COLBERT KING, NARRATIVE MAN: Colberts Kings column in Saturdays Post was so bad it beggars description. But the column serves several purposes:
Once again, it helps us see how narrative works inside the insider press corps. It helps us grasp the shape of this groups narratives over the past sixteen years. And sadly enough, it helps us appreciate one of the ways John McCain may yet win the White House. Colbert King seems to love trashing Big Dems. But when will he trash Saint McCain?
What was Kings column about? As his colleagues persistently do, King got busy repeating his cohorts newest Official Approved Narrative. In this new novel, two major things are said to have occurred: In March 2007, Mark Penn is said to have told Hillary Clinton to launch an attack on Obamas lack of American roots (Kings language). In turn, Clinton is said to have rejected Penns advice.
As weve noted, both parts of this treasured new story are bogus. But King pimped it extra-hard in this column, ratcheting language as pundits do when working with a New Group Tale (more below). Like Maureen Dowd in a pair of long pants, he started out by imagining somethingand by sliming at least one major Dem, in pretty much the nastiest way available in our discourse:
KING (8/16/08): Say you find yourself seated on the train behind two white supremacists who are beside themselves over the possibility could become America's first black president.
They are so fired up, they fail to notice you.
The men are discussing the urgent need to derail Obama's candidacy.
The obvious strategist of the two says that Obama's defeat can be brought about by hitting him hard, where it hurts the most.
We've got to launch an attack, he declares, on Obama's "lack of American roots." Paint him as a guy with an exotic background who's present in mainstream society but isn't really a part of it.
Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo! King imagines himself on a train, listening to a pair of white supremacists. But as he continues, it turns out hes discussing two actual people; in fact, he is (selectively) quoting Penns memo to Hillary Clinton! Lacking the courage to say what he thinks, King is content to insinuate herein the nastiest way possible. The white supremacist he quotes in his column is Penn. But Clinton is in the mix also:
KING: That, dear reader, is the way virulent hate purveyors will seek to bring down Barack Obama: by portraying him as un-American and, oh yes, "unelectable."
To be fair, these anti-Obama sentiments cannot be attributed to two white supremacists riding on a train.
The words quoted above belong to Mark Penn, the top Democratic strategist and pollster for most of Hillary Clintons run for the White House. They appear in a strategic campaign review memo, unearthed recently by the Atlantic magazine, that Penn sent to Clinton on March 19, 2007.
Let us note that Hillary Clinton did not take Penn's advice, though she continues her association with him.
As it turns out, the principal white supremacist/virulent hate purveyor is Penn. And Clinton is still on his team.
This would be stunningly aggressive stuffeven if Kings basic assertions were factually accurate. But of course, they arent! In fact, Penn didnt suggest that Clinton launch an attack in that now-famous memo; he specifically said that Clinton shouldnt discuss Obamas background. (We are never going to say anything about his background.) He specifically said he was looking for ways to advance Clintons chances without turning negative. And of course, anyone with an ounce of smarts would have predicted that. Duh! In March 2007, Clinton was a substantial front-runnerand substantial front-runners simply dont launch attacks on opponents. Result? Novelistic claims to the side, Clinton actually took Penns advice. She avoided discussing Obamas background, just as Penn had instructed; instead, she advanced a certain narrative about her own background which Penn specifically advised. But so what? King has worked himself into a fury, as often happens when he gazes on the work of demonized Dems (more below). Thats abundantly clear in the highlighted passage, which is simply derangedstraight from Neptune:
KING: Our job, he goes on, is to get "most Americansthe invisible Americans" so agitated about Obama that they become eager to stick up for what they regard as their American heritage.
We can do that, he declares with confidence, by convincing folks that Obama "is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values."
The other white supremacist, getting the point, chimes in: Yeah, and because Obama's black, let's put up a candidate against him to "contest the black vote at every opportunity. Keep him pinned down there."
We must, the men agree, keep charging that Obama is not steeped in "basic American values."
Of course, Penn and Clinton didnt agree to keep charging that Obama is not steeped in basic American values. Nor did Penn tell Clinton that she should get Americans agitated about Obama; in his actual memo (as opposed to the memo in the new Group Tale), Penn specifically told Clinton not to discuss Obamas backgroundnot to turn negative. But please note the astounding absurdity of the specific passage weve highlighted. Penn told Clinton to contest the black vote (a substantial chunk of the Dem primary vote). To King, this too means that Penn is a white supremacist! King, whose work we once mistakenly admired, has quite clearly lost his mind.
