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THE BERNSTEIN NARRATIVES! A former icon has embarrassed himself as he crashes about selling books: // link // print // previous // next //

KLEIN’S NEW MORNING: We think Joe Klein has a case to make about his savaging on the web. Indeed, we think we web-cats serve ourselves poorly when we drift toward the demon-tale-driven mistakes we have long criticized in others. (Though this is part of human nature, in which we’re all involved.) But we were quite surprised by this second Swampland post, in which Klein responded to Dick Armey on the question of Social Security. It seemed to us that Klein has changed his views from a few years ago:
KLEIN (6/6/07): [L]et me take on Armey with regard to entitlements. First, Social Security. I actually went down to Chile ten years ago and looked at that country's privatized plan. It was excellent—but the money was there to fund private accounts for younger workers because the government had had a windfall, privatizing the industries than had been socialized under Allende. Also, the plan was regulated in a way that Dick Armey would never allow...

As for Social Security here, partial privatization is a sideshow, unaffordable because we have such enormous outstanding obligations to my sad, self-indulgent, obnoxious baby boom generation. A voluntary add-on program, suggested by Gene Sperling, with government matching funds according to income, is a good idea. But, to my mind, the Social Security "crisis" is well down the list of priorities. It can be solved fairly easily: by raising the retirement age progressively. That is, according to income: the more money you have, the older you are before social security payments kick in. Bill Gates should be, like, 80. You and me, Congressman, maybe 75 or so. Or we can eliminate the income cap on Social Security payroll taxes. Have it work like the Medicare payroll tax. This is not rocket science. Just painful politics.
Klein rejects partial privatization of Social Security; indeed, he calls it “a sideshow.” And he praises “a voluntary add-on program...with government matching funds according to income.” Indeed, the Social Security “crisis” (Klein’s scare-quotes) is “well down his list of priorities.” It can be solved fairly easily, Klein says, in the ways he describes, perhaps others.

We found this surprising, because we recall Klein’s position on these matters during Campaign 2000. In that campaign, Candidate Bush proposed partial privatization; Candidate Gore rejected this idea, instead proposing “a voluntary add-on program...with government matching funds according to income!” (Gore called this “Social Security Plus.”) What was Klein’s reaction? Here’s part of his session with Tim Russert as the mainstream press corps tore Gore apart for his disgraceful views on this matter:
KLEIN (5/6/00): The—the concern I have about the Gore campaign is that he has learned one lesson and he's kind of becoming a one-trick pony.

RUSSERT: Attack. Attack. Attack.

KLEIN: Attack. Attack.

RUSSERT: Governor Bush put forward a Social Security plan calling for a partial privatizing, and he attacks, saying that is risky. The fact is, President Clinton proposed taking parts of the Social Security trust fund and putting them in the stock market in his State of the Union message just—just a year ago. [Warning: See clarification below.] Yesterday, you had Pat Moynihan and—and Bob Kerrey and John McCain all coming out, saying, “Let's have a commission and this is an idea worth looking at.” Why—why—why does Gore just auto—almost knee-jerk attack, attack, attack?

KLEIN: Well, because it's—it's, you know, scaring people about Social Security. Medicare has worked for the Democrats since time immemorial. In this case, you know, it's really interesting, Gore is in a—you know, for someone who is so wedded to the information age, he really is being reactionary...
As we’ve discussed in detail before (links below), this was completely typical of the way the mainstream press corps was reacting to the dueling Bush/Gore proposals. It seems to be the opposite of what Klein said in yesterday’s post—seven years later.

There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind—but there were many things wrong with Klein and Russert’s performance that day. For starters, Russert’s account of the Clinton proposal was vastly misleading (see above); Bush’s privatization proposal involved risk to the individual SS recipient, Clinton’s earlier proposal did not. And uh-oh! Inevitably, Russert gave his standard, unbalanced account of the “simple facts” of this complex issue. He suggested the press corps had failed to inform the public, who were being misled by Vile Gore:
RUSSERT: But the role of media becomes critical here, Joe Klein. If—the facts are simple: When Social Security began, Franklin Roosevelt, genius, he—the life expectancy at that point was 63. He made eligibility for Social Security 65.

