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THE WAR ON ACCOUNTABILITY! When Kristof named the Masters of War, he knew which names to omit: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 14, 2008

False longings drive us toward Bush: Scott Lemieux is always worth reading. In this post, he offers a possible explanation for the exit poll data we wondered about yesterday. According to Scott, “political scientists have found a ‘retrospective bandwagon’ effect in which some people will remember having voted for the winner even if they didn't.” That could explain why voters in Tuesday’s election said they had voted for Bush over Kerry by an oddly large margin—46-37.

This could be true—though it’s somewhat odd that exit pollsters keep asking a question (and publishing answers) if they know the answer they get will be wrong. Beyond that, though, one other obvious type of data was missing from last week’s exit polls: How did respondents vote last week—between McCain and Obama? We assume respondents were asked that question—but the answer was AWOL, in a very long poll. Anyone know why they don’t publish those data? Suspicious minds suggest an answer—but suspicions like that are so wrong. (Because those data would help us rubes see that the exit poll is “wrong.”)

We have no idea why those data aren’t published. Presumably, somebody does.

He’s gotta do it: Progressive interests would be better served if our leaders could stop saying things like what follows. On Wednesday evening, Keith Olbermann was chatting with his “friend,” Margaret Carlson about—what else?—Sarah Palin. Carlson was lounging about the Republican Governors Conference in snowbound Miami:

CARLSON (11/12/08): We’ll always have Sarah Palin, it seems. But here, actually, the governors are wanting to talk about 2010, because the number 2012 is code for talking about Sarah Palin, which was where they do not want to go. Her saying that she doesn’t represent herself, she represents an entire movement that’s going to save the Republican party is just what they quietly don’t want to happen. If they had their way, she wouldn’t be here tomorrow.

OLBERMANN: Wow. I mean, to what degree is that the other prominent Republican governors who got some passing mention during this campaign, with an eye towards 2012—Jindal, Pawlenty, Crist? Is there any sense that any of them are forming a power base behind Palin? Or are they intending to, you know, cut her up like a Roman dictator and smuggle her out under their robes?

CARLSON: Ha, ha. Well, they only say that quietly, Keith.

Sorry, but that’s very strange. A few months ago, Olbermann apologized for picturing Hillary Clinton getting beaten up by a bunch of goons behind locked doors. This week, he was picturing Sarah Palin getting cut up into pieces.

Within moments, he mockingly compared her to Lindsay Lohan—then, to Dizzy Dean.

It’s always surprising to see the way such fellows discuss the women they hate. They seem to find it hard to do so without picturing violence or turning to overt, gender-based derision. In our view, Palin is a remarkably underwhelming figure, in ways which are quite easy to define. You don’t have to compare her to Lohan, or picture her being killed—unless your skills are remarkably weak, or you simply enjoy hating women. But MSNBC has trafficked, for many years, in weird, remarkable woman-loathing. And when it comes to their new uber-star, it seems he’s gotta have it.

But then, here’s Archie Bunker—sorry, Josh Marshall—letting us know, just yesterday, who the latest “dingbat” is. Without even bothering to report what this new “dingbat” actually said!

But so it goes as progressive intellectual standards spiral steadily downward. Olbermann’s performance on Wednesday’s show was an unfortunate case in point. He performed in ways which used to define the woeful standards of pseudo-con talk.

How inept was Olbermann Wednesday night? One groaner followed another:

First example: Right after picturing Palin cut up, he offered some nine-year-old claptrap:

OLBERMANN: But first, because they’re not going away soon enough, the headlines breaking in the administration’s 50 running scandals, Bushed.

Number three, memoirgate. The president takes his lumps again, as the first lady moves towards authorship...Mort Janklow, book agent for both President and Nancy Reagan, was asked how long President Bush should wait before trying to write his book. Quote, "30 or 40 years might be good.” Britain’s newspaper, The Telegraph, also added this trenchant detail, that President Bush, quote, "has said that his favorite literary work is The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The president said he enjoyed reading it when he was a boy. It subsequently emerged that it was published when he was 23.”

Sorry. That “trenchant detail” dates to the fall of 1999. It was pure BS in the fall of 2000, when a few pundits briefly tried to pimp it. Indeed, Olbermann doesn’t walk alone; his simpering “friend” from Wednesday’s show bungled this nonsense in real time, speaking to Imus, another giant. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/11/00. To see the way Ellen Goodman bungled the point, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/8/04.