But then, the mainstream press lost its mind long agoa fact which found expression in familiar ways down through the years. Over the years, its lunacy has been expressed in a series of narratives which have demonized Big Major Dems. Both Clintons were demonized in the 1990sand then, in March 1999, the focus shifted to Gore. And at the Post, Colbert King kept his big yap shut as all this slander transpired. Go ahead! Try to find him saying a word when both Clintons were accused of serial murders! Try to find him saying a word about the twenty-month war against Gore! During the Age of Lewinsky, the delicate pundit was very upset by Bill Clintons troubling lies. But, as was scripted by the gods of his cohort, he didnt give a flying f*ck about the lies against both Clintonsand Gore.
But then, demonized narratives about Big Dems have shaped the politics of the past sixteen years. Repeatedly, King bought into those narratives. When you read the work of King, you were riding with Cokieand Coulter. And now, hes pimping the latest noveland tossing around outraged complaints about two white supremacists. The man cant get the simplest facts right. But hes very strong with his invective.
Several key points about this:
Regarding Penns 3/07 memo: There may be material there that you find offensive. That would be OK with us, although we think this is basically silly. (On balance, were not fans of Penn. Nor are we searching for demons.) But please understand the way narrative works. When the press corps assembles an Official Group Tale, it always feels quite free to reinvent basic facts of the case. That is once again true in this matter. Sorry, people: Penn didnt tell Clinton to launch an attack. And Clinton did do what Penn said.
Ratcheting narrative: Be sure you see the way narrative works. First, someone assembles a pleasing new talein this case, Atlantics Josh Green. (Al Gore said he invented the Internet!) Then, everyone else stands in line to repeat whatever was said. And of course, when pundits agree theyll all say the same thing, a pundit can only distinguish himself by telling the story more dramatically. Inevitably, language ratchets. So it was with Kings Saturday piece, in which he somehow dreams that youre a white supremacist if you want to contest the black vote. That, of course, is simply insanebut its typical of the ratcheting syndrome. (Back in the day, this syndrome led Arianna Huffington to say that Candidate Gores troubling suits actually had four buttons. In her imagination, she sewed a fourth button onto Gores suitthereby finding a ludicrous way to heighten her groups bizarre outrage.)
Harming Obama: Over the course of the past sixteen years, Kings cohort has constructed endless demon talesabout Big Major Dems. At the same time, his cohort has strongly tended to invent hero tale about Big Major Republicans. (Go aheadjust try to find the column in which King has challenged the sanctification of John McCain. Simply put, that column doesnt exist. More detail below.) And no, it doesnt help Obama when screamers like King shout about the she-devil, Clinton, and about her demon associates. It stirs discord within Obamas partyand it extends the sense that Major Dems are, at heart, of questionable character. Its relatively easy to demonize Obamas character because so many in his party have already been demonized. And recall the major point: Kings factual claims about that memo are, at their heart, simply wrong.
You may not like what Penn wrote in that memo; for ourselves, we think this is basically trivial. But no: Penn didnt tell Clinton to launch attacks on Obama; he plainly told her to do the opposite. But then, narratuives about Clinton/Gore/Kerry never had to be bound by truth either. Kings gang has played this game for sixteen years. Are you ready for what it may bringa president named Saint John McCain?
For the record, King and Gore: King is bleating and cryingtoday. But he never said a wordnot oneabout the bogus attacks against Gore. Two days before election day, he managed to semi-endorse the candidate, explaining why Gore would win the votes of most blacks. (Better Than Bush, his headline rang, in a classic back-handed compliment.) King began by boo-hoo-hooing about the eleventh-hour disclosure of Bushs past arrest for drunk driving. Eventually, he got around to this familiar, scripted account of Gore. Everyone else had already said it. So King typed it up too:
KING (11/4/00): It probably doesn't help that Al Gore doesn't seem all that likable. On a personal level, he has none of Clinton's charm. Gore is condescending, lacks charisma, is a shameless pander [sic] and puts too much yeast in his stories. And like his boss, Gore's campaign finance ethics have not been always the best. A JFK he is not.
Gore's running mate, centrist Joe Lieberman, is no Hubert Humphrey or Bill Bradley, either. So there's little wonder that when the topic turns to heroes in the struggle to advance America's promise to all, the names Al Gore and Joe Lieberman don't immediately come to mind.
That said, the Democratic ticket will still get most of the black vote at the polls on Tuesday. Gore and Lieberman won't be the main reason, though.
The Democratic ticket will get punched out of enlightened self-interest: In most of urban America, the thought of a conservative Republican administration triggers a deep sense of peril.
Gore and Lieberman may be hard to swallow. But the thought of the White House in the hands of George W. Bush is almost enough to drive a columnistdare I say itto drink.
