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OUR OWN MUSIC MAN/MUSIC WOMAN! We liberals can be happy at last—as a big net keeps dumbing us down: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, APRIL 3, 2009

This just in from the far planet Clueless: Two Obama nominees, Harold Koh and Dawn Johnsen, are being subjected to crackpot attacks on their character. At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick discusses the charges in this piece—and she helps debunk them. But Lithwick’s article reads like something pulled from a musty time capsule. Where has she been in the past twenty years? Surely not here on this earth.

The oddness begins in the second half of the article, when Lithwick notes that the “gross distortions of Koh's views have gone completely unanswered in the mainstream press.” It’s unclear why that would be a surprise to anyone over the age of eight. But soon, Lithwick is railing against the press corps’ silence—perhaps from an aerie on Mars:

LITHWICK (4/2/09): Why am I bothered by this? This kind of vicious slash-and-burn character attack, the kind in which the nominee is attacked as a vicious hater of America is nothing new...

Duh! Indeed, this sort of thing has been the norm in our politics since at least 1992, when the slash-and-burn character attacks started against Bill Clinton. In 1999, this war was extended to Candidate Gore, with a result from which the world suffers. But to this day, career liberals have agreed to avoid this entire history, as we see once again in Lithwick’s piece. In the passage we’ve just posted, she links to two examples of “this kind of vicious slash-and-burn attack,” which is “nothing new”—but each example involves Koh himself. And as she continues, she shows no sign of knowing that the mainstream press has played the lead role in creating this grisly culture:

LITHWICK (continuing directly): The little trick of upending Dean Koh's legal arguments and recharacterizing them as the nefarious plotting of Dr. Evil is a surprise to nobody at this point. But we can be bothered even if we're not surprised. When moderate Americans and the mainstream media allow a handful of right-wing zealots to occupy the field in the public discussions of an Obama nominee, they become complicit in a character assassination. Dawn Johnsen, a law professor at the University of Indiana and one of the most qualified candidates ever tapped to head the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, now faces the prospect of a senate filibuster because it took weeks for the mainstream media to evince outrage at how she was being treated.

Johnsen is highly qualified? So was Candidate Gore, in March 1999, when the mainstream media began pushing their “slash-and-burn character attacks” about his Crackpot Lies. Al Gore said he invented the Internet? The tale was ten years old last month—and it was endlessly pushed by the mainstream press corps. Has Lithwick heard?

Character attacks were launched against both Clintons—then, most consequentially, against Gore. People like Lithwick said nothing then—and they seem unaware, to this day, that this happened. As everyone except career liberals must know, the mainstream media has been the most consequential purveyor of these sorts of attacks over the course of the past twenty years. Now, Lithwick is shocked—shocked!—to see that the MSM doesn’t jump on its trusty steeds to shoot such pernicious tales down.

Why would anyone think that the mainstream press might challenge this sort of conduct? Quite literally, you can accuse Big Dems of serial murders and the mainstream press will just stare.

Read the rest of Lithwick’s piece. As a wonderful bit of irony, she cites the New York Times’ Neil Lewis, who has reported on some of the myths about Johnsen. Why is this citation ironic? Because Lewis played a mid-level role in the Times’ endless war against Clinton. Those wars were chronicled in Fools for Scandal and The Hunting of the President, the crucial books (by Gene Lyons, then by Lyons and Joe Conason) which Lithwick’s crowd sagely ignored.

Kevin Drum led us to Lithwick’s piece (just click here). He was clearly alive in the relevant era, though his reaction to this material displays a second familiar tic. “The right-wing nutcase machine really does seem to have picked up from its Clinton-era follies without missing a beat,” he writes. Fair enough; Kevin’s statement is perfectly accurate. But it was the mainstream media, much more than the “right-wing machine,” which finally brought down Clinton-Gore. Today, Lithwick wonders why they don’t shoot down the types of attacks they pioneered all through the 90s.

Has the rise of Obama created a new age in American politics? Did eight years of Bush destroy his party? It’s possible. But Lithwick’s cluelessness puts us on notice: If the tide of history turns back against us, we’ll still have a clueless “career liberal” elite keeping watch on the ramparts.

Why won’t the mainstream press shoot this crap down? We’re not sure. Why don’t hamsters play chess?

Special report: Still dumbing us down!

EPILOGUE—OUR OWN MUSIC MAN/MUSIC WOMAN: Many progressives are pleased with the work of Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. Last Saturday, Maddow did a public fund-raiser for Mother Jones. Kevin Drum was in the audience. He recorded the community’s joy:

DRUM (3/31/09): It was a packed event, and when it was over I was almost afraid Maddow was going to get trampled by the throngs of fans who wanted their picture taken with her. Marian and I didn't stand a chance against the crowd, though, so no pictures of us I'm afraid. Maybe next time.

