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GOOD-BYE TO ALL THAT! Waging his endless haircut wars, Roger Simon says good-bye to all that: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 4, 2007

THE DOCTOR IS OUT: It’s a big day for the whole HOWLER family. Our adorable niece gets her doctorate in international heath today, right here at Hopkins. We’ve always admired her and her globe-trotting pals, so we look forward to all the excitement.

In our view, the best thing our niece did in her tours of the world was meet her handsome hubby, in the DR, when she was working for UNICEF. (He was coaching the Dominican track team, on loan from Cuba.) Yes, he finished eighth in the high jump at Barcelona (or fifth, depending on which AP story you read). But then again, who’s keeping score? We’re fairly sure that most families today have at least one 7-9 high jumper. (2.34m. We round up.)

In our view, “C” always wanted to get out and serve, right from the time, still in high school, when she spent a summer at elevation, in Ecuador, teaching kids how to take care of their teeth. Back then, she had two things in her favor. Her instincts, which made her want to go. And her parents, who told her to do it.

THEN TOO: Not long ago, her brother founded the Dublin Review. Can you believe it—that the name was available?

SCHOOLED BY BRACEY: All of which makes us think of Gerald Bracey’s column in yesterday’s Post. Are America’s kids the world’s dumbest? Journos love to make such claims. And Bracey likes to debunk them.

In this column, Bracey addresses a familiar subject—the difficult standards maintained by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the set of tests which is often referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card.” Omigod! Only 29 percent of U.S. fourth-graders scored “proficient” on last year’s reading test! Journos love to rant and rail about how dumb this makes our kids—how crummy this means our schools must be. But uh-oh! Bracey notes that Sweden was “the top-ranked country among 35 in the most recent international reading study.” And only one-third of their fourth-graders would have passed the same test, he explains.

Compare this with Nicholas Kristof’s doomsday piece in Tuesday’s New York Times. “Gold Stars and Dunce Caps,” the headline says. But uh-oh! When we read this start of his column, we wondered why Kristof felt he knew this:
KRISTOF (5/1/07): In this presidential campaign, we need somebody who wants to address the question President Bush once raised: ''Is our children learning?''

International testing shows that U.S. schools do a lousy job teaching math and science, in particular. And far too many American students aren't going to college or even completing high school, undermining our competitiveness for decades to come.
Is that true? Do international tests “show that U.S. schools do a lousy job teaching math and science?” Bracey doesn’t address that question, but we’re not sure Kristof knows his brief. Here are the most recent TIMSS results in eighth-grade science, for example. Kids from 45 countries were tested. The U.S. kids’ scores placed them ninth.

We’re always surprised at how many scribes consider themselves to be experts on urban education—including people who show no sign of having set foot in an urban school, or having any real idea what really goes on there. As he continues, Kristof works from the type of script high-minded liberals have loved at least since the 1960s:
KRISTOF (continuing directly): Moreover, the U.S. education system reinforces the gulfs of poverty and race. Well-off white kids tend to go to good schools that propel them ahead, while many poor black and Hispanic kids attend bad schools that hold them back.
For decades, that script has made a type of liberal feel good. Why do poor kids do less well? Because their schools hold them back!

Kristof does a lot of work around the world, on issues he seems to know a great deal about. Then, there’s this week’s column, in which his work seems less sure-footed. As someone who spent a dozen years teaching in Baltimore’s elementary schools, this kind of know-nothing, know-it-all, feel-good column always catches us by surprise.

[AS HE CONTINUES: As he continues, Kristof endorses “a bold three-part plan for improving American schools.” But the plan he endorses doesn’t strike us as especially bold—or as especially promising.

The plan—“from a provocative report on education from the Hamilton Project”—seeks to improve the quality of teachers, especially in schools which serve poor children. Obviously, that would be a good thing to do. But readers, it’s so easy to pretend—so easy to dream of a brave new world! Can you spot the apparent gap in the logic driving this high-minded passage?
KRISTOF: [T]eachers still vary tremendously in their effectiveness, as the Hamilton Project study found when it examined results in Los Angeles schools. It looked at the 25 percent of teachers who raised their students' test scores the most, and the 25 percent who raised students' scores the least. A student assigned to a class with a teacher in the top 25 percent could expect—after just one year—to be 10 percentile points higher than a similar student with a bottom-tier teacher.

