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THERE DO “QUOTATIONS” COME FROM! Schieffer was outraged by what Souter said. But does that “quotation” exist? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 12, 2009

The answer may lie in the world of Bill Wolff: We had planned to start the Bill Wolff Story today. (Good sense of humor.) We delay, in deference to Souter.

Gene Robinson [HEART] Colin Powell: They have their story, and they plan to stick to it! According to Gene Robinson’s new column, Colin Powell is “a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state who has given to his nation a lifetime of exemplary public service.” End of discussion—full stop. That puzzling conduct at the UN has slid off Village screens.

This is the Standard Powell Novel. Nothing on earth will ever change it. Once again, for Digby’s alternate take, you know what to do: Just click here. Warning! You’ll see her cite events from Powell’s career which don’t exist in Official Press Narratives. Robinson doesn’t have to explain these events. In his world, these events don’t exist.

But then, we think Robinson’s whole column today makes very little sense. True, he’s stating a fashionable insider view: Richard Cheney should shut his big yap! But then, we recall the days when Robinson’s bully-boy writers at “Style” expressed an earlier fashionable view: Al Gore is the world’s biggest asshole! They pounded and pounded and pounded away. George Bush ended up in the White House.

Should Richard Cheney shut his big yap? As we said yesterday, we don’t see why. To see the most foolish argument in favor of silence, just read Robinson’s column. Cheney can’t prove that his current views are right, Robinson says—failing to note that no one can prove that his current views are wrong. (Few such things can be “proven.”) Cheney should show more respect for Powell, Robinson says—failing to note that Powell’s long-time top dog, Lawrence Wilkerson, routinely goes on the TV machine to call Cheney very bad names. But for sheer absurdity, here is Robinson’s explanation of Cheney’s presence on Sunday’s Face the Nation. Why does Cheney get invited onto such shows? Robinson says he knows why:

ROBINSON (5/12/09): "It's good to go back on the show," Cheney told host Bob Schieffer at the beginning of the interview. "It's nice to know that you're still loved and are invited out in public sometimes.”

I don't know about the love, but I do know why Cheney gets asked to appear on talk shows so regularly. Unrestrained by protocol or objective reality, he's pretty much guaranteed to say outrageous things. He requires no prompting or coaxing. As far as he's concerned, issues have just one side—his—and anyone who disagrees must secretly wish to deliver our nation to al-Qaeda.

It would be hard to be dumber than that. But in fealty to Establishment Narratives, big pundits will always try.

Why was Cheney on Face the Nation? We have no idea, but one explanation would be fairly obvious. Duh! At present, Cheney is in the news almost every day, especially on the progressive programs where Robinson offers his theories. (See last night’s Countdown, for example.) Given the roiling debate about Cheney-pimped programs, it would be extremely strange if he weren’t being asked to appear on these Sunday programs. This has nothing to do with the merit of Cheney’s views. At present, Cheney is a major figure in the news—part of a giant debate.

Robinson thinks Cheney’s views are wrong, as do many others. But like so many tribal types, he doesn’t seem to want to argue his case; instead, he prefers to offer reasons why Cheney himself shouldn’t speak. He doesn’t say Cheney’s views are wrong. Ambiguously, he calls them “outrageous:”

ROBINSON: The fallacy lies in the fact that it is impossible for Cheney to prove that anti-terrorism methods within the bounds of U.S. law and tradition would have failed to prevent new attacks. Nor, for that matter, can Cheney demonstrate that torture and other abuses were particularly effective.

Other high-ranking officials from the previous administration, including George W. Bush himself, have had the manners and good sense to follow long-established custom and refrain from attacking the new president and his policies. Cheney, however, is not only accusing President Obama of knowingly putting American lives at risk—an outrageous charge—but is also diving headlong into partisan politics.

Is the charge “outrageous” because it’s wrong? Or is the charge “outrageous” because Cheney shouldn’t speak—because he should have better “manners?” As we’ve noted, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that ”protocol” forbids a former VP from speaking. But if Cheney’s views were actually right, it would be bizarre—it would be close to insane—for him to feel that “manners” forbade him from giving his nation a warning.

