IN SEARCH OF THE NOVELS BIT CHARACTERS: Oddly, Outlook went there again. Were inclined to find this impulse revealing.
Where did Outlook go this Sunday? For the second time in less than two months, John Pomfret asked a novelist to review a major political event in the way that a novelist would. On March 16, Richard Russo imagined the novel he would write about the Eliot Spitzer affair (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/08). On Sunday, Yale professor Stephen Carter led the weekly section with a novelists take on the current White House campaign. This is the way he began:
CARTER (5/4/08): As a novelist, I am jealous of the present national moment. I'd love to have invented itwhat author of thrillers wouldn't? The fate of the nation is at stake. Powerful characters vie for the chance to save it, and each one's supporters contend, loudly, that the others are being manipulated by the malevolent forces that secretly run Washington. No albino monks or evil wizardsnot yetbut the plot is still chock-full of unexpected twists and turns, cliffhangers, even car chases (well, chases by journalists, which can be equally harrowing).
We have war, we have religion, we have race, we have gender, we have class, and we have confusing subplots galore. What reader could resist?
The fate of the nation is at stake, the gentleman writes, but he seems unable to grasp this fact. In a profoundly fatuous piece, our Yale professor runs us through the lead characters and bit characters in this national moment. (For unknown reasons, Cynthia McKinney shows up in paragraph 5.) Of course, no thriller would be complete without red herrings, he writesand he offers one of them too. But what readers really want to knowthe sooner the betteris who the hero is, he typesand he then offers fatuous assessments of whether its McCain, Obama or Clinton. Late in his piece, we get the Standard Fatuous List of Playersthe type of thing a Post ombudsman ridiculed eight years ago:
CARTER (5/4/08): The truth is, we haven't found our hero yet. We've caught glimpses. Some think it's McCain, the gritty, straight-talking veteran. Others have been drawn to Obama's message of change and hope. (I have given Obama money myself.) Still others support Clinton, the policy wonk and comeback kid, a living link to an era many Americans look at with longing. Each, I suspect, would be a good president. But none will be heroic without stepping beyond the bounds of safety, embracing rather than evading tough questions, confounding and sometimes even angering the interest groups that laud them.
Each of these people would be a good president! What possible difference does this bullsh*t make? (This is similar to what they said about Gore and Bush, you might recall).At any rate, as Carter defines the novels lead characters, we recalled the way ombudsman E. R. Shipp scolded the Posts reporters for engaging in such novelized nonsense eight long years ago:
SHIPP (3/5/00): [R]eaders react...to roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama. Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a "maverick"; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass.
Well guess what? McCain is still the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a maverick, at least in the minds of these perfect dumb-asses. (Sorryat least in their novels.) Eight years ago, Shipp scolded the Post for reporting the race like a drama in which typecast candidates had been given pre-assigned roles. Eight years later, theres Carter, headlining Outlook, engaged in the same oddball practice. Make no mistake: This is the way these people think. They truly cant get beyond this. Such fatuity is their assigned role.
By the way, what is missing from this novelists take on the current White House campaign? Of course! Any sense of what may really be at stake in this novel. Carter skims the major issues of the campaign in paragraph 19 (out of 23). Sorry! To his novelist brain, its really all about the characters, the twists of the plot, the red herrings, the search for the hero. And make no mistake: This is the way the insider press thinks. How fatuous can their approach to life be? Accompanying Carters piece in Outlook was this gruesome companion piece, in which a 29-year-old Post reporter assesses the way Chelsea Clinton reflects her generations values and outlook.
No, were not making that up. Truth to tell, its hard to imagine a more pointless topicand its hard to imagine a dopier execution than the one Ian Shapira rendered. Indeed, the most disturbing thing about this piece is the fact that its writer claims to be a graduate of Princeton. How do such people get through any schoolincluding high school? Shapiras fatuity is evident throughout (note his apparent assumption that his generation comprises only upscale folk like himself). But he does express his solidarity with the fatuous values of his professional class. Doe anyone kiss/fawn/smooch to the elders quite the way this guy does?
