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COLLINS KNOWS TRIVIA! On the day that Edwards spoke, Collins typed typical trivia: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, AUGUST 2, 2007

DIAGNOSING THE MALADY: We’ll admit it; before we spotted the syndrome in our upper-end press corps, Antonioni described it among Euro-elites. In yesterday’s New York Times, Stephen Holden describes this fascinating “malady.” Antonioni spied it among the mid-60s Euro-fops. But see if it doesn’t sound current and local:
HOLDEN (8/1/07): Decades before it was given a name, Michelangelo Antonioni recognized the malady we now call attention deficit disorder. In his great 1960s films, ''L'Avventura,''''La Notte,''''Eclipse'' and ''Red Desert,'' but especially in ''L'Avventura,'' his masterpiece, it wasn't diagnosed as a chemical imbalance, but as a communicable social disease.

Spawned in a psychological petri dish in which idleness, boredom and dissatisfaction with the material rewards of life combined to create and spread a chronic, generalized, mild depression, it was an ailment peculiar to the upper middle class. What made audiences susceptible was the glamour that attached to it. As I watched the attractive aristocrats and climbers in his films mope through their empty lives, a part of me wanted to be just like those people: self-absorbed and miserable, perhaps, but also fashionable and sexy.

The ever-acute critic Pauline Kael recognized this contradiction in a famous essay, ''Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties,'' which aroused the ire of Antonioni devotees like me. More than four decades later, that contradiction remains unresolved in popular culture. Such is the power of film and television imagery that glamour and sex, no matter how tawdry or morally bankrupt, command our attention and whet our fantasies.

Mr. Antonioni was the movies' first diagnostician of what back then was called alienation, anomie, angst and decadence. If his films had their silly side (the image of Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni, grappling fully clothed in a sand trap in ''La Notte''), they were also prophetic.
Holden said this of the master’s films: “Their melancholy poetry transmuted an overriding mood of self-pity into something deeper and closer to tragedy.”

Yes, Antonioni’s films were a bit prophetic; they prefigured the way the “aristocrats and climbers” of our upper-end press corps “mope through their empty lives,” seeking release in silly sex tales and endless, distracting trivia. Meanwhile, the “tragedies” they’ve produced are all too clear; they spread through our lives more each day.

Omigod! An ADD-style boredom and decadence? “A psychological petri dish in which idleness, boredom and dissatisfaction with the material rewards of life combined to create and spread a chronic, generalized, mild depression?” Go ahead—don’t think of the elephant now in the room. Don’t think Dowd/Collins/Nagourney.

NEW DATA FOR RUSSERT: Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts love their uncle Chuck Todd; he’s one of the nicest guys around—always has been. That much said, we’re happy for Chuck, because the new NBC/Wall Street Journal new poll will let him correct the accidental mistake Tim Russert absent-mindedly made on last Sunday’s Meet the Press (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/07).

The new polling was conducted from July 27-30. In it, Hillary Clinton is leading Rudy Giuliani, 47-41. This means that Clinton has beaten Giuliani in 11 of 13 major head-to-head polls, dating back to mid-June. She leads Giuliani in the most recent pair of polls, by Fox News and now by NBC.

And that’s where the chance for redemption comes in! Completely by accident, Russert grossly misled NBC viewers on Sunday’s Meet the Press. At the time, Clinton had defeated Giuliani in 10 of 12 polls, including the most recent (Fox). But wouldn’t you know it? Absent-mindedly, Russert discussed only two of these polls—the two polls which had Giuliani ahead! Without thinking about it for even an instant, he forgot to mention the other ten polls, the ones in which Clinton was leading!

Admittedly, it’s strange when Russert makes these inadvertent mistakes, because he boasts, in Big Russ & Me, that he’s always prepared for Meet the Press. Why, it’s one of the things “Big Russ” taught him! But this was the second time in the past five weeks when Russert presented grossly misleading data—baldly misleading polling data which (completely by accident) poisoned the pool against Clinton. Now, his very own NBC poll shows Clinton ahead of Rudy! But uh-oh! Clinton had also beaten Giuliani the last time NBC polled, on June 8-11 (48-43). Apparently, due to egregious work by his staff, no one had bothered telling Tim.

If we know Russert, he’s been kicking himself ever since he misled us the first time, on his July 1 program. Last Sunday, it never so much as crossed his mind that he was, completely by accident, “picking those cherries” again! And so, we’re happy that Chuck has new data for Russert—data which will surely produce an on-air clarification.

In the old days, of course, it would have been different. “Mr. Russert,” some underling would have said. “Mr. Russert, we have some bothersome data—new data to run by Boss Welch.”

Completing the record: In the new poll, Obama beats Giuliani, 45-40. (Those seem to be the only two match-ups which were polled.) Meanwhile, none of these differences mean much at this stage; if we were running a Sunday news program, we wouldn’t waste much time on them. On the other hand, we wouldn’t cherry-pick polls to keep enacting our Clinton-Gore hatred.

Not that Russert did that, of course. Such a thought is absurd.

