Daily Howler logo
IN SEARCH OF MORAL EXPERIENCE! We bungled Richard Cohen a bit—in part, by omitting John Judis: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 4, 2008

DANGER—CONSTRUCTION ZONE: Darn it! We loved Brian Williams’ evocation of life outside Bozeman, Montana. (People are so patriotic there, the disillusioned New Jerseyan said.) And Arianna roused our soul with one of her well-scripted comments. But transcripts have been slow to arrive from last evening’s pundit spectaculars. Hopefully, they’ll turn up for use in tomorrow’s HOWLER.

Life would be better without cable “news” channels, we couldn’t help thinking last night. The problem is the same old problem—the problem of pundit gang-comment. Routinely, our pundits All Say The Same Things, thereby giving the (false) impression that their Approved Group Views are cast in stone. Through their gang-punditry, they construct your world—and viewers quite often don’t know it.

In particular, we were struck by the way the pundit corps gang-reacted to Clinton’s lack of a concession. It isn’t as if this was a surprise. From Dan Balz, in this morning’s Post:

BALZ (6/4/08): Yesterday began with an unexpected report by the Associated Press that said Clinton would use her rally last night to concede. Campaign chairman Terence R. McAuliffe immediately went on CNN to deny the report, and a short time later the campaign issued a terse statement: "The AP story is incorrect. Sen. Clinton will not concede the nomination this evening."

But inside the campaign there was confusion as aides struggled to figure out what had triggered the report, and expressed uncertainty about the day ahead. "This is very much a work in progress," a senior Clinton adviser said.

In short, all pundits knew, when they went on the air, that Clinton wouldn’t be “conceding.” They had known all day long. Presumably, a few of them even knew that some famous candidates, in the semi-recent past, never really conceded at all, taking their great, deeply-principled crusades all the way to their party’s convention. (Examples: Ronald Reagan, 1976. Ted Kennedy, 1980.) We don’t think that’s a great idea, but it’s an obvious part of the history. And how about high-minded Jerry Brown, fighting for the little guy sixteen years ago this week? Richard Berke reported his high-minded plans in the New York Times on the day of the Golden State primary:

BERKE (6/2/92): This is the state where Edmund G. Brown Jr. should make his last stand. After all, he was Governor for two terms. And polls show he is creeping close to Gov. Bill Clinton in the last big Presidential primary Tuesday.

So why not be graceful and give it up after Tuesday? Not Jerry Brown.
"It's a very eerie feeling here," Mr. Brown said. He was referring not to the roller skaters, body builders and smattering of oddly dressed street performers who surrounded him on Venice Beach, but to the peculiar state of the Presidential campaign. "There's a certain unreality about the Clinton ascendancy. And certainly Perot is going to be part of that."

Mr. Brown still wants to be part of the action, too.

He is impatient with questions about polls in California that show his support among voters within single digits of the Arkansas Governor. "Look, I don't use Tarot cards," he said. "I don't use polls. So don't ask me what's going to happen tomorrow."

The fact is, Mr. Brown is already plotting his moves beyond Tuesday.

Everyone knows it is too late for him to win enough delegates to capture the nomination. Maybe it is because he has no job to go back to, maybe because he likes the spotlight, maybe because he is convinced of the gravity of his cause, Mr. Brown still wants to be a force to be reckoned with.

Despite pleas from Democratic leaders, Mr. Brown persists in criticizing Mr. Clinton, whom he portrays as a tool of a ruling class of insiders. "We're up against the decrepit inertia of elite momentum," he said in an interview here Sunday, throwing in a favorite line that Mr. Clinton's backers "want to get a ticket on the Titanic."

And he put his party on notice that he intends to carry his politics-is-corrupt, Clinton-is-unelectable message to the Democratic National Convention in New York in July, and beyond.

Sorry. Jerry Brown didn’t concede that night, the night Clinton went over the top. And when George Bush wrapped up the 2000 nod, John McCain was a bit tangy too, as Terry Neal noted in the Post five days later. In fairness, this was March, not June:

NEAL (3/14/00): Repairing the damaged relationship between George W. Bush and John McCain, and putting the divided GOP back together, is proving to be no easy task.