Substance is boring: Its the law! To make your way in the upper-class press elite, you are required to roll your eyes when Democrats talk about policy. Shapira is more than up to this challenge. [H]er stature on college campuses means that she draws crowds and helps bolster youth activism, he writes. Although sometimes I wonder how many in the student crowds wish, in the middle of her discourses on her mom's green vehicular bond, that they hadn't skipped class after all. We said it to ourselves right then: Heythis kid is good!
Policy must be judged by the soul: Its the law! You cant judge a policy presentation on the merits; you have to analyze the motives (or thinking; or life-style) behind it. Don't we need to know more about this national figureother than that she wants her mom to be presidentto take her views on policy seriously? No, dumb-ass! You have to decide if her views make sense.
Show respect by playing some oldies:
Brown-nosing brilliantly, Shapira adapts the old Michael Kinsley jibe about the younger Candidate Gore: To many, she comes off more like a simulacrum of a young personor some grandparent's idealized vision of a young personparachuting into the college scene, where most voters prefer the other guy. An old persons idea of a young person! Its perfect vintage Kinsley!
Always recite the standard fatuities: During Campaign 2000, the press corps decided that authenticity was our greatest political virtue. (And, of course, they appointed themselves to decide which hopeful had it. The language seems to have bled into that years journalism from the Bradley campaign.) Theyve never dropped their compulsive search for this qualityperhaps because so many journalists are so aware that they themselves lack it. Late in his piece, Shapira ponders Clintons authenticity in an analysis so perfectly brain-dead that wed advise you to bet the house on the young mans future career. Shapira has mastered the ways of his class, in which the journalist mind-reads dumblynovelizes deeplyin search of his subjects soul.
In a monument to our fatuous discourse, Shapira closes with a portrait of the journalist as a young man. Remember: For this group, its all about the various characters engaged in our nations unfolding novel. In this passage, we glimpse a key rite of passage: The young journalist must somehow overcome his own God-given good judgment:
SHAPIRA (5/4/08): The only time I even came close to talking with Chelsea was when she was a high school senior touring Princeton, where I was a freshman and a reporter for the Daily Princetonian. Word leaked to the newsroom that she was down the street at the bookstore, and a few of us scampered over to see if we could wrangle a comment on her college leanings.
I peeked over a bookshelf and caught a quick glimpse. But then I left. It felt weird. This was the first daughter, whose parents fiercely kept her away from the media. Who was I to try and intrude?
But now Chelsea is no longer a teenager on the prospective frosh tour. She's touring colleges as a 28-year-old saleswoman. Yet she's clinging to her privacy as she did a decade earlier, which, to her contemporaries, could make it all the more difficult to buy what she's selling. Maybe it's time to finally meet the press andnot to micromanage my new Facebook friend too much, butact our age.
Shapira felt funny peeping through bookshelvesback then. Today, he wastes everyones time with a long and foolish piece demanding to know what Chelsea Clinton is really like deep down in her soul. We have to know this! How else can we judge her boring thoughts on the environment?
As Carter notes, the fate of the nation is at stake in the current election. (As it was in Campaign 2000.) It would be hard to understand that fact from looking at Sundays Outlook. Roughly 85 percent of the sections front page was burned up by these powder-puff pieces. In one, we saw our lives in the form of a fatuous novel. In the other, we got to waste our time wondering what Chelsea is like.
Whats Chelsea Clinton really like? Youre right; it doesnt really matter. But for these people, its all about the plot twists, the car chases and the red herrings. And always, above all, its about all those characterseven including those helpful bit characters, the ones who let us waste our time further. The Yale professor and the young Princeton grad have mastered the foolishness of this elite. As weve seen for many years: This is a fatuous, upper-class cohortone which can no longer force itself to examine the things of real life.
IF YOU DOUBT THAT: For another example, see Digbyclick here.
Special report: From one side now!