That column isnt available on-line. Thats a shame, because its almost spectacularly clueless, with its paeans to past great Democrats, all of whom were much better than Gore, who today holds the Nobel Peace Prize. (This includes Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey, Carter, Mondale and even Bill Clinton. Gore was worse than them all!) But this column also served as a tribute to the power of insider narrative. Just imagine: JFK, whose father bought the West Virginia primary, was presented as a symbol of clean campaign finance, as opposed to Vile Gore! You simply cant get more loony. But by November 2000, Kings cohort had come to hate Gore more than theyd even hated Bill Clinton. To Colbert King, Candidate Gore was no Bill Bradley! He wasnt likableand he was condescending. He was shameless in his pandering. And he lacked charisma.
For the record, King and McCain: During Campaign 2000, McCain had several serious race men running his South Carolina campaign (for a quick overview, just click here). But so what? Kings vapid cohort was on McCains side. King blasts imagined white supremaciststoday. But what follows is his full body of work about the fact that a sanctified solon had several overt race men running a statewide White House campaign. Hint: Kings entire column was an attack on Bush for visiting Bob Jones University. The sentence fragment we highlight represents Kings entire body of work about a famous saints race men:
KING (2/28/00): That dating policy, believed by university leaders to be a biblically based injunction, has been in effect since the fundamentalist school was started more than 70 years ago by the first of three Bob Joneses to serve consecutively as president. The discriminatory policies and religious intolerance of Bob Jones University have earned that South Carolina institution a national reputation for clinging to some of the worst vestiges of the Old South.
None of that, however, has stopped a succession of Republican political hopefulseager for support from the Protestant evangelical religious rightfrom lending legitimacy to Bob Jones U. through their acceptance of invitations to appear there. Texas Gov. George W. Bush did as much this month, choosing to kick off his South Carolina presidential primary campaign on the Bob Jones campus. Add that misguided decision to his and Arizona Sen. John McCain's dance around the question of whether the rebel flag should come down from the top of the state capitol buildingand McCains's refusal to ditch a top South Carolina campaign adviser associated with a racially insensitive publicationand it's tempting to ask whether the two Republican presidential candidates favor the inclusiveness of the New South or the ways of old Dixie.
As King noted, Republican hopefuls had always visited Bob Jones University. But no one in the insider press corps had ever said boo about it. In 2000, they all started to squeal and complainbecause this was a McCain talking-point. Meanwhile, McCains association with a major race man rated exactly one sentence fragment from King. In his Post columns, he has never mentioned McCains association again, right up to this very day. Indeed, talk about getting a total free pass! From the year 2000 right up to this day, McCains name has only appeared in six of Kings columns. As best we can tell, Colbert King has never written a critical word about McCainexcept for that one sentence fragment. Hes very good at sniffing out character problemshell even bungle facts to find themunless they involve Saint McCain.
For the record, King and Kerry: Incredibly, King actually wrote a column, in August 2004, defending Kerry against the swift-boaters (just click here). But one month later, he changed his mind! Predictably, heres how he began:
KING (9/25/04): Those who dismiss critics of John Kerry's Vietnam service as just a bunch of right-wing Republicans out to advance George W. Bush's cause don't know what they are talking aboutor they are engaged in wishful thinking. Okay, I may have once thought that about the critics, too. But after poring over the large volume of e-mail I received after my Aug. 28 column, "What Matters About Kerry and Vietnam," I don't any longer.
Pathetic. And the shape of an era.
The shape of the past sixteen years: In Saturdays column, you saw the shape of the insider, mainstream political journalism of the past sixteen years. Demon tales have been built about Major Demsand hero tales about Major Republicans. John McCain once hired a nasty race manbut Colbert King is a major insider. To date, King has written one partial sentence about what this greatest saint didand he has never criticized him otherwise.
Whos the shameless panderer now?
No, Colbert King will not be writing demon tales about Obama. But hes already done more than enough to make Obamas task more difficult. He has slimed Big Dems for many yearsand he seems to know another rule of the game. He wont disparage the sanctified saint his insider cohort invented.
Colbert King can spot white supremacists. Unless theyre over there.
Special report: Race and the race!
WHY NOT READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Could racial voting decide the election? Why not read each thrilling installment:
PART 1: When the Times considers race, it includes at least one bungled fact. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/12/08.
PART 2: Five percent of white voters confessedno, they wont vote for Obama. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/13/08.
PART 3: Charles Blow seemed to be impressed with a 19 percent speculation. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/15/08.