Special report: Edwards speaks!


PART 2—GAIL COLLINS KNOWS TRIVIA: In one way, it’s a shame that Edwards spoke; it’s dangerous when the candidate feels that he has to do it himself. Instantly, outraged journalists go to work assailing the candidate’s “press-baiting” ways; silly lads, like the Times’ Nagourney, even compare him to bloggers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/1/07). And this is what these sad lads do when the candidate doesn’t even mention the press corps! No, it wasn’t clear, when Edwards spoke, that he was talking about the press. But those who pretend to report your news are pretty much “self-absorbed and miserable,” just as Antonioni (through Holden) once said. It you even seem to criticize them, you will be marked for life-long reprisal. When Edwards spoke, he put a bulls-eye on his back. Just like that, Nagourney began firing.

But land o goshen! Whatever his intention, Edwards does describe the press corps’ work on that now-famous tape. “Let’s distract” from the things that matter, he has his antagonists saying, three times. “Let's talk about this silly, frivolous, nothing stuff.” Did Edwards have the press in mind when he painted that damning portrait? We don’t have the slightest idea. But he spoke in Iowa on July 26—and that very morning, Gail Collins had been “talking about this silly, frivolous, nothing stuff” in her New York Times column.

“Change on the Cheap,” her headline said—and in her column, she talked tangerines. Hours later, when Edwards spoke, he might have had Collins in mind. (If you google, you can find her full text.)

Indeed, Collins’ column was such an instant classic that we’ve struggled to figure out how to treat it. It’s hard to do justice to such a piece in one posting; it’s such a masterwork of bad faith that it ought to go straight to the Smithsonian. In the future, young journalists should spend weeks on this column, learning the things that they must never do. That said, let’s give Collins’ piece a foreshortened treatment. But it was a perfect piece to kick off that day—the day when Edwards spoke.

What was the essence of Collins’ column? As usual, she was snidely showing her readers what big phony fakers these Big Hopefuls are. And you know Collins! To prove that this was true of Edwards, she avoided citing the major things he has already done in this race.

Should Edwards be the Dem nominee? That, of course, is a matter of judgment. But every political writer knows that he has taken some major risks—the type of risks Big Hopefuls would (sensibly) prefer to avoid. In particular, he has done a naughty thing; he has laid out a detailed health plan, and he has said how he’ll pay for it! This matter has been widely described—by the New York Times’ Robert Pear, for example (March 25): “John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, offered the most detailed plan for universal coverage, saying he would raise taxes to help pay the cost, which he estimated at $90 billion to $120 billion a year.” More specifically, Edwards has said he will roll back tax cuts on households earning more than $200,000 per year, and he has proposed other tax adjustments.

Politically, this involves major risk.

Edwards has said that he will raise taxes! Typically, hopefuls prefer not to do this. But last Thursday, Collins was struggling to prove to her readers that Edwards Just Won’t Tell It Straight. So she simply deep-sixed these big, basic facts. Instead, she discussed tangerines.

That’s right, readers; she talked tangerines! Something trivial! In South Carolina, Elizabeth Edwards apparently made an offhand comment about the way her husband’s plan for global warming might raise the price of citrus fruit (due to transportation costs). When John Edwards (apparently) said he wasn’t sure if his plan would make tangerines cost more, Collins—she loves the smell of trivia in the morning!—began to move in for the kill. Soon, the fakest person on the face of the earth was typing the following perfect blather—about an “integrity litmus test!” Darlings, it was simply delish! And needless to say, she didn’t miss the chance to mention That Haircut:
COLLINS (7/26/07): Was Mr. Edwards prepared to admit that the public might have to give up tangerines in order to keep the polar bears from drowning in the Arctic?

''I'd have to think about it,'' he said during a press conference later that day. This was actually his second answer, the first being a short, utterly unrelated disquisition on food safety inspections. The Edwards campaign has devoted immense effort to beating back the image of their candidate as The Man With the Expensive Haircut. They don't want to make August the month for The Man Who Would Take Away America's Citrus Fruit.

Still this was, in its little tiny way, an integrity litmus test. Edwards is supposed to be the candidate with the ''big, bold positions.'' Asked for his top three priorities at a meeting with steelworkers here, he named four: end the war in Iraq; achieve universal health care; end global warming; end poverty and inequality in America.

Can you have this kind of to-do list without a price tag? Nobody expects politicians to dwell on the down side of their ideas. You just want some assurance that there's an intellectual honesty at work, and that deep down, a candidate appreciates how tough big, bold change—or even small wishy-washy change—will be.
Omigod! Gail Collins was testing “intellectual honesty!” (More below.) Our analysts all jumped up and howled!

Collins managed to maintain this nonsense all through the course of the column. No news reporter anywhere in the country mentioned the day-long dispute about tangerine prices which Collins seemed to think she’d observed. But Collins, huffing and blowing as always, kept snarkily letting her readers know what a Big Phony and Fake Edwards is. Later, she persisted with her integrity test. Because she had a point to make, she wouldn’t take yes for an answer:
COLLINS: Which brings us back to the question of whether John Edwards is capable of admitting that his plan to end global warming—to save the planet—might require some American sacrifice on, say, the tangerine front.

