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PUNDIT’S LAMENT! We helped defeat Kerry, Kinsley cries. But boo hoo hoo–we couldn’t help it: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, AUGUST 26, 2008

ONE PUNDIT’S VAST MORAL GRANDEUR: In the past, we’ve rarely been bored when we chase (our old friend) Marc Steiner’s media ventures around. Last night, our three hours at Morgan State’s WEAA-FM provided no change in that pattern. Our view? You rarely hear discussions of race as frank and varied as last night’s discussions. The equipment in Denver wasn’t working real well. But we thought the discussions were lively.

We’re back tonight at 8 PM, in case your TV set isn’t working. To listen in live, just click here.

Last night, here’s what we heard from that Denver hall:

Ted Kennedy “pledged” that he would live to see Obama become president. He told the hall that Obama represents the next generation of Americans—just as his own brother had. Michelle Obama, riding this wave, said her family was just like yours—and then, she said her husband’s family was just like hers. (“What struck me when I first met Barack was that, even though he had this funny name, and even though he had grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine.”) His story—his family—might seem somewhat different. But my husband’s world is much like yours.

By the way: We love it when Dems know enough to mention people who work on “the day shift” and “the night shift”—and “military families, who say grace each night with n empty seat at the table.” (On Saturday, Biden specifically cited the “cops” and the “firefighters.”) We love it when Dems know enough to say: We know what real people really do.

But let’s get back to those families. Forget Obama’s Kenyan father; even on his mother’s side, his personal story is very unusual in the American presidential context. No one has ever run for president talking about a decent, lovely, sweet-natured mother who spent years doing doctoral work in anthropology in Indonesian villages. Many American voters have never known anyone remotely like that; this makes it harder for them to connect with the person who tells them this story. In part, that’s why Ted Kennedy said what he said: You remember my brother—and Obama is like him. It’s why Michelle Obama said what she said: You can picture my hard-working parents. My husband is like them too.

How many voters will this draw to Obama? We have no idea. But we thought we might drop a word about Jacob Weisberg’s recent musings on race, offered in this unfortunate post at Slate.

How many votes might Obama lose because of racial voting? There’s no way to answer that question with anything like precision. We plan to finish our ongoing series on the Charles Blow column, though we won’t do so this week (for parts 1-4, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/18/08). But in our view, Weisberg’s attempt to ponder this question is a classic example of High Pseudo-Liberalism, in which a self-impressed pundit goes out of his way to express his own vast moral greatness.

In our view, Weisberg bungles a bunch of data in the course of his high-minded musings. But just imagine the other-worldliness of someone who would say this:

WEISBERG (8/23/08): Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America. But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race.

Who on earth could believe such things—that we will “finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror” if Obama wins in November? We’re not sure, but we’d suggest that this person’s views about race were forged on the heights of a pseudo-Olympus, not out of real-world experience. Not out of real-world concerns.

For the most part, Jake Weisberg’s musings help us see the moral greatness of Jake Weisberg. How many votes might Obama lose due to racial voting this fall? That is a very important question. What a shame that high-minded fellows want to pretend to explore it.

Bai reacts: In this New York Times op-ed, Matt Bai goes out of his way to understate the possibility that Obama could lose due to racial voting. In Weisberg’s headline, this campaign is all about race; in Bai’s headline, it isn’t about race at all. Overstatement begets overstatement inside the world of our press.

Georgians and Russians together/next year in Tbilisi: Around the world, decent people try to find their way beyond group thinking—and beyond deeply punishing history. Can Russians and Georgians just get along? We thought this piece in today’s Washington Post was fascinating—profoundly worth reading.

In cosmopolitan Tbilisi, “residents are proud of the city's multiethnic composition,” Tara Bahrampour reports. At one point, she quotes an eloquent, 68-year-old ethnic Russian:

BAHRAMPOUR (8/25/08): "In this mutual fighting and these mutual victims, we feel like we are losing something, and of course we feel sad about that. In Tbilisi, we were always saying, 'I have no nationality—I feel I am a resident of Tbilisi.’”

Elsewhere in Georgia, people do feel they have a nationality; they’re prepared to act on it, sometimes quite badly. Reading Bahrampour’s piece, we thought this: The efforts last night in that Denver hall are played out all over the world.

Special report: Taking the Kinsley challenge!

READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Michael Kinsley typed an old saw: Republicans simply play the game better. In part 1 of our current report, we expressed a sardonic reaction to this extremely tired old trope (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/25/08). Today, in part 2, we review Kinsley’s tired old take on the press:

PART 2—PUNDIT’S LAMENT: Michael Kinsley penned a familiar old saw: Republicans play the game better. (For Kinsley’s column, click here.) These tired old tales pretty much type themselves. But here’s the way Kinsley put it:

KINSLEY (8/23/08): With so much going their way in this election, the biggest challenge the Democrats face is simple: The Republicans just play the game of presidential politics so much better. They play it with genius, courage, creativity and utter ruthlessness.