Second example: “Worst persons ahead,” Olbermann promised. “And we’ll even tread further inside the mind of Governor Palin. Don’t wear your good shoes!” But sadly, when he began to perform, we tread a bit too far inside the swampy mind of KeithO himself (and his staff). He even dragged poor Bill Hicks in, as a beard for his own utter nonsense. These were his presentations:

OLBERMANN: When he began to be interviewed, Baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean supposedly answered each reporter`s simplest question, “What’s your full name,” differently. To one, he said Jay Hannah Dean, to another Jerome Dean. They caught on and asked him why was he doing that. He said, “I wanted to give each of you an exclusive.” Dizzy Dean reincarnated, perhaps, as Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. She’s now given seven “exclusive” interviews in the last six days.

[...]

To paraphrase the late great comic Bill Hicks, the self-aware world’s reaction to Governor Sarah Palin is like the guy with the sore tooth who can’t stop touching it. Ow, Ow.

Our number one story on the Countdown: Since her return to Alaska on Friday, she’s given interviews to the local NBC station, assembled state capitol reporters, a CNN correspondent, Greta Van Susteren, Matt Lauer, Wolf Blitzer and Larry King, and each was an “exclusive.” The only way she could be on television more often was if CBS started a series called "CSI Sarah Palin.”

Claiming to speak for “the self-aware world,” Olbermann devoted an entire segment to the notion that “Dizzy Dean” Palin had laughably given seven “exclusive” interviews. But of course, it isn’t Palin who dubbed those interviews “exclusive;” it was Olbermann’s fatuous colleagues who did that. Let’s face it: The IQ of the progressive world drops a few points each time this guy opens his mouth.

Third example: KeithO was battering BillO about, a favor he likes to bestow on us rubes. In fairness, there may have been a legitimate critique of what O’Reilly had said in the matter at hand (although that isn’t entirely obvious). But as usual, Olbermann cut a few large corners, dragging poor Nate Silver in as a beard for his own lack of effort:

OLBERMANN: Our runner up tonight, BillO the Clown, again reading the conservative talking points, trying to pin the victory of Proposition 8 in California on black voters. “The African American community came out for Obama. While they were in that booth, they said, you know what, gay marriage, I don’t think so. So why aren’t they protesting in front of the African-American church?” Maybe because they’re not racists and you are.

Our friend, Nate Silver, who relies on statistics rather than on things he heard in the hallway, has dispensed with this version of reality, simplified for the BillO’s of the world. Nate writes, “the notion that Prop 8 passed because of the Obama turnout surge is silly. Exit polls suggest that first-time voters, the vast majority of whom were driven to turn out by Obama, voted against Prop 8 by a 62 to 38 margin. If California`s electorate had been the same as it was in 2004, Prop 8 would have passed by a wider margin.” Nate Silver, Bill—FiveThirtyEight.com. Learn something—well, try.

Unfortunately, O’Reilly hadn’t said that Proposition 8 passed because of the Obama turnout surge. Nor had he said that Prop 8 passed because of first-time voters. As the self-aware world can learn by reading Silver’s actual post, Silver was actually responding to a claim by Dan Walters, a Sacramento Bee writer. Silver’s analysis seems spot-on, but it doesn’t contradict what O’Reilly said—his statement that “the black community” was “the deciding vote” on Prop 8. Judging from the exit polls, it looks like that claim may be accurate—although it seems to be a close call. (And, of course, you can slice and dice any given vote in various ways.) But by the way: Despite the racism Olbermann spotted, O’Reilly wasn’t criticizing the black community for the way it voted (70 percent in favor of Prop 8, according to exit polls); O’Reilly had favored Prop 8 himself. His actual point was quite different. A person might want to challenge or criticize that point—but Olbermann failed to say what it was.

Increasingly, it’s sad to watch the work done on Countdown. Increasingly, that work reflects the lowball intellectual standards pioneered by pseudo-conservative talk. In the long run, progressive interests will not be served by dumbing down the progressive base. It may be good for ratings and salaries—but it can’t be good for the country. This country badly needs to be smart.

(By the way: There has been a lot of chortling this week about the Martin Eisenstadt hoax. On October 16, Olbermann showed remarkably odd judgment in the way he handled one part of this story. No, he wasn’t taken in by the part of the hoax allegedly involving Joe the Plumber. But in repeating claims which he knew were untrue, he almost seemed to be trying to make sure that some viewers did.)

Increasingly, Olbermann offers extremely weak work. What can you say about a guy who can’t lay out Palin’s obvious weaknesses without resorting to gender-based trashing? But most strikingly, Olbermann’s instinct for violent imagery doesn’t seem to want to quit. This is bad for progressive interests, and it’s bad for young men and young women. We’d have to say it’s just plain bad for the world in which we all live.

Can someone explain why “progressive” leaders can’t seem to quit this kind of talk?

THE WAR ON ACCOUNTABILITY: This weekend produced some memorable journalism, but Nicholas Kristof’s piece on the Times op-ed page really triggered our irony meter. Quite appropriately, Kristof called for an end to what his headline dubbed “The War on Brains.”