PART 2A FEW BASIC FACTS: Oops! Its not like Richard Cohen hasnt issued embarrassing corrections in years past. He issued one of the all-time great corrections near the end of Campaign 2000, after he spent an entire column savaging Candidate Liebermanfor a statement made by Candidate Bush! Now, thats what we call an awkward correction (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/5/04). But a similar groaner graced his column back on February 12 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/5/08). Ouch! Once again, this is embarrassing. This is dead-dog dumb:
COHEN (2/12/08): My Feb. 5 column was critical of Hillary Clinton for supporting a bill to make flag burning illegal. I have since learned from a reader that Barack Obama also supported that bill.
Simply put, you cant get dumber. In that February 5 column, Cohen had savaged Clinton for supporting that flag-burning bill; he said it showed that she couldnt match Obamas character. But Obama had supported the flag bill too! Cohen had done it again.
Cohen correctedbut this gang never learns. Since Gail Collins made pretty much the same presentation in last Saturdays column, lets recall what actually happened when it came to that flag-burning vote.
Ouch! It was June 27, 2006. Things were looking bad for the constitution as the flag vote approached. A constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning had been passed by the House the previous year; finally, this proposed constitutional amendment was coming up for a Senate vote. As usual, Republicans clowned and preened, and Democrats scrambled around, seeking a way to keep the amendment from passing As it turned out, the amendment failedby one measly vote! In the next days New York Times, Carl Hulse reported basic facts:
HULSE (6/28/06): A proposed Constitutional amendment to allow Congress to prohibit desecration of the flag fell a single vote short of approval by the Senate on Tuesday, an excruciatingly close vote that left unresolved a long-running debate over whether the flag is a unique national symbol deserving of special legal standing.
The 66-to-34 vote on the amendment was one vote short of the 67 required to send the amendment to the states for potential ratification as the 28th Amendment. It was the closest proponents of the initiative have come in four Senate votes since the Supreme Court first ruled in 1989 that flag burning was a protected form of free speech.
The opponents30 Democrats, 3 Republicans and an independentasserted that the amendment would amount to tampering with the Bill of Rights in an effort to eliminate relatively rare incidents of burning the flag. They said it violated the very freedoms guaranteed by the symbolism of the flag.
Clinton was among those opponents; she voted against the flag-burning amendment. So, of course, did Obama; they both voted no on the proposed amendment, along with most Senate Dems. But againthe proposed amendment only failed by one vote. Fourteen Democrats voted for it (names below), along with 52 Republicans.
On the constitutional amendment, Obama and Clinton both voted no. But then, there was that other votethe vote on the flag-burning bill, the one where they both voted yes. Well turn things over to Anne Kornblut now. She offered a separate report in the Times (for which she then worked) about a certain home-state senators role in this two-year process:
KORNBLUT (6/28/06): Perhaps even more than her stance on the war in Iraq, it is Senator Hillary Rodham Clintons position on flag desecration that has drawn the scorn of the liberal Democratic base.
When Mrs. Clinton took a stand on the matter last yearco-sponsoring legislation that would have criminalized the desecration of the American flag even as she opposed a constitutional amendment that sought to achieve the same endshe was pilloried from the left. Editorial boards criticized her for political maneuvering, the political commentator Arianna Huffington attacked her for ''stars, stripes and triangulation'' and even some of her supporters quietly wondered why she had gone out on a limb on such a controversial issue.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton played a leading role in the flag-burning debate once again, co-sponsoring a measure similar to her previous one as an alternative to the constitutional amendment that was about to come up for a vote in the Senate.
In 2005, Clinton co-sponsored legislation (not an amendment) which would have made flag burning illegal. In 2006, she co-sponsored a similar measurea measure offered as an alternative to the more drastic amendment. Duh! Surely, pretty much everyone knows why Dems propose these safety valve measures. But just for the record, lets have Kornblut describe that votethe vote for which Cohen savaged Clintons character two months ago:
KORNBLUT: The measure, brought to the floor by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, failed, 64 to 36, minutes before the proposed amendment fell short of the 67 votes it needed.