Here at THE HOWLER, we think Olbermann has become a total clown; we’re unimpressed, at this point, with Maddow’s performance. On the other hand, both hosts are good at dishing out comfort food. The other tribe is stupid and bad—and our tribe is smart and good. This is what they persistently say, night after night, on their programs.

Throughout history, we rubes have hungered for us-and-them stories. But aside from her skill with snark and comfort food, has Maddow’s work been all that good?

In one way, you have to hand it to MSNBC: In giving us Our Own Rhodes Scholar, they neatly played to the liberal notion that We Are Much Smarter Than They Are. But in fact, much of Maddow’s work is quite weak—the stuff of our famous D-plus elite. Consider the lazy work she did all last week (March 23-27) on various budget matters.

Like Olbermann, Maddow has made little attempt to evaluate Obama’s budget on the merits—a budget designed in reaction to very bad economic times. Instead, we’re invited to laugh at the House GOP budget—the one which has no chance of passing. (We’re even told how stupid they were, in the tactical sense, to have presented a budget plan at all. We’re told this even though Maddow seemed to say, for more than a week, that they had an obligation to do so.) We laugh at the size of the GOP deficits—but what about the giant deficits in the budget which will actually pass? On an intelligent program, expert guests would be asked to help us grasp the implications. But Maddow’s show serves comfort food. So we chortle about the deficits in the budget which won’t pass.

Meanwhile, when it comes to process, Maddow’s efforts on the budget were more like a D-minus joke. On Wednesday (March 25), she produced a clownish attempt to examine the possible use of “reconciliation,” the procedure by which a measure can pass the Senate with a simple majority vote. She loudly name-called “conservaDems” who may not be on board with the process—then rolled over and totally died when one such Dem appeared for an interview. Will Jeanne Shaheen support the use of reconciliation in moving Obama’s agendas forward? Quite literally, Maddow didn’t ask. And of course, as soon as the interview ended, she went right back to her name-calling. Shaheen was called every name in the book—as long as Shaheen wasn’t there.

We’re Much Smarter Than They Are! We libs have always enjoyed thinking that—but that long segment last Wednesday night was really quite dumb. But then, on the Tuesday evening show, Maddow had presented a silly segment about the motives behind these conservaDems’ conduct. (Silly, because it was unidimensional. To watch the segment, click here.) Dems like these are on the take, we were basically told by a guest. (“Evan Bayh and others use the cloak of coming from semi-conservative areas in order to justify taking enormous amounts of lobbying money and then blocking legislation.”) Instantly, Maddow offered a comic disclaimer (“Alleging that this is because he’s taking lobbying money is not necessarily alleging corruption, but you are essentially alleging that he’s being paid to pursue this agenda.” Go ahead—you get to laugh!) But no other possible motive was ever offered for all the conservaDem treachery—and needless to say, Maddow didn’t ask Shaheen if she was on the take from corporate interests when she appeared the next night. Shaheen gave weak answers—to very weak questions. But so what! As noted, Maddow began trash-talking those conservaDems again—as soon as Shaheen left the air.

So it goes as God’s Brightest People get fed our nightly food.

Why are Evan Bayh’s gang of moderates doing the things they’re doing? Like you, like Maddow, we can’t really say—but like almost anyone who follows our politics, we can easily imagine reasons which go beyond their capture by leering corporate interests. (Though that’s a fair topic too.) Anyone who reviews the list of Bayh’s eighteen moderates will quickly notice an obvious fact; like Bayh, most of them hail from states which are traditionally red or red-leaning. God’s Chosen People may now believe that political history was transformed last fall—that we Dems will now rule the planet forever—but very few professional pols are likely to assess things that way. Our smaller states tend to be conservative; for that reason, any time you get 58 Democrats in the Senate, a substantial number will hail from red-leaning states. Their political conduct will likely reflect that reality, whether they are on the take from corporate interests or not. (Would we prefer that they lose re-election?) Do Bayh’s eighteen moderates really plan to obstruct Obama’s objectives? Like Maddow, we simply don’t know. But: Are some of them possibly staging a show, a political show for home-state voters—a show Obama may even have blessed? Of course that’s possible—except on the Maddow Show, of course, where we, The Brighter Tribe By Far, hear silly blather like this:

MADDOW (3/24/09): If the president can’t pass his budget and his agenda, it won’t be because of Republicans. It will be because of this guy, Evan Bayh. He’s a Democrat. Evan Bayh waited through George W. Bush’s two terms in office. He waited until a Democratic president was elected, and then he formed a group of conservative Democrats in the Senate to oppose his own party`s agenda.

