NURSINGAND RATCHETINGNARRATIVE: Maureen Dowd has been a public embarrassment for a very long time. That said, we were struck by the instructive uses of her new column this morning.
How does the modern pseudo-journalist ratchet up narrative? Dowd is there to show you:
In paragraph 13, she tells us what its hard to imagine.
In paragraph 10, she tells us what Hillary Clinton maybe is thinking. (Later on, she lets us know how the Clintons think of themselves.)
In paragraph 18, she asks if a campaign spokesman is making a case that, fairly clearly, he hasnt made. (If he had made it, he could have been quoted.)
In paragraph 3, she describes an idea that some Clinton disciples have been floating. But she doesnt name or quote any of these disciples. Throughout her column, we have to accept a string of similar attributions on faith.
In paragraph 5, though, the big lebowski: Dowd compares the events shes discussing to one of my favorite movie formulas.
Indeed, much modern journalism is a novel (a typecast drama, in E. R. Shipps language). Statements are ratchetedmotives are imaginedto make events fit pre-conceived formulas. Lazy ingenues loll about, turning your lives into tired old movies. And their dramastheir narrativesfrequently change:
DOWD (3/26/08): [T]he Clintons think of themselves as The Democratic Party. When Bill and Dick Morris triangulated during the first term, it was what was best for Bill, not the party. In 1996, when Bill turned the White House into Motel 1600 for fund-raisers, it was more about his re-election than the re-elections of his fellow Democrats in Congress; in 2000, the White House focused its energies more on Hillary's Senate win than Al Gore's presidential run.
Just like that, the novel has changed! For years, the Dowds were busily trashing Gore; to that end, they wrote a novel in which the vain, stupid hopeful refused to ask brilliant Bill Clinton for help on the trail. Now, Bill Clinton has fumbled a bit in such settingsand the Dowds are busily trashing the Clintons. Presto! The story-line shifts! Before, Gore wouldnt ask Bill Clinton for help. Today, though, Selfish Bill wouldnt help
But Dowd has been like this for a long time. In recent years, her lunacy has become more apparentbut her fatuous languor had long been public. Embarrassingly, Dowd won the Pulitzer Prize in April 1999; embarrassingly, her official citation praised her for her fresh and insightful columns on the impact of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. As it turned out, Dowd had little else on her prize-winning mind. On July 28, 1999, she returned to the Times from a month-long absence. Heres the list of topics the tyro tackled upon her return to duty:
July 28, 1999: She described her recent lazer eye surgery.
August 1: She reviewed the movie Runaway Bride.
August 4: She discussed a new Talk magazine piece about the state of the Clintons marriage.
August 8: Bob Dole on the prospect of being first gentleman. (Doles wife was running for president.)
August 11: She compared and contrasted two famous blond iconsHillary Clinton and Marilyn Monroe.
August 15: Might Warren Beatty run for the White House?
August 18: Bush and the question of youthful drug use.
August 22: Bush and the question of youthful drug use.
August 25: She reviewed a new cable film about the relationship between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas.
August 29: She psychoanalyzed John McCains reasons for seeking the White House. (Never have so many men wanted to run...to prove they are worthy to larger-than-life dads.)
September 1: I ran into Kato Kaelin the other night, she wrotebefore examining Monica Lewinskys plan to launch a new lipstick line.
September 5: She offered her reactions to Paris, a new Las Vegas casino hotel.
Nine years later, the vacuous starlet is still on hand, imagining motives, ratcheting dialogue, quoting anonymouslyand forcing events to conform to formulas followed by her favorite dull film fare.
Dowd appeared on last nights Larry King Live; in a word, her segment was embarrassing. Result? Some Clinton pals said its hard to imagine that this cipher is actually sane. Of course, Dowd thinks of herself as the corps greatest queen. Maybe shes thinking she has to ignore the signs of her growing decline!
THEY REFUSE TO COMPLAIN: On Monday night., Kevin Drum marveled at the way John McCain can get away with routine demonstrations of abject ignorance and with transparent flip-flopping so egregious it would make any other politician a laughingstock. He cited examples of McCain flip-flops and howlers, then closed with a pair of questions. Well assume they were rhetorical:
DRUM (3/24/08): Remind me again: where does all this cred come from? And what window do Democrats go to to get the same treatment the press gives McCain?
How does McCain get away with so many mistakes and flip-flops? Well offer two answers.
First, lets review Jennifer Palmieris performance on last evenings Hardball. Palmieri was representing the Center for American Progress, one of the liberal/Dem worlds leading think tanks. (She shared the segment with Republican strategist Todd Harris.) At one point, Chris Matthews turned to Palmieri and asked her a very good question:
MATTHEWS (3/25/08): Let me ask you about this question. We will now turn the tables here. McCain supports a war which is increasingly unpopular. He supports an economic which we don`t know what holds for us. And were all a little nervous every time we watch the stock reports.
MATTHEWS: We dont know.
MATTHEWS: How can he still be even-steven with the Democratic candidates, both Barack [sic] and Hillary Clinton right now in the numbers? Why is he even?
Thats a very good question; weve discussed it several times in the past. And one part of the answer is blindingly obvious. But in this, Palmieris full reply, she never quite got to it:
PALMIERI (continuing directly): I do think that he hasnt gotten enoughI think that he hasnt gotten enough scrutiny on, particularly on his policies. He hasin addition to Bushs tax cuts, hes for $200 billion more in corporate tax cuts. I dont imagine thats going to be wildly popular.
