that’s typically rendered by novelists. The passage takes us inside Clinton’s head; it tells us what the lady was thinking as she stood on an Iowa stage, with Iowans “just gawking at her, like she was an animal in a zoo.” (A note from experience: Our hackles go up when a candidate is compared to animals or machines.) Did some source tell Halperin/Heilemann that this is what the lady was thinking? That “she found the Iowans diffident and presumptuous?” (Iowan voters? Iowan activists? The fellows don’t seem to feel the need to say—although, by the rules of American novels, it does make a fairly large difference.) Remember: According to Smith, this passage “hacks away” at the notion that Hillary Clinton possesses “humanity, humility, competence.” But do Heilemann and Halperin possess those traits? Whatever Hillary Clinton is actually like, this is a gruesome, poorly-reasoned passage.

Truth to tell, it’s part of a novel. Smith doesn’t seem to notice.

("I can't believe this!" Clinton allegedly said. "How many times am I going to have to meet these same people?" But if Clinton actually said those words, had she really just “hung up in a huff?” Even assuming an accurate transcript, a person’s statement can take on many aspects, depending on the way her concomitant tone and intent are described. In this passage, we’re asked to believe that these alleged statement shows Clinton’s lack of “humility.” In a novel, such a presentation, from an omniscient narrator, is pretty much A-OK. But out here in the actual world, can anyone think of a good reason why we should assume that these alleged statements should be viewed this particular way?)

And by the way: Did Clinton actually say those specific words? Did she actually make the statement which appears inside quotation marks? Even if it actually mattered, it’s hard to believe that the authors know. Was someone taping every call, and every reaction? Or is this “quotation”-by-recall?

Were Clinton, Edwards, and McCain “all brought down by their personal flaws?” Did they “deserve to be” brought down? It’s always possible, of course; it’s fairly obvious that John Edwards was involved in a deeply problematic situation during his run for the White House. But it’s very easy to be hard when you’re basically typing a novel. In the case of McCain, it was also easy to be easy—easy to fawn—when earlier novels served to sanctify this same, now-badly-flawed man.

Can we talk? In the course of a long campaign, candidates do and say hundreds of thousands of different things! If we get to pick-and-choose a few statements, we can construct any portrait we want. A candidates may say an angry thing—then think better of what she has said. And almost anything a candidate does can be positioned in a hard (or an easy) way—depending on the particular novel desired at the particular moment.

Alas! Over the course of the past twenty years, our press corps has increasingly trafficked in the stuff of the novel. They’ve lovingly picked-and-chosen their incidents to support the tale they want to type. In 1999, they typed a Group Novel about a high saint—a sanctified solon by the name of McCain. Now, two writers may have typed a brand new novel, about McCain’s “personal flaws.”

This is childish, unintelligent work. But we have a childish, unintelligent “press corps”—have had such a corps for quite some time.

Novels like these have changed the world. Can your nation survive them?

Tomorrow: For the goose, for the gander

He was there: Peter Daou, a good guy, worked for Clinton’s campaign. He offers his thoughts in Salon.