Daily Howler logo
COLBERT KING, NARRATIVE MAN! King trashes vile racist Clinton again. But when will he criticize Saint McCain? // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, AUGUST 18, 2008

COLBERT KING, NARRATIVE MAN: Colbert’s King’s column in Saturday’s 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 group’s 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 King’s column about? As his colleagues persistently do, King got busy repeating his cohort’s 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 Obama’s lack of American roots” (King’s language). In turn, Clinton is said to have rejected Penn’s advice.

As we’ve 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 something–and 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 he’s discussing two actual people; in fact, he is (selectively) quoting Penn’s memo to Hillary Clinton! Lacking the courage to say what he thinks, King is content to insinuate here–in 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 Clinton’s 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 stuff–even if King’s basic assertions were factually accurate. But of course, they aren’t! In fact, Penn didn’t suggest that Clinton “launch an attack” in that now-famous memo; he specifically said that Clinton shouldn’t discuss Obama’s background. (“We are never going to say anything about his background.”) He specifically said he was looking for ways to advance Clinton’s 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-runner–and substantial front-runners simply don’t “launch attacks” on opponents. Result? Novelistic claims to the side, Clinton actually took Penn’s advice. She avoided discussing “Obama’s 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). That’s abundantly clear in the highlighted passage, which is simply deranged–straight from Neptune:

KING: Our job, he goes on, is to get "most Americans–the 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 didn’t “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 Obama’s background–not to turn negative. But please note the astounding absurdity of the specific passage we’ve 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 ago–a 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 1990s–and 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 Clinton’s troubling lies. But, as was scripted by the gods of his cohort, he didn’t give a flying f*ck about the lies against both Clintons–and 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 Cokie–and Coulter. And now, he’s pimping the latest novel–and tossing around outraged complaints about two “white supremacists.” The man can’t get the simplest facts right. But he’s very strong with his invective.

Several key points about this:

Regarding Penn’s 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, we’re 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 didn’t 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 tale–in this case, Atlantic’s 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 they’ll all say the same thing, a pundit can only distinguish himself by telling the story more dramatically. Inevitably, language ratchets. So it was with King’s Saturday piece, in which he somehow dreams that you’re a “white supremacist” if you want to “contest the black vote.” That, of course, is simply insane–but it’s typical of the “ratcheting” syndrome. (Back in the day, this syndrome led Arianna Huffington to say that Candidate Gore’s troubling suits actually had four buttons. In her imagination, she sewed a fourth button onto Gore’s suit–thereby finding a ludicrous way to heighten her group’s bizarre outrage.)

Harming Obama: Over the course of the past sixteen years, King’s cohort has constructed endless demon tales–about Big Major Dems. At the same time, his cohort has strongly tended to invent hero tale about Big Major Republicans. (Go ahead–just try to find the column in which King has challenged the sanctification of John McCain. Simply put, that column doesn’t exist. More detail below.) And no, it doesn’t help Obama when screamers like King shout about the she-devil, Clinton, and about her demon associates. It stirs discord within Obama’s party–and it extends the sense that Major Dems are, at heart, of questionable character. It’s relatively easy to demonize Obama’s character because so many in his party have already been demonized. And recall the major point: King’s 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 didn’t 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. King’s gang has played this game for sixteen years. Are you ready for what it may bring–a president named Saint John McCain?

For the record, King and Gore: King is bleating and crying–today. But he never said a word–not one–about 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 Bush’s 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 columnist–dare I say it–to drink.

That column isn’t available on-line. That’s a shame, because it’s 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 can’t get more loony. But by November 2000, King’s cohort had come to hate Gore more than they’d even hated Bill Clinton. To Colbert King, Candidate Gore was no Bill Bradley! He wasn’t likable–and 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? King’s vapid cohort was on McCain’s side. King blasts imagined “white supremacists”–today. 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: King’s entire column was an attack on Bush for visiting Bob Jones University. The sentence fragment we highlight represents King’s entire body of work about a famous saint’s 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 hopefuls–eager for support from the Protestant evangelical religious right–from 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 building–and McCains's refusal to ditch a top South Carolina campaign adviser associated with a racially insensitive publication–and 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 complain–because this was a McCain talking-point. Meanwhile, McCain’s association with a major race man rated exactly one sentence fragment from King. In his Post columns, he has never mentioned McCain’s 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, McCain’s name has only appeared in six of King’s columns. As best we can tell, Colbert King has never written a critical word about McCain–except for that one sentence fragment. He’s very good at sniffing out character problems–he’ll even bungle facts to find them–unless 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, here’s 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 about–or 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 Saturday’s column, you saw the shape of the insider, mainstream political “journalism” of the past sixteen years. Demon tales have been built about Major Dems–and hero tales about Major Republicans. John McCain once hired a nasty race man–but Colbert King is a major insider. To date, King has written one partial sentence about what this greatest saint did–and he has never criticized him otherwise.