The Bush campaign is eager to repair the breach without looking desperate for McCain's endorsement. A number of high-profile Bush emissaries are carrying olive branches to the Arizona senator.

But McCain, who went on vacation after suspending his campaign last Thursday [March 9] and is scheduled to return to the Senate on Monday [March 20], is in no hurry. And some advisers are urging him to take his time until Bush shows signs of moving toward his campaign reform message.

No two cases are just alike, but there’s a lot of familiar history here. For good or ill, defeated candidates have often failed to behave in the way your pundit corps was group-demanding last night.

But then, they always yodel in a group, thereby constructing reality the way their fraternal order prefers. By the way: The AP’s Beth Fouhy wrote yesterday’s “unexpected report,” saying (incorrectly) that Clinton would concede. How exactly did she get that idea? It was strange! Fouhy played pundit on CNN for a good while last night, and as far as we saw (no transcripts yet), no one remembered to ask her.

As usual, the pundits were group-complaining last night—pack-hacking, as is their cartel’s wont. They’re happiest when they All Say The Same Thing. That’s when they most visibly fail to serve. That’s when the gang is least helpful.

IN SEARCH OF MORAL EXPERIENCE: Due to editing and eyesight errors, we did a poor job with yesterday’s column by Richard Cohen. In some ways, we should have limited our approach to the column, which presented many points worth discussing. In the course of tackling too many points, we understated one key point—and we skipped a part of the column which had drawn our attention in the first place.

Cohen, you’ll recall, was letting us know why he has hated the 2008 Dem campaign. We talked about several aspects of his loathing. In the process, we skipped over this:

COHEN (6/3/08): I loathe what has happened to Hillary Clinton. This person of no mean achievement has been witchified, turned into a shrew, so that almost any remark of hers is instantly interpreted as sinister and ugly. All she had to do, for instance, was note that it took Lyndon Johnson to implement Martin Luther King's dream, and somehow it became a racist statement. The Obama camp has been no help in this regard, expressing insincere regret instead of a sincere "that's not what she meant."

In this paragraph, Cohen says that Clinton’s unremarkable remark about Johnson was somehow turned into “a racist statement.” As a general matter, we agree with that view, if not with Cohen’s specific language; in our view, the statement by Clinton was unremarkable, and yet it was widely assailed. (We haven’t reviewed the Obama’s camp’s reactions to this matter. Cohen is uncomplimentary.) We will note this: For all Cohen’s loathing of this incident, he didn’t express his feelings or views in real time. Clinton made her statement in New Hampshire, in January. Cohen first complained about it in his column of April 29.

At any rate, Cohen thinks that Hillary Clinton got mugged in that incident—got unfairly charged with a racial offense, the most significant charge that can be made in our politics. (Except for the far more serious charge of receiving oral sex.) This brings us back to the most remarkable part of yesterday’s column. In this paragraph, Cohen listed something else he loathed about this campaign:

COHEN (6/3/08): I loathe what has happened to the press. I loathe the incessant blogging and commenting and talking and yapping and hype. I hate that Clinton's observation that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June ran on and on when everyone save some indigenous people in the Brazilian rain forest knew what she meant. I hate that for days these same outlets discussed the relevancy of whether John McCain could be constitutionally barred from the presidency because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone. This, too, is sad.

In that paragraph, Cohen expresses a truly astounding view. We mentioned this yesterday—but we probably would have been smarter to focus on this alone.

What does Cohen say in that paragraph? He seems to say that “everyone” (presumably, everyone in “the press”) “knew what she meant” when Clinton made her Robert Kennedy comment. As we said, we disagree with that assessment. Though it was perfectly clear what Clinton had said, we have long experience with the press corps. Their interpretive skills are virtually non-existent, especially when a storm blows up which aligns with an Official Group Preference. The RFK matter let them light into Clinton. Interpretive skills flew out the door.