Aside from the hackworthy use of “knowingly,” what’s “outrageous” about Cheney’s charge? Robinson uses the word two times. But he never quite explain what it means.

Robinson seems to think Cheney’s views are wrong. But like so many tribal warriors, he doesn’t want to prove his own case—he wants the other tribe to shut up. Shorter Robinson: How dare Cheney say something outrageous—something I don’t agree with?

In our view, Robinson should go out there and argue his case—and win, in the public square. Of course, he is someone who believes that Colin Powell’s a great living saint. Players like Robinson are accustomed to doing what he did in the 1990s; they’re accustomed to sending their bully boys out, in waves, to slay the people of whom they disapprove. That’s what he did to Candidate Gore. Are we happy with how that turned out?

We had to chuckle when Robinson said this about Cheney: “As far as he's concerned, issues have just one side—his.” Jesus Christ,” we murmured softly. Jesus Christ! Look who’s talking!

Where do “quotations” come from/Justice for Souter edition: Many people have commented on Bob Schieffer’s remarkable commentary at the end of Sunday’s Face the Nation. Schieffer expressed his small-minded pique with David Souter, who hadn’t partied quite hardy enough during his tenure in Washington. Below, you see the bulk of what Schieffer said. Caution! It isn’t clear that Souter ever made the statement about the world’s worst city which has now become a “quotation:”

SCHIEFFER (5/10/09): Finally today: So David Souter, maybe the quietest and most low-key man ever to serve on the Supreme Court, has made it official. He is retiring to return to the New Hampshire woods from whence he came. By all accounts, he was a good Justice—thoughtful, reasonable. For sure, he was a surprise to the man who nominated him, the first George Bush, who thought he was picking a conservative only to discover he’d chosen a liberal. But these things happen sometimes when people get jobs for life.

I had no problem with the Justice's legal work. But as one who has lived forty years in Washington, I'll be honest: I didn't care for his attitude.

He made it no secret that he hated the city, once describing his work as the best job in the world in the worst city in the world. Another time he called life here akin to an intellectual lobotomy.

Really? Our nation's capital? One of the most beautiful cities in the world?

Call me corny, but I have to confess: I've run into some pretty smart people here over the years. But then again, I tried to get to know the city and its inhabitants. Who wouldn't, if you were going to live in a place? Justice Souter, obviously.

I've never known anyone who ever saw him outside the Court. But now he's leaving. I take it he won't miss Washington—but my guess is Washington will hardly miss him.

Quick thought: “As one who has lived forty years in Washington,” Schieffer should perhaps stay away from the foibles of those who “get jobs for life.”

The small-minded weirdness of Schieffer’s remarks is fairly obvious. But Schieffer’s dumbness is striking as well. Sorry, heathers: Souter didn’t say that life in Washington was “akin to an intellectual lobotomy.” In that comment, made in March of this year, he was remarking on the amount of legal work he had to do while the Court was in session, not on the city in which he was forced to do it. Souter’s full statement, made to laughter: ''I find the workload of what I do sufficiently great that when the term of court starts I undergo a sort of annual intellectual lobotomy.” Soon, though, the lame-brains of the Washington press corps had reinterpreted Souter’s pointless sally, and heathers like Schieffer were working themselves into a small-minded outrage about it.

And uh-oh! After doing a little checking, it isn’t clear to us that Souter ever delivered the now-famous “quotation” about Washington being “the world’s worst city,” a quotation which has been widely enshrined in the press since Souter announced his departure. Did Souter “once describe his work as the best job in the world in the worst city in the world?” In print, the alleged statement has routinely appeared inside quotation marks, as if Souter is being quoted—as if he “once” made this statement, the framework Schieffer provided. Sorry. After doing some basic fact-checking, we’d have to say the facts are unclear. We’ll guess he never said it.