Who’s the “shameless panderer” now?

No, Colbert King will not be writing demon tales about Obama. But he’s already done more than enough to make Obama’s task more difficult. He has slimed Big Dems for many years–and he seems to know another rule of the game. He won’t disparage the sanctified saint his insider cohort invented.

Colbert King can spot “white supremacists.” Unless they’re 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 confessed–no, they won’t 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 4–A RACIAL PREFERENCE: How many votes might Obama lose in November due to racial voting by whites? Presumably, polling can’t 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 piece–and his errors, without apparent exception, all tilt his judgments one way. His errors began in his graphic’s 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 journalism–and of the art-form known in these parts as High Manhattan Pseudo-Liberalism.

What sorts of errors of fact and logic are found in Blow’s column? Consider paragraphs 6-8 (out of 9 paragraphs total). In paragraph 6, the second paragraph below, Blow repeats an error of logic we’ve already discussed. It’s an error of omission in this passage. But it’s central to Blow’s 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, today’s racial “resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company.” However, they can be–and possibly will be–expressed 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 weren’t Republican voters to begin with. Let’s use Blow’s imagined large number: If fifteen percent of whites won’t vote for a black candidate, this would ne no advantage at all if those white voters were already Republicans. This is very basic logic–but it’s essentially absent from Blow’s piece.

Its absence heightens the sense of peril to Obama–as did Blow’s mistake about the percentage of registered voters who are white.

For the record, Blow doesn’t seem completely unaware of this basic point of logic. As he continues in paragraph 7, he raises a related concern. And alas–he 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, Blow’s logic is shaky in this paragraph–and his facts are highly selective. And again, his errors all push in one direction–they 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 didn’t offer this type of breakdown (by party affiliation) when discussing the most clear-cut data in this poll–the five percent of white respondents who said that they themselves wouldn’t vote for a black candidate. How many of that five percent were Dems? Blow doesn’t say in his column. (Earlier e-mails to Blow, seeking information on a different topic, were not answered.) At any rate, it’s 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 we’re simply writing a novel, it’s absurd to assume that this constitutes a secret statement about the intentions of these voters themselves. But that’s the direction Blow pursues in the first part of that quoted paragraph. (Again, we’re 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 doesn’t offer such data.)

In the second part of that quoted paragraph, Blow says something that’s actually accurate. But his statement is also largely irrelevant–and it’s 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 states–West 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, Blow’s description is basically accurate–for these two states.

But Obama isn’t 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 November’s electoral-vote tally. And Blow’s 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 Pennsylvania’s 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 voters–well more than “few”– voted for Obama. Blow’s 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)

Blow’s description is accurate for only two states–states Obama won’t win anyway. It’s accurate for no other state that was polled on these matters.

What did it mean when white voters said that race was a factor–and 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 course–but they weren’t 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 Obama–and 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 weren’t questioned further. We’ll bet the house–questioned 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 people–people like Blow–imagining what these data mean, and occasionally putting their thumbs on the scale when they offer their interpretations. And make no mistake: Blow’s 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 poll–and 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 Blow’s 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 isn’t 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 poll–a poll of actual voting. In the July poll, 89 percent of black voters said they planned to vote for Obama–versus only 2 percent for McCain. But the poll includes some people who haven’t made up their minds–and it includes some people who won’t vote. By definition, the November exit poll only included people who had already voted. In reality, Obama will almost surely exceed Kerry’s 88 percent vote from blacks by more than one point–and he will likely gain from increased black registration and turn-out as well. These gains may not be huge–and none of this is relevant to the question of how white voters will vote in November. But Blow raised the topic–then 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 fact–some of them minor, some very basic. But they all seem to tilt his discussion one way–in 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 journalism–and it may help lose elections.

COMING–PART 5: Concerning Blow’s 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 wasn’t 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.