KLEIN: Right.

RUSSERT: It was a—was a very popular program. There were 45 workers for every retiree and life expectancy was exactly that age. Now we're approaching two workers for every retiree. Life expectancy is 78 going to 85. You're going to have 80 million people on Social Security and Medicare for about a fourth of their life, for three to 20 years. Everyone knows that, and yet when you present it to Al Gore, he'll say, “No problem. I'll take the surplus and it'll pay for it.” Even his own Secretary Treasury written volumes of reports—trustees reports, will say, “No, it doesn't work that way.”

KLEIN: No, it doesn't.

RUSSERT: What is our job? Can we call time out and say, “Excuse me, Mr. Vice President, it doesn't add up?”

KLEIN: I suspect that he's gonna have trouble with this as this goes on because—in, in part because younger people, the generation coming up, those eight or 12 of them who are actually interested in public life, understand that unless this system changes, they're not gonna have pensions and they want to have control over their futures.
Of course, it could have worked the way Gore suggested—and Klein’s dire prophecies seem to fly in the face of what he has said this week. But in May 2000, Gore was being trashed this way all over the mainstream press—and Bush was being hailed as a moral giant for “daring to touch the third rail.” Eventually, Russert found a standard way to exit this well-scripted topic:
RUSSERT: You mentioned Al Gore going to the back of the plane, being likeable, irreverent. Why doesn't the public ever see that side? Why—why doesn't he just, when he takes off his jacket and puts his earth tones on display, also have this personality that no one sees?
Pathetic, isn’t it? Playing the fool for Jack Welch and a multimillionaire class, Russert slickly found a way to work those “earth tones” in. But then, they kept pumping this perfect bull-sh*t until they had Bush in the White House.

Yep! That was May 6 in the year 2000, as the press corps was working to put Bush in power. Seven years later, Klein seems to see this policy matter quite differently. But then, Bob Herbert just said that he’s baffled by the fact that Gore isn’t president, seeming to forget what he did in real time to keep Gore on the outs (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/6/07). Did Pravda ever air-brush the past any better than our mainstream pundits have done? You simply can’t make this group come clean about their past groaning misconduct.

We find no fault with Klein’s current views. But his conduct back then helped put Bush where he is. Our question: When will this cohort start to explain their conduct from Campaign 2000? Who will be first to break the Code, to discuss our actual history?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Mainstream pundits praised Bush for his daring plan—and battered Vile Gore for disagreeing. For a fuller treatment of this painful story, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/06 (scroll down to “Second excerpt.”) Or see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/15/02, one part of an earlier series.

THE BERNSTEIN NARRATIVES: There’s only one word for it—embarrassing. On Tuesday night, the former iconic star journalist, Carl Bernstein, appeared on The O’Reilly Factor. We start with Mr. O’s first question, about Hillary Clinton. Then, we watch Bernstein twist in the wind:
O'REILLY (6/5/07): Did she break the law?


O'REILLY: OK. Good, I like this. How did she break the law?

BERNSTEIN: She broke the law if, indeed, she perjured herself.

O'REILLY: Well, you just said she did break the law.

BERNSTEIN: No. The special prosecutor determined that she did not. So he did not file the charge.

O'REILLY: So you think she did. But the special prosecutor, Ken Starr, said no.

BERNSTEIN: That is correct. You know what? Let me be really straightforward. I don't think she broke the law. I think there was a time that she did not tell the truth.

O'REILLY: Under oath?

BERNSTEIN: You know, I wasn't in the room.
Did Hillary Clinton break the law at some point? Bill O’Reilly wanted to know—and Bernstein gave him four separate answers: Yes, yes if, no and maybe. After that, he said he thought she did—and then again, he said he thought she didn’t. Finally, he said he didn’t know. “I wasn’t in the room,” Bernstein said—bringing a whole new standard of proof to historical explanation.

Such are the fruits of the seven years Bernstein says he spent on this puzzling book.

But so it has gone in the early days of Bernstein’s embarrassing book tour. His session on Charlie Rose Monday night left Rose scolding his guest for his dithering, back-and-forth style. (Clinton’s “authenticity” isn’t the point of the book, Bernstein said—after talking about it incessantly. You can watch the whole mess here.) Eventually, Bernstein offered Rose this deep personal insight:
BERNSTEIN (6/4/07): One of the things I say in this book that is so fascinating is, she has experimented with so much more in life than Bill Clinton has that they’re not—they’re not even close to each other.