With more than half of Democrats supporting the measure, the outcome suggested that Mrs. Clinton's approach had plenty of adherents within her party, and that while she might have tried the patience of her core liberal supporters, she remained within the Democratic fold as she prepared for a possible presidential race.
Durbin brought the measure to the floor; more than half the Senates Dems supported it. Durbin voted for itand Clinton did too. And, as Cohen learned much later, so did Obama.
Pathetic! Two years later, Cohen said that this vote showed that Clinton lacked Obamas high character. But then, Cohen has blundered along in this manner for a very long time.
Lets make sure we understand why bills of this type get proposed. Before we see Bob Kerrey explain it, lets read a bit more Kornblut:
KORNBLUT: Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, gave Mrs. Clinton credit for trying to give Democrats a viable alternative to amending the Constitution to ban flag desecration.
''This is an effort to try to take into account the people on the left by narrowing'' the proposal, Mr. Frank said. ''I still disagree with it. But it's clearly a move away from the constitutional amendment, rather than toward it.''
Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and a former presidential nominee, voted for the measure, which closely resembled past efforts to pre-empt an amendment to the Constitution. Democrats who voted for the measure in effect bought themselves the right to claim that they had voted against flag desecration, potentially inoculating themselves against possible charges of lacking patriotism in a general election campaign. The broader measure to amend the Constitution failed by a single vote, 66 to 34.
Duh. Bills like this are brought forward to give cover to red-state Demsand, perhaps, to Dems who may want to run for the White House. (The public luvs flag protection.) But then, Bob Kerrey had already explained this bone-simple matter in the Washington Post. In late 2005, you see, Richard Cohen had written another column, criticizingwho else?Hillary Clinton for the original 2005 measure. Kerrey sat down, crayon in hand, and tried to explain the facts of life to the worlds dumbest known man:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (12/29/05): Richard Cohen's Dec. 15 op-ed, "Star-Spangled Pandering," criticized Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for her support of a federal statute making the burning of the American flag a crime in certain instances. But enactment of a statute may be the only way to prevent Congress from setting in motion a process to amend the Constitution.
Although I oppose both the statute and the amendment, the statute is a more flexible mechanism that can be modified if law enforcement agencies urge Congress to make prosecution of this infrequent event discretionary. If Mrs. Clinton's support leads to a federal law, I consider this to be a victory worth praising, not an act to be condemned...
Kerrey explained, rather clearly, in crayon, the basic reason for bills of this type. At any rate, a similar bill was proposed six months later; Clinton and Obama both voted for it. So did Durbin. So did John Kerry. So did more than half of the Senates Dems. But so what? Two years later, Cohen wrote another column, savaging Clinton for her vote. He said it proved that she lacked Obamas character.
(Note to Obama supporters: This does not reflect on Obama. Were talking about Cohen here.)
Yes, its hard to get dumber than Cohen, as he has proven again and again. And yet, heres where the story gets good. Seven weeks after Cohen self-corrected, Collins pretty much typed the same column, drawing the same invidious comparison between Clinton and Obama! As well show you tomorrow, you can torture a technical defense for the construction Lady Collins authored. But in reality, the scribe was doing what her cohort does best. She was typing a Pre-Approved Press Corps Story. In this highly novelized cohort, story almost always trumps fact.
Clinton supported the flag-burning bill. So did Durbin, Kerry, Obama. But Lady Collins sat down last weekend and she warbled an olde press corps ballad. Ive looked at life from one side now, we thought we heard her sing.
TOMORROWPART 3: Good grief! A murderers row of scribes made Cohen look halfway intelligent.
TWELVE ANGRY DEMS: Twelve Democrats voted yes on the flag-burning amendment. Warning! Some of these folk were in red states. Some others were facing re-election:
Johnson, South Dakota
Menendez, New Jersey
Rockefeller, West Virginia
On the amendment, those twelve voted yes. Obama and Clinton said no.