In part 3, we spend some time with a 19 percent speculation:
PART 4A RACIAL PREFERENCE: How many votes might Obama lose in November due to racial voting by whites? Presumably, polling cant settle that question. Whatever answers respondents might give, some voters may be less than frank about so touchy a subject.
In other words, voters may simply lie to pollsters when asked if they vote by race.
But last month, the New York Times/CBS News did ask poll questions about racial voting (for poll data, click here)and Charles Blow considered the answers they got in his August 9 New York Times op-ed column. But alas! Blow commits errors of fact and logic all through his pieceand his errors, without apparent exception, all tilt his judgments one way. His errors began in his graphics first sentence, when he overstated the percentage of registered voters who are white (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/12/08). But the errors continue all through his piece, helping make it a good example of bad journalismand of the art-form known in these parts as High Manhattan Pseudo-Liberalism.
What sorts of errors of fact and logic are found in Blows column? Consider paragraphs 6-8 (out of 9 paragraphs total). In paragraph 6, the second paragraph below, Blow repeats an error of logic weve already discussed. Its an error of omission in this passage. But its central to Blows topic:
BLOW (8/9/08): Welcome to the murky world of modern racism, where most of the open animus has been replaced by a shadowy bias that is difficult to measure. As Obama gently put it in his race speech, todays racial resentments arent always expressed in polite company. However, they can beand possibly will beexpressed in the privacy of the voting booth.
If the percentage of white voters who cannot bring themselves to vote for a black candidate were only 15 percent, that would be more than all black voters combined. (Coincidentally, it also would be more than all voters under 24 years old.) That amounts to a racial advantage for John McCain.
Pulling a large number out of thin air, Blow says it would amount to a racial advantage for McCain if fifteen percent of white voters refused to vote for a black candidate. But is that true? Would it be an advantage to McCain if 15 percent of white voters cannot bring themselves to vote for a black candidate? That would certainly be a sad state of affairs, but it would only amount to advantage McCain to the extent that the voters in question werent Republican voters to begin with. Lets use Blows imagined large number: If fifteen percent of whites wont vote for a black candidate, this would ne no advantage at all if those white voters were already Republicans. This is very basic logicbut its essentially absent from Blows piece.
Its absence heightens the sense of peril to Obamaas did Blows mistake about the percentage of registered voters who are white.
For the record, Blow doesnt seem completely unaware of this basic point of logic. As he continues in paragraph 7, he raises a related concern. And alashe makes more errors:
BLOW (continuing directly): And this sentiment stretched across ideological lines. Just as many white independents as Republicans said that most of the people they knew would not vote for a black candidate, and white Democrats were not far behind. Also, remember that during the Democratic primaries, up to 20 percent of white voters in some states said that the race of the candidate was important to them. Few of those people voted for the black guy.
In the first part of this paragraph, Blow seems to say that these racial attitudes have been observed across party lines. To the extent that that is true, it represents bad news for Obama; it suggests that whites who normally vote for the Democrat would refuse to vote for Obama, based on this racial animus. But once again, Blows logic is shaky in this paragraphand his facts are highly selective. And again, his errors all push in one directionthey increase the sense of peril to Obama from white racial voting.
Blow makes two claims in this paragraph. First, he says that, just like Republicans, white independents and white Democrats said that most of the people they knew would not vote for a black candidate. We have no idea why Blow says that; such information is not available in the Times polling data. And of course, Blow didnt offer this type of breakdown (by party affiliation) when discussing the most clear-cut data in this pollthe five percent of white respondents who said that they themselves wouldnt vote for a black candidate. How many of that five percent were Dems? Blow doesnt say in his column. (Earlier e-mails to Blow, seeking information on a different topic, were not answered.) At any rate, its hard to know just what it means if Democratic voters say that most of the people they knew would not vote for a black candidate. Unless were simply writing a novel, its absurd to assume that this constitutes a secret statement about the intentions of these voters themselves. But thats the direction Blow pursues in the first part of that quoted paragraph. (Again, were left to wonder at the factual basis for his claim that independents and Democrats said this at roughly the same rate as Republicans. The published poll doesnt offer such data.)
In the second part of that quoted paragraph, Blow says something thats actually accurate. But his statement is also largely irrelevantand its rather misleading. Here is the statement in question:
BLOW: Also, remember that during the Democratic primaries, up to 20 percent of white voters in some states said that the race of the candidate was important to them. Few of those people voted for the black guy. Xxxxxxxxxx
In fact, that statement is true about only two statesWest Virginia and Kentucky. In each of those states, slightly more than twenty percent of white voters told exit pollsters that the race of the candidate was an important factor in their vote. In each state, only nine percent of those white voters voted for Obama. As such, Blows description is basically accuratefor these two states.