Kinsley forgot to include an obvious fact: It’s remarkably easy to “play the game well” when the press corps is willing to play on your team—for example, when major pundits like Jonathan Alter were willing to type “invented the Internet” and act like such “genius” claims made sense (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/25/08). Today, Alter tells us that Gore never said it. But uh-oh! Back when it actually mattered, he said something quite different.

It’s amazingly easy to play the game well—when mainstream journalists help you that way. Kinsley, in his upper-class aerie, is of course unaware of this part of the game. Although, in fact, he does blame the press. Or at least, he pretends to do so.

Why do Republicans “play the game better?” For his first example, Kinsley cites their work in Campaign 04, in which those courageous, creative players went after John Kerry’s “biggest strength.” Kinsley couldn’t have imagined such a thing, he now sadly confesses:

KINSLEY: Most amazing among the principles of the Republican Way of War is: Don't waste much time and energy probing the enemy's weaknesses. Go directly to his biggest strength. Four years ago, it was easy to imagine any number of ways the GOP might go after John Kerry. You would not have guessed—or at least I would not have guessed—that they could successfully attack his service in Vietnam. Especially when the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, not only had avoided Vietnam by joining the National Guard but had avoided much of the National Guard by skipping the meetings and then had grown up to start an unpopular war that even four years ago seemed to have been going on forever.

Kinsley’s tale is entertaining—but his facts have been massaged. In Campaign 2000, the mainstream press had largely avoided discussing the way Bush avoided that service; four years later, that made it easier to attack Kerry’s record. (It also explains why Dan Rather was still bungling this topic so badly in September 2004.) Beyond that, Kinsley overstates the degree to which the war in Iraq had become unpopular—and he forgets to note the way the press corps had lionized their commander in chief in the wake of 9/11 and Iraq. He fails to say that the Swift boat attacks played into established themes of Democratic fecklessness—themes that hardened further during Campaign 2000, as major players like Alter typed “liar,” “lies” and “lying” about that year’s Dem nominee. (Gore was a big liar, Alter explained, because his mother had been a big liar too. Garbage like that just makes it easier to paint the next Dem the same way.) And Kinsley forgets that there had always been political problems with Kerry’s Vietnam record—problems involving his anti-war protests, problems which had floated around all through Kerry’s career. Michael Kinsley “couldn’t have guessed” that Kerry’s war record could be successfully attacked? When “liberal” scribes are so proudly clueless, is it surprising that Republican strategists have great success at the game?

But Kinsley is a big enough man to place some of the blame on his cohort. To be sure, Republicans play the game with genius and courage—but then too, the media help! In the following murky paragraphs, Kinsley sketches his view of this problem. Here too, he offers a hackneyed view—a very familiar confession:

KINSLEY (continuing directly): A lesser party might have said, "You know what? Let's just leave the whole military-record thing alone." But not the Republicans. They conjured up the Swift boat campaign and managed to turn Kerry's military service into a negative. As is usually the case, the media helped.

They didn't intend to. But journalistic convention makes it hard for reporters to deal with a big, complicated lie. They can't call it a lie, so they end up giving the impression to all but the most obsessive followers of politics that, well, it's complicated, and the Republicans are probably exaggerating, but there must be something there.

According to Kinsley, “the media helped” in the Swift boat attacks—although “they didn’t intend to.” They only helped because their journalistic conventions “ma[de] it hard for reporters to deal with a big, complicated lie.” This is lazy, sloppy work—the kind of work that gets tossed to the rubes from a window high up in Versailles. It’s also a very familiar claim—a lazy claim these slumbering lords could pretty much type in their sleep.

For starters, let’s state the obvious: Clearly, some in the media did intend to “help” the attacks against Kerry. (There’s nothing obviously wrong with that.) For example, some in the media shared the views of those attacking his anti-war conduct; others simply wanted Bush to win, and rolled over for Swift boat claims, even where such claims were most improbable. No one in the American media intended to help the attacks against Kerry? Inside Versailles, Kinsley lets you eat cake when he makes such a silly statement.

But at last, we get to the tired old portrait Kinsley’s class tends to present. Poor scribes! Their very complex “journalistic conventions” made it hard for them to proceed in 2004—made it hard for them to deal with the “complicated lie” aimed at Candidate Kerry. In truth, this is a silly old tale—but Antoinettes never tire of telling it. Tomorrow, we’ll recall what’s wrong with this claim—and we’ll see what Kinsley specifically did in the face of that “lie” he deplores.

Four years earlier, Alter knew how to name-call a liar. Why, he even felt free to tell the world that the candidate’s mother was a big liar too! But isn’t it weird! Something kept Kinsley from doing the same when the “big lie” was now aimed at Kerry! Readers, we’ll pose our question again: Are you surprised that Republicans “play the game well” when nobles of this particular type are charged with defending your interests?

TOMORROW—PART 3: Fops won’t fight

THURSDAY—PART 4: When Kinsley attacked