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IT’S THE STUPIDITY, STUPID! A lengthy profile of Mike Allen reveals the world’s greatest problem: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, APRIL 26, 2010

Two ways of looking at West Virginians: In this morning’s New York Times, Peter Barker pens a long report, with several large photos, about the visit by Obama and Biden to yesterday’s Big Branch memorial. Liberal throats catch as we read Obama’s words about those coal miners, “this band of 29 roughneck angels.”

He notes that their labor gave us things we very much take for granted.

We’ll only suggest that you recall this: These are the same people we deride when we mock those stupid “tea-baggers.” We “liberals” love to have it both ways. When will our side grow up?

West Virginia, 2008: McCain 56 percent, Obama 43 percent. That’s when Obama was popular.

IT’S THE STUPIDITY, STUPID (permalink): Over the past few decades, the geographic center of Establishment Washington intellectual life has moved all about. Today, Politico could be called the intellectual Ground Zero of our D-minus journalistic elite.

This makes Mark Leibovich’s profile of Mike Allen a true must-read piece. (It appeared in yesterday’s New York Times magazine. Steel yourselves, then click here.) As he starts, Leibovich notes that many top players now describe Allen as the “most powerful” or “most important” journalist in Washington, due to his work at Politico.

Allen sits at the top of the journalistic heap. But what sort of journalism does this provide? About two-thirds of the way through his lengthy piece, Leibovich starts showing us what Politico hath wrought. Politico employs top talent, he says. But look what they have produced:

LEIBOVICH (4/25/10): By any measure, Politico employs several top-rank journalists, including the political writer Ben Smith, the Congressional reporter David Rogers and the political reporter Jonathan Martin. Allen has broken some of Politico’s biggest stories. He reported that The Post was planning to hold paid salons for lobbyists at the home of its publisher, Katharine Weymouth, setting off a firestorm. During the 2008 campaign, he asked John McCain how many homes he owned (eight properties, and it proved a major embarrassment to McCain when he could not immediately answer).

Leibovich names two of Politico’s “biggest stories.” One is the story about how many properties McCain owned. (His wife is rich.) Of course, the inanity of this kind of journalism is lost on many “liberals” and “progressives;” in real time, our side treated this bull-crap as a big scoop. As we continued, we even began to wonder about Leibovich himself:

LEIBOVICH (continuing directly): Politico’s comprehensive aims can make it goofy and unapologetically trivial at times. A recent item by a Congressional blogger for the site consisted of the following: “Lights are out throughout much of the Longworth House Office Building, a denizen tells me. UPDATE: They are back on.”

So let’s see. According to this two-paragraph chunk, it was trivial to learn that the lights were off, important to count McCain’s houses. We can think of few better illustrations of the banality—the intellectual squalor—which has characterized American discourse over the past twenty years.

That said, Leibovich saved himself as he labored on. A bit later, he directly confronted the sprawling inanity which defines the press establishment’s world. In the following passage, he refers to John Harris and Jim Vandehei, the twin tyros who have driven Politico to the top of the establishment dump. As you read, you have permission to (lustily) cheer Mark Salter:

LEIBOVICH: By and large, the most common rap against Politico concerns its modeled-on-ESPN sensibility. While Harris and VandeHei say—rightly—that Politico has devoted lots of space and effort to, say, the health care debate, many of its prominent stories on the subject followed a reductive, who’s-up-who’s-down formula. (“No Clear Winner in Seven-Hour Gabfest,” read the headline over the main article about President Obama’s health care meeting.) Harris and VandeHei have clearly succeeded in driving the conversation, although the more complicated question is exactly where they are driving it.

“I’ve been in Washington about 30 years,” Mark Salter, a former chief of staff and top campaign aide to John McCain, says. “And here’s the surprising reality: On any given day, not much happens. It’s just the way it is.” Not so in the world of Politico, he says, where meetings in which senators act like themselves (maybe sarcastic or short) become “tension filled” affairs. “They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel,” Salter says. “It’s the shortening of the news cycle. It’s the trivialization of news. It’s the gossipy nature of news. It’s the self-promotion.”

Let’s add to Salter’s admirable point. On most days, nothing much happens in Washington. But on those same days, the vast majority of American voters don’t understand the nation’s most pressing issues at all. By normal standards, it would be the business of big news organizations to explain those issues.

Instead, Politico counts up houses—and notes when the lights are off.

In its banality, the Washington establishment—and this new avatar—abandoned “normal standards” long ago. Before long, Leibovich portrays this barrel of buffoons at play, among their own:

LEIBOVICH: On a recent Friday night, a couple hundred influentials gathered for a Mardi Gras-themed birthday party for Betsy Fischer, the executive producer of “Meet the Press.” Held at the Washington home of the lobbyist Jack Quinn, the party was a classic Suck-Up City affair in which everyone seemed to be congratulating one another on some recent story, book deal, show or haircut (and, by the way, your boss is doing a swell job, and maybe we could do an interview).

McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, arrived after the former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie left. Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren had David Axelrod pinned into a corner near a tower of cupcakes. In the basement, a very white, bipartisan Soul Train was getting down to hip-hop. David Gregory, the “Meet the Press” host, and Newsweek’s Jon Meacham gave speeches about Fischer. Over by the jambalaya, Alan Greenspan picked up some Mardi Gras beads and placed them around the neck of his wife, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who bristled and quickly removed them. Allen was there too, of course, but he vanished after a while—sending an e-mail message later, thanking me for coming.

Over the years, we have sometimes noted these rarely-reported affairs, where one collection of cupcakes parties alongside another. We’ve mentioned the Christmas party at Rumsfeld’s house (2003), the one where Tim Russert showed off so loudly. We’ve mentioned the dinner parties featuring Ifill and Condi. We’ve mentioned the banquet where Ted Koppel kissed the keister of Colin Powell, while to failing prepare himself for his interview with Swift Boat kingpin John O’Neill. We’ve mentioned Jim Lehrer’s constant presence at these events—when he isn’t off writing his novels.

How do these people arrange to be so banal? Read that last block-quote again. Try to imagine how dumb you get if you’re forced to listen to impromptu speeches by folk such as Meacham, in which cupcakes heap praise on themselves.

Leibovich closes with a fascinating fact about Allen’s family background. (Uniformly, Allen is said to be a nice guy.) But Allen is only one part of a sprawling, aggressive inanity—an inanity which has come to endanger the world. This banality was never pursued with more lust than in the fall of 1999, when the “press corps” spent a good solid month trashing Naomi Wolf, whose great sin had just been revealed—she was advising Candidate Gore. In the last few weeks, we’ve been working on that episode for Chapter 5 of How he got there. The intellectual squalor was dumbfounding—and things have gone downhill from there.

(Go ahead! Name the liberals who complained about this at the time. For the record, the trashing of Wolf began four days after the first Gore-Bradley debate, where journalists hissed and jeered Gore for the hour. “Liberals” accepted that too.)

Things have spiraled downward from there, rarely noted by progressives or liberals. We tend to enjoy The Dumb when it’s aimed at Them, abhor it when it’s aimed at Us. Beyond that, we liberals like to pretend that The Dumb is a mark of The Other Tribe. Just read this post by Steve Benen, which advances that notion, and understand your country’s central problem—and the world’s:

The Dumb isn’t just over there.

Tomorrow—part 1: Brooks avoids.