As best we can tell, the first reference to any “worst city” comment by Souter came in an AP report on March 14. (Mark Sherman was discussing the possibility that Souter might retire.) In the Nexis archives, this seems to be the very first reference to any such comment by Souter. But please note: Sherman didn’t present a quotation. He seemed to be offering a paraphrase of something Souter supposedly “claims:”

SHERMAN (3/14/09): Souter has said nothing about staying or going. He claims to have the world's best job in the world's worst city and returns every summer to the same farmhouse in New Hampshire where he has lived for nearly 60 years.

Unlike the other eight justices, he has yet to hire law clerks for the term that begins in October. But then Souter always is among the last of the justices to select the young lawyers who will help him wade through the roughly 8,000 cases filed in a year.

Sherman didn’t use quotation marks. Quite plainly, he didn’t present a quotation. Nor did he explain how he knew that Souter makes this alleged “claim.” According to Nexis, Dahlia Lithwick was the only scribe who repeated this claim by Sherman—and Lithwick didn’t use quotation marks either (click here). In fact, no one had ever quoted Souter calling DC “the world’s worst city” until his retirement hit the news, when the AP’s Jennifer Loven seemed to improve on ger colleague Sherman’s previous work. Loven put the key words inside quotation marks, transforming paraphrase into quotation. Heightening drama, she reported that Souter had made the (now-quoted) statement “once:”

LOVEN (4/30/09): Souter has never made any secret of his dislike for Washington, once telling acquaintances he had "the world's best job in the world's worst city." When the court finishes its work for the summer, he quickly departs for his beloved New Hampshire.

Souter had “once” said this acquaintances, Loven now said—putting quotation marks around the words Sherman had used as a paraphrase.

Did Loven have reason for using quotation marks? We have no way of knowing. But we’ve seen this done a million times—most consequentially, to Candidate Gore, where the press corps’ tortured examples of paraphrase frequently ended up inside quotes. So yes, this transformation routinely occurs where there is no actual “quotation.” We have no idea if Loven mid-wifed such an act of birth. But we have no found no other source for the claim that Souter once issued this alleged statement.

Sherman offered a paraphrase, without explaining where it came from. Loven turned it into a “quote,” claiming that Souter had said it “once.” The “quotation” has now been widely cited, with a range of loud-mouth heathers—people like Schieffer—expressing their bubble-brained pique at the statement. It’s hard to get much dumber than this. But this is long-standing press culture.

Did David Souter “once” make the statement which has now widely appeared inside quotes? We don’t have the slightest idea. Neither do the reams of people who have happily “quoted” it since April 30. Schieffer really took the cake with Sunday’s heather-like rant. But then, Keith was on Miss California again last night. It’s real “small-town” heather culture.

Why won’t this loser get married: The dimness of the DC Village scene can be quite hard to fathom. When Souter arrived in DC, the Post’s preternaturally-foolish “Style” section named him one of DC’s most eligible bachelors. Of course, some bachelors aren’t interested to getting married to women; some don’t want to get married at all. But such thoughts may not have occurred to the social planners who began putting the screws to poor Souter. In the New York Times, Fox Butterfield reported the imperial city’s “small-town” dimness. Butterfield quoted Dr. Melvin Levine (UNC) and New Hampshire state senator Susan McLane, two long-time Souter friends:

BUTTERFIELD (7/3/92): Although The Washington Post named Justice Souter one of the city's 10 most eligible bachelors soon after his arrival, he has turned down most party invitations, his friends say. "When he goes out, he finds that hostesses seem to seat him between some eligible woman on one side and someone who can't speak English on the other, so that he has to talk to the eligible woman," Dr. Levine said.

"David isn't unsociable; on the contrary, he's witty and charming with friends," said Senator McLane. "He just doesn't want to get into the Washington scene."

Instead, Justice Souter has concentrated on his work. At night, he goes jogging in nearby Fort McNair, an Army installation.

A few years earlier, the Boston Globe’s Ethan Bronner had described the “intense matchmaking” surrounding the recalcitrant Souter:

BRONNER (12/2/90): Labeled one of the capital's 10 most eligible bachelors by The Washington Post Style section in one of its naughtier articles, Souter has become the focus of intense matchmaking energy, some at the highest levels.