''Moving up (or down) 10 percentile points in one year is a massive impact,'' the authors wrote. ''For some perspective, the black-white achievement gap nationally is roughly 34 percentile points. Therefore, if the effects were to accumulate, having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.''
So easy to wipe out that black-white score gap! Of course, this utopian reasoning only works if all the white kids are assigned to teachers in the bottom quartile for those four years. But elsewhere in his column, Kristof and the Hamilton Project recommend firing those bottom-tier teachers! But readers, if we fire them, there goes the ball-game! If we don’t keep all the lousy teachers, how can the poor kids catch up?

But then, pseudo-liberals have been “solving this problem” for at least the past forty years. They type their latest utopian scheme; Times readers feel a warm inner glow, then go back to their other concerns. Yesterday, our analysts nominated Salon’s Glenn Greenwald for a much-deserved Nobel Peace Prize. For now, we’re afraid they won’t be sending Mr. Kristof on a slow-boat to Stockholm.]

A SLAM DUNK RE-ELECTION: We pre-discussed this recent history on Wednesday, so we’ll keep it short and sweet today. But we think the following point is worth noting: George Tenet was surely right when he said, on Sixty Minutes, that his “slam dunk” comment in December 02 didn’t drive the nation to war. That said, it’s important to recall the major role this silly narrative played in Bush’s re-election.

How silly was the “slam dunk” anecdote in Bob Woodward’s ballyhooed Plan of Attack? The book appeared in April 2004. The weekend before the book was released, the Washington Post ran a 2800-word front-page report; it summarized what Woodward’s book said. Written by reporter William Hamilton, it was the nation’s first real glimpse of the book’s contents. Hamilton started like this:
HAMILTON (4/17/04): Beginning in late December 2001, President Bush met repeatedly with Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks and his war cabinet to plan the U.S. attack on Iraq even as he and administration spokesmen insisted they were pursuing a diplomatic solution, according to a new book on the origins of the war.

The intensive war planning throughout 2002 created its own momentum, according to "Plan of Attack" by Bob Woodward, fueled in part by the CIA's conclusion that Saddam Hussein could not be removed from power except through a war and CIA Director George J. Tenet's assurance to the president that it was a "slam dunk" case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Right away, Hamilton said that Bush’s war planning had been “fueled in part” by Tenet’s “slam dunk” remark. A few grafs later, he went into more detail. But this passage, which referenced the “slam-dunk” meeting, made no earthly sense:
HAMILTON: [Colin] Powell agreed to make the U.S. case against Hussein at the United Nations in February 2003, a presentation described by White House communications director Dan Bartlett as "the Powell buy-in." Bush wanted someone with Powell's credibility to present the evidence that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, a case the president had initially found less than convincing when presented to him by CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin at a White House meeting on Dec. 21, 2002.
That’s the meeting where Woodward says Tenet saved the day by telling Bush it was all “a slam-dunk.”

In his front-page Post report, Hamilton highlighted this 12/02 meeting—but his narrative made no apparent sense. By December 21, 2002, Bush and Cheney had been already touring the country for four months, warning voters about Saddam’s WMD, saying there was “no doubt” he had them and wanted to use them against the U.S. and its friends. But according to Hamilton’s report (see above), Bush had “initially” found the case for WMD unconvincing—at that December meeting, which took place four months after this push began! So no, this didn’t make much sense. The real question was the following: Why did Bush and Cheney start making their claims back in August 2002? What sort of briefing did they receive before that? Why did they start telling the world, without qualification, that Saddam had those weapons—and was planning to use them? It was then, back in August, when they started making these claims. What had led Bush to think, all the way back then, that the case was as strong as he said?

But that obvious question wasn’t asked, because Hamilton’s account of this matter took hold. Pundits cited the ”slam dunk” anecdote more than any other part of Woodward’s book. The anecdote painted Tenet as the loudmouth bad guy—the guy who oversold the weapons. And not only that—in his account of the “slam dunk” meeting, Woodward included this pleasing passage, in which a conscientious Wise Leader urged caution on Tenet—several times:
WOODWARD: The president told Tenet several times, “Make sure no one stretches to make our case.”
Gag me! It was right out of a Boy’s Life bio—so Woodward typed it on up. Several times, Bush warned Tenet against stretching the intel—four months after he himself began stretching it! Other silly, Bush-friendly anecdotes littered Woodward’s book—perhaps the price one pays now for big access.