Evan Bayh “waited until a Democratic president was elected?” In fact, Bayh has been forming “moderate/centrist” Dem groups as long as he’s been in the Senate (for one brief account, just click here). What are his reasons? We can’t mind-read as well as Maddow. But that formulation, while highly pleasing, just wasn’t especially accurate.

Simply put, Maddow and her staff just aren’t very sharp on a lot of domestic policy matters. You probably wouldn’t mind that situation so much, if she weren’t so inclined to go on the air and make thunderous proclamations—proclamations whose utter self-confidence may disguise their lack of insight. Last weekend, that “throng of fans” may have believed that we’ve finally been blessed with Our Own Rhodes Scholar. We think they ought to “settle” less quickly—although we humans have always fallen for leaders who dish comfort food.

Yes, the comfort food flies think and fast on these liberal programs—but it’s often quite dumb. Countdown is simply awful, of course. But in many areas (not all), the Maddow Show isn’t much better.

How solid is Maddow’s actual work? In fact, in the week we’ve been reviewing, her work was frequently flat-out bad, both on the merits and when it came to her over-the-top presentation. You might not mind her fumbling work on the budget so much—if she weren’t so deeply engaged in so much mugging and clowning and snark. On the merits, Maddow’s work is often weak—but the hyper-confident way she presents her ideas will often seem to signal the opposite. This brings us back to the remarkable segment with which she closed her week.

Last Friday night, she returned to the topic she’d bungled on Tuesday. She offered a long (7:22), stand-alone segment which her site headlined this way: “Word Wars.” As we’ve said, Maddow had bungled this topic on Tuesday (text below). And hurrah! She now corrected her unfortunate bungle, saying all the things which follow. Our Own Rhodes Scholar corrected her error. Or did she?

MADDOW (3/27/09): The new president doesn’t appear to have picked a brand name [for the “war on terror”] that he’s going to repeat a lot...

This is Geoff Morrell—he’s the Pentagon spokesman. When he was questioned about this what-to-call-the-wars thing this week, he said nobody’s telling him what to call anything from the podium at the Pentagon. He said there is no mandate on what brand name he’s supposed to use. He says, as a Pentagon spokesman, he doesn’t even have any preferred nomenclature for the wars, nor has one been pushed on him...

The Obama administration apparently isn’t playing re-brand the war with new catchy public slogans all the time, the way the Bush administration did. They haven’t even told the Pentagon spokesman that he has to use some specific terminology.

Interesting! The Obama admin isn’t playing re-brand the war, Maddow said. There is no mandate on what “brand name” the Pentagon spokesman is supposed to use. Obama doesn’t appear to have picked a “brand name” that he’s going to repeat a lot. And that was important, because, just three nights before, Maddow had unwisely said the opposite. Sorry—this was just wrong:

MADDOW (3/24/09): Big news today from the Obama administration that, frankly, is going to take a little getting used to. There is yet another new name we are supposed to use for the wars. In fact, we’re not even supposed to call them “wars” any more...

Now, after all of those etymological iterations, after all of those different brand names have been tried and found wanting, President Obama’s administration has picked something new and they put it in writing.

Al Kamen in the Washington Post reports today that speechwriters and other Pentagon staff have been notified by e-mail as of this morning that, per instruction from Obama’s Office of Management and Budget, quote, “This administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘long war’ or ‘global war on terror.’ Please use “overseas contingency operation.’"

“Overseas contingency operation.” From here on out, except for Iraq and Afghanistan and everything else? Overseas contingency operation: OCO! That`s going to take some getting used to and probably some explaining, too.

In fact, Kamen’s report had included a flat denial of this claim, by OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer. On Tuesday night, Maddow omitted this flat denial, clowning her way through a bungled story, letting us marvel at her brilliance wit as she offered a string of funny acronym jokes (and made fun of George Bush’s accent). Three nights later, she corrected her bungle, as shown above. Or did she?

We strongly advise you to watch Maddow’s lengthy segment from last Friday night’s show. We’ve rarely seen a more disingenuous presentation by a cable host. “The new president doesn’t appear to have picked a brand name,” Maddow now said—but this came roughly four and a half minutes into her lengthy presentation. (She had mocked Bush’s funny accent again. No southerners need apply around here!) But then, we didn’t meet Geoff Morrell till the 4:50 mark. “The Obama administration apparently isn’t playing re-brand the war?” You had to wait till 5:50 for that.