''It does have a cost impact. No question about it,'' the candidate said at the end of the day, as his car bounced along to the airport.
We would have taken that as a yes. But Collins, as always, was all about snark, as will shortly see.

First, let’s review the chronology here. Elizabeth Edwards had brought up this point, apparently without any prompting. Later, John Edwards had said that there was a “cost impact” of some kind. (It’s hard to know what was actually said, and in what tone. The best interviews for spinners like Collins are always the ones without transcripts or tapes.) But Collins had a treasured narrative, one she was desperately trying to type. Even after getting her yes, she couldn’t help snaking about it:
COLLINS (continuing directly): Elizabeth Edwards joined in, pointing out that if produce that was shipped and trucked from far away got more expensive it would create incentives for people to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables. ''I think that's a good thing,'' she said.

''And she likes tangerines,'' her husband laughed.

And the sun shone brightly on the tarmac as John Edwards, having said something candid, flew off into the horizon.
Sneering snidely, Collins snarked about the fact that Edwards had finally “said something candid.” And nowhere in this whole corrupt mess were readers ever told the obvious—that Edwards has said a lot of things that are (dangerously) candid in the course of this race. Readers were kept from hearing such facts so a darling could type up her narrative.

Collins, of course, did the same thing to Gore, in ways that were sometimes just ugly. Her sneering reference to Corey Martin (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/27/07) has always struck us as the meanest, least human moment from all of the Campaign 2000 coverage. Back then, the darlings simply didn’t like Gore, just as, today, they don’t like Edwards. Result? When Gore dared to ask about a sick child, Collins found a slick way to slime him.

Yes, it’s hard to be faker than that—but Collins is always willing to try. Last week, she found a new way to play her readers, sneering and snarking about tangerines.

But this has gone on for a very long time. Last week, on the day Edwards spoke, Collins produced a new classic.

THE TRAGEDY: The tragedy in Collins’ endless faking is found in the following part of her column. The sneering darling described one aspect of what she called “tangerine day:”
COLLINS: On tangerine day, the first stop of the Edwards campaign had been Kitty's Soul Food in Charleston, where some people waited two or more hours just to see the candidate and shake his hand. The early arrivals included P. J. Veber, whose husband dropped her off on his way to work at 8:30, and Katharine Bloder, a teacher who just wanted to ''ask him to get us out of Iraq.'' Mitch and Mandy Norrell drove 176 miles from the small town of Lancaster where they have a joint law practice. The Norrells, like Edwards, were the products of striving families of textile workers. Mandy specializes in bankruptcy law, and ''about a third of my filings are people who have to choose between mortgage and medical bills. That's why I love John Edwards. He gets it.''

All the serious presidential contenders have supporters like this. The best candidate is going to be the one who comes closest to deserving them.
Does Edwards deserve the trust of those supporters? That, of course, is a matter of judgment. But Collins simply laughed in their faces, wondering if Edwards was honest enough to offer “a price tag”—while failing to say that he’s already done so, in a wide range of ways.

John Edwards “gets it,” that supporter said. He cares about people who can’t pay their medical bills. For years, it has been abundantly clear that these darlings do not. They mock them, each and every day, with their snide, sneering column.

SPEAKING OF INTEGRITY TESTS: Want to see Collins take some integrity tests? To see her play dumb about Fools for Scandal, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/27/99. To see her flip-flop mere days after trashing Gore, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/3/99. But mainly, just reread that “tangerine day” column, where she refuses to tell her readers that Edwards has already laid out some big price tags. But darlings, he won’t talk straight about tangerines! What a sweet break from the boredom!

JOE CHEERED, WE GROANED: When Collins resumed her column on July 21, Joe Klein enthused, “Welcome Back, Gail,” and praised her for the way she “zings.” But we had already groaned that morning. We had already read the full, snarky passage from which Joe had taken his zinger:
COLLINS (7/21/07): The presidential debates have come to resemble a police lineup with all the wrong suspects. The main action involves a moderator telling people that their 90 seconds are up. On Monday, the Democrats will be at it again on CNN—all eight of them.

The overcrowded debate platform is one of those minor, nagging irritants in American democracy that, like John Kerry, never seem to go away.
Darlings, it was delectable! For the record, John Kerry “never seems to go away” because the people of Massachusetts elected him to represent them. But in the world of these simpering darlings, those people exist to be played.

In fact, Collins’ column that morning was empty and stupid. But then, her columns quite commonly are. Her latest piece, in today’s New York Times, is her latest insult to the discourse—her latest tribute to upper-class anomie. Darlings, Collins is all about trivia—“this silly, frivolous, nothing stuff.”

We’ll start with today’s nonsense-column tomorrow. But: To see a transaction these darlings so typically make, we strongly suggest that you read it. And as you do so, try to remember the things Stephen Holden said.

TOMORROW—EDWARDS SPEAKS, PART 3: No one (but Krugman) knows health care.