If you read Woodward’s book very carefully, you could possibly torture the real rationale for that 12/21/02 meeting. Most likely, this was the meeting at which the Admin began planning Bush’s State of the Union and Powell’s UN presentation. But pundits (including Hamilton) read the anecdote differently, and the image they portrayed became a big help to Bush on the trail. Had the Bush Admin stretched the intelligence? The question was already being asked as Campaign 04 unfolded. But Woodward’s book seemed to show something different—a good, wise leader being misled by a wild and crazy CIA head. Chronologically, the passage made no earthly sense. But Bush’s job approval was still at 50 percent, and the press corps agreed not to notice.

In the past few weeks, Tenet has complained about the way the public got played by that silly “slam dunk” anecdote. (Cheney was still pimping this pleasing nonsense on Meet the Press last September.) Whatever else Tenet may have done, he has surely been right in this critique. Woodward put a silly anecdote right at the heart of his blockbuster book. Hamilton built the Post’s news report around it, and the bullsh*t ran downhill from there.

Wise Leader Bush had wisely urged that no one—but no one—should stretch the intelligence! For the full text of Woodward’s “slam dunk” anecdote, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/25/05.

GOOD-BYE TO ALL THAT: Do you see why we gave him the Nobel Peace Prize! Over this weekend, be sure to read Glenn Greenwald’s treatment of Roger Simon’s ongoing haircut wars. No, these mindless wars aren’t going away. In the process, your way of life is.

Truly, this is the end of all that—the end of American customs and values. No, you just can’t have democratic governance if an overpaid cadre of well-trained fools makes an endless joke of our public discussion—especially the public discussion by which we select a new president. Such work destroys the American system. Indeed, Simon’s work isn’t just ante-American (sic); more simply put, it’s pre-Enlightenment. We return to a medieval, feudal state when cosmic fools like Simon build such colossal distractions. The age of reason is sent out the door. Weak boys type bull-roar for boss-man.

We’ll offer four brief thoughts on this matter. We’ll review last night’s debate starting Monday:

What we’ve been talking about: These people will never stop discussing those haircuts—until they’re forced to stop. Some of you have never quite believed that we’ve been right about Campaign 2000, so let’s make sure we all understand this: This is what they did to Gore during Campaign 2000, for twenty straight months—except they did it to Gore with much vigor. No, you really don’t have a democracy when your “journalists” do this for the boss.

The question that lingers: Can Simon possibly be this stupid? That’s the question we’ve asked ourselves about these people for nine solid years. And we’ve never been able to figure it out! No, we wouldn’t say it’s impossible; this is not an impressive cohort. But a different explanation is more likely. We’ll offer that explanation below.

Those puzzling polls: Yesterday, Michael Crowley couldn’t figure it out: Why don’t Dem hopefuls do better in the head-to-head polls, since the public generically favors their party? Duh! People like Simon have spent the past decade praising Saint John for all his “straight talk” and calling Saint Rudy “America’s Mayor.” Meanwhile, they talk about Edwards’ haircuts—and the troubling tone of Clinton’s voice. These narrative decided Campaign 2000; they threaten to do so again next year. Over at TNR, meanwhile, Crowley can’t figure it out.

The answer that does make sense: An e-mailer complained to us on Tuesday. We appreciate and share his feelings, though we think he’s most likely wrong in the end:
E-MAIL: Bob:

I generally love your take on things, but PLEASE STOP about the money—I DON’T CARE how rich Brian Williams is, nobody I know cares, it does not effect his work, which I find fairly steady (a compliment to today’s media giants).

I’m looking for insight, great writing, provocative criticism, NOT an obsession with the wealth of a few media barons that really goes nowhere, ever.
We can sympathize with that; we think the money thing gets tiring too. But in fact, Williams’ work has been horrendous for years—he played the fool shamelessly during Campaign 2000—and nothing explains this ludicrous “haircut-style” coverage except the role big money can plays in the lives of overpaid elites. Sometimes, money makes people get dumb; sometimes, people play dumb to get it. But nothing else can explain the haircut wars—wars which have raged for the past fifteen years—other than the corrupting role being played here by big money.

We’ve offered the following construct before: This coverage is exactly what you’d expect from a multimillionaire press corps. You’d expect to get monstrously fatuous coverage, with story-lines which are endlessly tilted against the leaders of the more liberal party. We’d rather see the world differently too, but these men and women have behaved like fools over the course of the past fifteen years. In the process, they’re destroying American self-governance. And we’d have to assume that they’re playing for pay. No, they just can’t be that dumb.

Is Roger Simon really that stupid? This is the question each reader must ask. His work is destroying American customs; in the political realm, it ends the American way of life. Before we say good-bye to all that, surely it’s time we found the way to say good-bye to the Roger Simons. But we’ll have to scream and yell and claw. They won’t go away till we fight.