Sorry. Our Own Rhodes Scholar didn’t exactly correct her error. Instead, she staged a long, mugging/clowning, disingenuous segment in which she almost seemed to be claiming that she’d been brilliantly right all along. We’ve rarely seen a segment that was more disingenuous—or more ponderous, more pseudo, more confusing, more dumb. In fact, that segment is amazingly dumb. It was done by Our Own Rhodes Scholar.

Quite often, Maddow’s work last week wasn’t real sharp—and frequently, it wasn’t real honest. But then, she crawled on her belly to win her job back in January 2008, throwing your alleged “progressive” values away in the process. After all those years in which he’d trashed liberal women, liberals were finally beating up on Chris Matthews for his gender-trashing ways. Result? After getting herself tangled up in the incident, Maddow ran off and told the AP how wonderfully brilliant the great pundit was. Her first post at MSNBC was announced the following week.

Our experience teaches us to be wary of people who do things like that—even if they tell you each night that your tribe is brilliant and good.

That “Word Wars” segment was long and gruesome. We’ve never seen anyone go to such lengths to avoid admitting a simple mistake. (Everyone makes them.) But this sort of thing always worked for Matthews, and it seems to be working today. One night later, Kevin Drum “was almost afraid Maddow was going to get trampled by the throngs of fans who wanted their picture taken with her.”

But then, people have always reacted that way to leaders who pimp, pose and pander.

Maddow clowned all week—and often seemed less than honest. But all through the annals of human history, we rubes have always responded this way to those who behave like Maddow and Olbermann—to those who insist that our tribe is smart and good, while their tribe is bad and quite stupid. These hosts are paid large bucks by GE to serve us liberals comfort food. We finally have our own music man—and coming up next, our own music woman. We liberals can be happy at last—as a big net keeps dumbing us down.

Pushing Powell: In this post, dday applauds Maddow for pushing Colin Powell about war crimes in Wednesday night’s interview. We agree with dday—but only up to a point. Once again, we’d have to say that Maddow’s questions were weak and quite mushy. She gave an aggressive introduction—when Powell wasn’t present. In the interview, when he was there, she largely backed down.

Did Powell take part in White House meetings where specific torture techniques were discussed and/or approved? That was the charge Maddow discussed in her fiery introduction. But when she actually sat with Powell, the questions were vague and quite soft. What follows is the first Q-and-A. This is the most direct question Maddow asked. Powell was quickly evasive:

MADDOW (4/1/09): On the issue of intelligence, tainted evidence and those things, were you ever present at meetings at which the interrogation of prisoners, like Abu Zubaydah, other prisoners in those early days, where the interrogation was directed, where specific interrogation techniques were approved? It has been reported on a couple of different sources that there were principals' meetings, to which you would have typically been there, where those interrogations were almost play-by-play discussed.

POWELL: They were not play-by-play discussed, but there were conversations at a senior level as to what could be done with respect to interrogation. I cannot go further because I don't have knowledge of all the meetings that took place or what was discussed at each of those meetings. And I think it's going to have to be the written record of those meetings that will determine whether anything improper took place. But it was always the case that, at least from the State Department standpoint, we should be consistent with the requirements of the Geneva Convention. And that's why this was such a controversial issue. But you'll have to go—and in due course, I think, we all will go—to the written record of what memos were signed. I'm not sure what memos were signed or not signed. I didn't have access to all of that information.

That’s the most direct question Maddow asked—and even here, she talks about “specific interrogation techniques,” not about “torture” or “water-boarding.” Powell’s answer, of course, is quickly evasive. Obviously, he hadn’t been asked about meetings he didn’t attend; he was being asked about meetings at which he was present. The follow-up questions write themselves: If the State Department favored adherence to the Geneva Convention, did you ever hear discussions of techniques that would have violated that convention—of water-boarding, for example? But that isn’t what Maddow asked. Instead, she went hypothetical:

MADDOW (continuing directly): If there was a meeting, though, at which senior officials were discussing and giving the approval for sleep deprivation, stress positions, water-boarding, were those officials committing crimes when they were giving that authorization?

Pathetic. In this question, Maddow does mentions specific techniques. But the question she asks is hypothetical. Powell is removed from the scene.

The topic here was much more serious, but the questioning was very much like the questioning of Shaheen the previous week. Maddow talked a very good game in her introduction to this segment with Powell. But when Powell was actually in the room, she largely rolled over and died.

This doesn’t make Maddow a bad person, of course. But do progressives want strong performance? Or is comfort food good enough?