ROSE: Give me an example of what you mean by that.

BERNSTEIN: She worked sliming fish in Alaska with a spoon, carving out their guts. Could you—can you see Bill Clinton doing that? I don’t think so. That band boy, that overweight band boy? I don’t think so.

ROSE: Well, there you go.

BERNSTEIN: She went to—

ROSE: Where does this come from, “that overweight band boy?”

BERNSTEIN: That’s what some of the people who knew him at the time referred to him as.

ROSE: It just slid right out of your tongue, didn’t it? “Overweight band boy.”

BERNSTEIN: But I don`t see him sliming fish in Alaska, and then—and then—
“I don`t see you sliming fish in Alaska, by the way,” Rose said at this point.

There’s a word for “insights” of this type, and that word is “embarrassing.” Bernstein “can’t see” Bill Clinton sliming fish—and so he turns this into an insight about his relationship with his wife. For the record, Bill Clinton has had a varied life himself; he has attended Oxford—and he has campaigned for votes in shaky juke joints in the most rural parts of off-the-path Arkansas. Bernstein can’t see him sliming fish? We’ll only suggest that you watch this interview; even Rose loses patience with his guest’s exasperating ways.

But then, Bernstein’s book tour has suggested the decline of a once iconic journalist, a decline that typifies the era. On the tour, Bernstein stoops to the level of modern “trivia journalism,” offering silly details like this as keys to Clinton’s character:
ROSE: You know, I mean, she believes she’s responsible for generating her own success. She did well at Wellesley. They asked her to be the speaker at the graduation. She did well at Yale Law School.

BERNSTEIN: And then she flunked her bar exam and never admitted it to anybody for 30 years.

But what it says is—OK, what does that mean? If the people I talked to who are closest to her—Nancy Bekavac, one of her closest friends, Deborah Sale, Webb Hubbell—they didn’t know she had flunked the bar exam. And Williams & Connolly lawyers, where she said, oh, well, they wanted to hire me—she couldn’t have gone to work there unless she was going to be a paralegal or took the bar again, and she never did.
So it comes back to this question of there is an inauthenticity is a word that I have used, not in the book but in discussing it, about the way she presents herself, what she stands for, and the reality of the record.
Two things are remarkable in that embarrassing passage.

First, there’s the sheer absurdity of the judgment Bernstein expresses to Rose. There’s “an inauthenticity” to Hillary Clinton, he says—because she didn’t tell friends and later associates that she flunked the DC bar exam. (We’re going back 35 years for this sign of her troubling character.) By normal standards, that’s called a “leap”—but it’s typical of the flimsy style of (negative) character judgment that came to rule the mainstream press in the 1990s, as the Clintons and Gore were savaged. Several times, Bernstein tells Rose that he is holding Clinton to a higher standard of judgment because that’s the standard she maintains for herself. But so it has gone as our greatest former journalists have looked for ways to justify their increasingly kooky judgments.

But if Bernstein’s particular judgment here is a stretch, something else is equally striking—his statement to Rose that “inauthenticity is a word that I have used, not in the book but in discussing it” (our emphasis). Indeed, right from Bernstein’s first Today show interview last week, he has paraded around complaining about Clinton’s “inauthenticity” as he discusses his book. Yet, as he acknowledged to Rose, this word—this theme—isn’t part of his book, the one he says he spent seven years on. Hillary Clinton displays “an inauthenticity!” It seems that Bernstein can’t say this enough—except in his actual book! But then, Bernstein is leading his book tour with several claims that don’t seem to appear in his book. These themes may prime book sales among Clinton-haters, and they may endear Bernstein to some in the press. But their absence from the book itself raises an obvious question about Bernstein’s “authenticity.”

Yes, there’s a word for work like this, where a famous author sells a book with themes that don’t even appear in the volume. Or maybe there isn’t! After all, when have you seen a former icon sell a book in such an odd manner?

TOMORROW: “Savaging women.”