MATTHEWS: But people know this!
PALMIERI: So, people dontpeople dont know this yet. And I think thatAnd that isI mean, the press
HARRIS: John McCain is the most vetted
MATTHEWS: Well, they know hes in bed with President Bush on tax cuts.
MATTHEWS: Dont they know that hes for the continuation of the tax cuts?
PALMIERI: But do they know that hes for $200 billion in more corporate tax cuts? Its things like that they don`t know. They don`t know that his health care plan would dismantle the employer-based system. I think that, when they find that out, theyre going to see, well, thats really radical.
MATTHEWS: OK. Let`s switch over to the Democrats for a second here. It seems to me the Democrats are really tearing at each other.
HARRIS: Yes. Its blood-letting....
Palmieri is an experienced Democratic spokesperson. She also seems like a very nice person. But wed have to say that performance was woefulin a very familiar way.
Why is McCain even-steven in the polls, even if his policies are unpopular? In part, the answer to that question is blindingly obvious: The mainstream press has spent the past dozen years presenting McCain as a secular saintas the straight-shooting maverick king of the highly authentic Straight Talk Express. But career liberal pundits and Dem Party spokesmen have spent the past dozen years refusing to complain about that. When Matthews asked a very good question, Palmieri offered tedious thoughts about corporate tax cutsand failed to cut to this part of the chase.
But then, career liberals always behave this way. In this mornings Washington Post, Harold Meyerson got out the great big tub of soft soap when he discussed a variant of this problem. Why has Saint McCain gotten a pass for his recent blunders about Iran? Well offer a large chunk of Meyersons column. Pathetically, this is as far as modern career liberals will go when it comes to describing reality:
MEYERSON (3/26/08): What are we to make of this moment? Was it a senior moment? A jet-lagged moment? Or, worse, was it really a moment at all? After all, the evening before, McCain had told listeners of Hugh Hewitt's radio talk show that "there are al-Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they're moving back into Iraq."
So the al-Qaeda-Iran alliance wasn't just a passing thought. It was a thought that had taken up residence in McCain's brain for at least a day, possibly longer. Whether it was a simple mistake, a neoconservative delusion or a habit of mind that lumps together all of America's enemies (either sincerely or calculatedly, to build public support for military action), we cannot say. What we can say is that the idea of any or all of these options is profoundly disquieting. The very thought of a president who deliberately conflates or erroneously confuses our adversaries with each other is appalling, though not without precedent. We're mired in a war that has its roots in George W. Bush's both imagining and fabricating an alliance between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Do we really want to perpetuate these habits of mind in the next administration?
McCain's meshugas didn't really get the attention it deserved, however. He was fortunate that his descent into fantasy occurred in the same week as Barack Obama's reverend crisis and Wall Street's near-meltdown. He got a pass from most of the media, too, in part because his statements in Jordan ran so completely counter to his image as an expert on national security.
Meyerson at least mentioned the fact that McCain got a pass from most of the media. But his explanation for that is the press corps own explanation, one which involves a lot of soft soap. McCain got a pass last week, we are told, because of his image as an expert on national security. That explanation at least makes senseon the surface. But, alas, it isnt accurate; it doesnt explain the overall data. During Campaign 2000, for example, McCain was granted endless passes for embarrassing blunders about domestic policy (including his comically failed, and abandoned, health plan). As Meyerson knows (but will not say), McCain was granted those passes then, as now, because members of the mainstream press corps have long been promoting his runs for the White House. They even sing him to sleep on his birthday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/11/08). Big career liberals likes Meyerson know this. But they refuse to tell their readers. And of course, they refuse to complain.
Lets cut Palmieri some slack. She was speaking extemporaneously on Hardball; at one point, it even seemed like she was might be about to go straight at the press. (Interrupted, she quickly reversed her field, returning to her cosmic tedia.) But Meyerson carefully wrote a columnand carefully failed to describe the real world. Might we guess at the problem here? Meyerson works for the Washington Postand the Washington Post is the problem at issue! No, we cant mind-read this big hapless loser. But this pattern occurs again and againand again and againand it keeps helping Dems lose elections. Indeed: Eight years later, these big hopeless losers still havent mentioned that War Against Gore! You knowthe one the press maintained simultaneously with their pimping of the great Saint McCain.
(In her March 2000 ombudsman column, Shipp specifically said it: The Post seemed to be giving Candidate McCain a free pass while painting Candidate Gore as delusional. Eight years later, Meyerson still hasnt mentioned his cohorts trashing of Goreand he still downplays the way McCain gets pimped by these people.)
The press corps has made him a saint for the past dozen yearsbut big career liberals refuse to complain. And the conflicts of interest they bear are quite obvious. As we told you earlier about your side: Apparently thanks to conflicts like this, were number twoand we dont try harder.
Why is John McCain even-steven? Go aheadreread Meyersons column. Enacting an obvious conflict of interest, the Meyersons have used that tub of that soft soap for years. They refuse to tell you the truth about this. Simply put, they refuse to complain.
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: In December 1999, McCain got a pass when his health care plan bombed. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/19/06. Prepare for morbid laughter.
TOMORROW: Right there in todays New York Times, Brother Gabler speaks up for the rubes.