Not only have unknown women called the court asking to talk to him—including one who insisted that the operator pass on to him her recipe for meatloaf, since it was something a person living alone could easily cook—but the wives of his judicial colleagues have gotten calls from their single friends eager to meet him.

And at the one state banquet Souter has attended so far, a White House dinner for Prime Minister Jozsef Antall of Hungary, Barbara Bush slyly seated the dateless Souter next to an unmarried Bush cousin, Grace Holden of Arlington, Va. How they got on is considered classified.

On Souter's other side at dinner was Patricia Kadar, wife of the Hungarian minister of international economic relations. After the two of them searched for some living language in common, they gave up and spoke Latin.

Two years later, this event may have been transformed into Levine’s more general anecdote. That’s why reporters should be a bit careful about reporting the things friends say. Often, stories from friends may come pre-embellished—even before a helpful scribe improves them with dreamed-up “quotes.”

By the way: Heathers have rolled their eyes at Souter this week for living in a hopelessly obscure, tumble-down apartment building. This has been presented as proof of the gentleman’s impossible, hermetic instincts. Peter Schworm nailed the narrative in the Boston Globe:

SCHWORM (5/2/09): Souter, who was born in Melrose but spent much of his childhood in New Hampshire, is revered here [in New Hampshire] less for being an exalted figure in American jurisprudence than he is for his persistent rejection of the trappings of power, and big city life. Souter made no secret, during his 19 years on the high court, of his disdain for Washington, where he kept a Spartan apartment in an unfashionable neighborhood and rejected the glittering social life that is lifeblood of Washington power circles. He frequently proclaimed his love for New Hampshire, and fled here often, writing once that “I need some period of the year when I can make a close approach to solitude.”

By 2009, that apartment in that unfashionable neighborhood had become part of the Official Press Novel. But way back when, Butterfield had told a different, pre-novelized tale. Why did Souter move into that horrid apartment? Groan. His good friend, Senator Warren Rudman—a respected fixture on the DC scene—was already living there!

BUTTERFIELD (7/3/92): The big difference is that he has moved from his family's old weather-beaten farmhouse on a dirt road here to an apartment building in Southwest Washington where Senator Rudman also lives. But even that change may be more apparent than real.

Justice Souter has still not even unpacked all his books and belongings, said Dr. Melvin Levine, a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School and a close friend since both men were Rhodes Scholars.

In fact, Justice Souter did not even go house hunting when he arrived, but simply accepted Mr. Rudman's suggestion about a vacant apartment.

"David has not settled into Washington," Senator Rudman said. "David has settled into the Supreme Court. There is a big difference.”

There we see the full story arc of David Souter in the District. When he arrived, he moved into the building because a Respected Insider lived there. By the time he left, his presence there showed what a big kook he is.

Your “press corps” dreams up novels—and “quotes.” This is the way their tiny minds work. And yes, applied to Bush and Gore for two years, this explains the way your country ended up in Iraq.

Bob Schieffer, social animal: Schieffer wants more social mixing. But his cohort’s track record is weak in this area:

Although the press seldom tattles about it, Schieffer himself is a close social friend of George Bush, dating back to the Texas governor days—back to the days when they’d attend spring training together (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/13/04). He should never have moderated that Bush-Kerry debate in 2004. But then, he never should have said all those weird things about Candidate Gore in 2000 (and later).

Should Gwen Ifill have enjoyed home-cooked meals with Condi? Of course, she shouldn’t have done that. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/11/03.

Should Ted Koppel have clowned around with his car-loving buddy, Colin Powell? No! He should have kept to himself a bit more, the way Justice Souter did. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/19/04.

Should Tim Russert have been at Rummy’s 2003 Christmas party, bragging about his dreams of Saddam? No! He should have done what Souter did. He should have kept a professional distance. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/16/03.

It isn’t enough that these big losers maintain such poor standards for themselves. Any time someone plays the game right, he has to be taken down for his conduct! Al Gore knew too many facts! Souter didn’t hob-nob enough! If you couldn’t see these skilled scribes at work, you’d feel sure they didn’t exist.