But that’s our view—let’s stick to Cohen’s. Cohen actually knows these people—and in his view, they were simply playing dumb when they pretended to be so deeply offended by the vile thing Clinton said. Given the ugliness of the way that comment was interpreted, Cohen is therefore accusing his colleagues of heinous professional conduct.

Cohen accuses his colleagues of a vast professional crime—of conduct that was deeply dishonest and deeply destructive. And omigod! He seems to have no earthly idea of the magnitude of what he has said! He tossed the incident off in a single sentence, pairing it with a Canal Zone debate which, in fact, didn’t exist. (According to Nexis, this issue was mentioned only twice in the Post—in a May 2 news report and in a May 6 letter. “The Senate has unanimously declared John McCain a natural-born citizen, eligible to be president of the United States,” the news report said. It was mentioned just once in the New York Times, in a 233-word news report about the Senate action.)

As we’ve long noted, Cohen’s columns are full of statements he doesn’t seem to mean. His one great rule seems to be this: His columns must be flung together in something under ten minutes. But the assertion he made in that second passage shouldn’t be passed over lightly. For people who want to ponder their insider press corps, it’s important to keep track of this cohort’s remarkably shriveled morality.

Needless to say, the reader can judges these incidents for him or herself. But let’s stick to Cohen’s judgments—and to his attendant moral vacuity. In that passage, Cohen accused his cohort of a vast crime—but showed no sign of understanding the depth of his accusation. And Cohen is hardly alone in this type of blindness. Recently, John Judis made an equally remarkable statement, claiming that the press corps decided that one of the candidates, being “history,” had to be judged by a different standard from all the others. (According to Judis: When Clinton dared criticize this candidate in an underwhelming but conventional manner, “members of the media recoiled and threw their support to Obama.” See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/22/08 and 5/23/08.) He too made an astonishing statement about the behavior of his own cohort—and, like Cohen, he seemed to have no earthly idea of the enormity of what he had said.

But then again, Cohen and Judis are hardly alone. No one said boo about Judis’ statement in the “career liberal” universe. Yes, tristero took note at Hullabaloo. But name a single play-for-pay liberal who said even a single word about the remarkable thing Judis said.

(But then, these are the people who still haven’t told you what happened in Campaign 2000.)

This isn’t about Obama or Clinton; this is about your upper-end “press corps.” According to Cohen, Clinton got mugged by race back in New Hampshire, and she got savaged about her RFK statement by a press corps which was faking its outrage. That’s an astonishing pair of claims. But to all appearances, Cohen’s moral sense is so dulled, from apparent disuse, that he didn’t know it.

Judis and Cohen made remarkable claims. But neither gentleman seemed to know it, and the boys and girls of the play-for-pay world all agreed not to notice. Make no mistake: This is the way you’ve been handed your politics over the course of the past many years. And from this morally disordered realm, a mild-mannered man—“the man from Pur-dition”—would at last emerge.

TOMORROW OR FRIDAY: Do not mess with Todd Purdum.

THOSE HUNDRED DRESSES: The greatest description of moral experience we know is found in Eleanor Estes’ The Hundred Dresses, the 1945 Newbery Honor children’s book. We saw Elizabeth Young, our supervising teacher, read this book to our fifth-grade class in the early 1970s. The book concerned a group of kids in a different time and place. But we saw our fifth-graders lean forward, cup their ears, shush their friends and hang on every word. Children have an astonishing interest in discussions of what is “fair.” Watching Elizabeth Young sit and read, we saw this story cut to the soul of a whole group of Baltimore children.

Needless to say, we suggest that you buy this book from your friendly local book-seller. (Why not try a bookstore like this?) But we’ll stand with the Amazon review which describes The Hundred Dresses as a “time-proven classic about kindness, compassion, and standing up for what's right.” There’s more, and this is what we’re describing: “Maddie, a girl who had stood by while Wanda was taunted about her dresses, feels sick inside.” Estes describes that sick feeling—that moral experience—better than anyone we’ve ever read. Our children were riveted by that sick feeling. But it rarely shows up in the press.