But Obama isnt going to win these two states, any more than Kerry or Gore did. (Kerry was blown out in both states. Gore was blown out in Kentucky, lost West Virginia by 6.3 points.) For that reason, racial attitudes of those voters will not affect Novembers electoral-vote tally. And Blows description is clearly not accurate for all other states in which these polling data are available. (Only eight such states exist. These types of question were first asked in exit polls for Pennsylvanias primary.)
Example: In the North Carolina Democratic primary, 13.3 percent of white voters said race was a factor in their vote. (For North Carolina exit poll data, click here.) But thirty-six percent of those white voterswell more than few voted for Obama. Blows description is simply wrong for this important, potential swing state. To complete the record, here are all eight states for which these data are available:
Percentage of white voters who said race was a factor/percentage of that group who voted for Obama:
West Virginia: 22.6 percent said race was a factor/9 percent voted for Obama
Kentucky: 21.2 percent/9 percent for Obama
Pennsylvania: 15.3 percent/24 percent for Obama
North Carolina: 13.3 percent/36 percent for Obama
Indiana: 13.0 percent/22 percent for Obama
South Dakota: 12.6 percent/35 percent for Obama
Montana: 10.2 percent/45 percent for Obama
Oregon: 8.4 percent/57 percent for Obama (interpolation)
Blows description is accurate for only two statesstates Obama wont win anyway. Its accurate for no other state that was polled on these matters.
What did it mean when white voters said that race was a factorand that they voted for Obama? Presumably, many of these voters felt it would be a good thing for the U.S. to have a black president. There could be other explanations for these voters statements, of coursebut they werent questioned further in the exit polling. In a state like Pennsylvania, meanwhile, these data leave open the possibility that as many as 11.6 percent of all white voters had racial reservations about a vote for Obamaand that would be a troubling statistic looking ahead to November. But it must be stressed, if we want to be accurate: That is only a possibility. There is no real way to know what these voters meant by these statements, since they werent questioned further. Well bet the housequestioned further, some of these voters would have said something like this:
WHAT SOMEONE WOULD HAVE SAID: I thought it would be good for the United States to have a black president, and so I strongly factored that in. But I thought Clinton was better overall, so I ended up voting for Clinton.
How many voters would have said something like that? There is, of course, no way to know, due to the lack of questioning. This leaves peoplepeople like Blowimagining what these data mean, and occasionally putting their thumbs on the scale when they offer their interpretations. And make no mistake: Blows thumb is found on the scale all through this piece, tilting both facts and logic.
There are obvious dangers to Obama in the data from the New York Times/CBS polland in the exit poll data Blow cites. But Blow overstates the case every step of the way, starting with his opening error about the percentage of registered voters who are white. Indeed, to see the persistence of Blows technical bungling, consider his final two paragraphs:
BLOWS (continuing directly from above): Some might say that turnabout is fair play, citing the fact that 89 percent of blacks say they plan to vote for Obama. That level of support represents a racial advantage for him, too, right? Not necessarily. Blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic in the general election anyway. According to CNN exit polls John Kerry got 88 percent of the black vote in 2004.
Think racism isnt a major factor in this election? Think again.
Groan. In that penultimate paragraph, Blow compares the apple of a July pre-election poll to the orange of a November exit polla poll of actual voting. In the July poll, 89 percent of black voters said they planned to vote for Obamaversus only 2 percent for McCain. But the poll includes some people who havent made up their mindsand it includes some people who wont vote. By definition, the November exit poll only included people who had already voted. In reality, Obama will almost surely exceed Kerrys 88 percent vote from blacks by more than one pointand he will likely gain from increased black registration and turn-out as well. These gains may not be hugeand none of this is relevant to the question of how white voters will vote in November. But Blow raised the topicthen bungled the comparison. Here again, we see the low standards a paper like the Times brings to such discussions.
Blow makes many errors of logic and factsome of them minor, some very basic. But they all seem to tilt his discussion one wayin the direction of what we would call High Manhattan Pseudo-Liberalism. The New York Times has always loved to dwell on vile failings of red state rube voters. In our view, this is horrible journalismand it may help lose elections.
COMINGPART 5: Concerning Blows graphic
PART 6: For love of the r-word
Discourse on method: Where did we get out figures for the eight states in our chart? Again, consult the North Carolina exit poll data. In all, sixty percent of the primary voters were white. Fifty-two percent of the primary voters were white voters who said that race wasnt a factor; eight percent of the primary voters were white voters who said that race was a factor. Eight is 13.3 percent of sixty. The percentage of those voters who voted for Obama (36 percent) is directly presented in the data.