“American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual,” Kristof enthused as he started, perhaps overstating—and fawning—a tad. And then, the gentleman offered his prayer: “Maybe, just maybe, the result will be a step away from the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life.”

Clearly, he has the right idea. It would be a very good thing if this long, foolish era ended—the era in which (to quote Kristof again) “it’s been a disadvantage in American politics to seem too learned.” (“Thoughtfulness is portrayed as wimpishness, and careful deliberation is for sissies,” Kristof correctly said.) Soon, Kristof was bravely naming names—listing those who drove this long war. For us, that’s where the irony began creeping in. Weren’t a few major names AWOL?

Kristof went on, at some length, about the need for intelligent leadership. Indeed, before we examine the irony surrounding his column, let’s see how thorough the gentleman was in naming the various people and groups at fault in this long, harmful “War.”

In paragraph 2, he pointed the finger at “a White House that scorns expertise and shrugs at nuance.” He meant the Bush White House, of course.

In paragraph 3, he went after the public: “Americans are approximately as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution.”

In paragraph 4, Kristof took on the kids. (“Almost half of young Americans said in a 2006 poll that it was not necessary to know the locations of countries where important news was made.”) And then, in paragraphs 5 and 6, the pundit went back to blaming the presidents. In our view, this passage included at least one major stretch:

KRISTOF: Perhaps John Kennedy was the last president who was unapologetic about his intellect and about luring the best minds to his cabinet. More recently, we’ve had some smart and well-educated presidents who scrambled to hide it. Richard Nixon was a self-loathing intellectual, and Bill Clinton camouflaged a fulgent brain behind folksy Arkansas aphorisms about hogs.

Does anyone know what “fulgent” means? (Maybe Kristof was making a point!) At any rate, we think it’s a stretch to blame Bill Clinton for this long, grinding “War on Brains.” But then, you know the shape of the Hard Pundit Law which drives such unusual judgments.

“The Republican War on Science” wasn’t named, except by inference. But by the dictates of Hard Pundit Law, Bill Clinton had to get whacked!

At any rate, there was plenty of blame to go around when Kristof started pointing his fingers. And yet, we thought one group was strangely missing as the columnist doled out the blame. Kristof spent the second half of his column kissing up to Obama’s greatness. But who had he absent-mindedly skipped as he named his Masters of War?

Perhaps your thinking will be jogged if we name Kristof’s neighbors this Sunday. You see, sharing the page with Kristof’s column was this piece by about energy—penned by Al Gore! And uh-oh! Right there too, on the very same page, was this groaner—by poor Maureen Dowd.

Duh! In the past few decades, has anyone driven the “War on Brains” more fulgently than Kristof’s colleagues, Dowd included? And was anyone a more frequent target than Gore? Have we endured a “War on Brains?” Without any question, Kristof should know! Over the course of the past sixteen years, his colleagues, at the Times and elsewhere, have persistently ridiculed the erudition of Major Dems—especially Dems with names like Clinton and Gore. And no one has personified this culture like Dowd, who was right there on that page.

Today, Kristof praises the brains of an incoming president. But things have been different in the past. And the gentleman knew not to tattle.

Has anyone driven the War on Brains more willingly than Kristof’s colleagues? Let’s recall a few highlights:

August 2000: Candidate Gore gives a detailed convention speech—a speech which turns Campaign 2000 around. But so what? On the op-ed page of the Washington Post, David Broder openly mocks Gore’s long list of “swell ideas.” Indeed: “I almost nodded off,” the Pundit Dean bragged, extending a campaign of mockery.

May 2006: Hillary Clinton gives a comprehensive speech about energy policy. Writing in the Washington Post, the Dean of All Gossips offers us this: “The buzz in the room was not about her speech—or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit—but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of [Tuesday’s] New York Times.” But so it has gone in the Washington press throughout this inane, brainless war.

May 2007: Gore speaks in DC about his new book, The Assault on Reason. (Note: That’s remarkably close to “The War on Brains.”) In the Post, Dana Milbank devotes an entire “sketch” to the notion that Gore used too many big words. People, Gore had referred to “the marketplace of ideas!" He had even dared refer to the "exchange of goods and services.”

It’s nice that Kristof is speaking up—now—about this long, unfortunate War. But he knew enough to skip a key fact; he failed to say that this long, stupid war has been driven hard by his own colleagues. In particular, Gore was endlessly mocked, by the mainstream press, as “the smartest kid in the room”—”the kid who would ask for extra homework.” Much better, they felt, to have a president with whom you might want to drink beer.

Kristof went after America’s kids—but his own colleagues were strangely unmentioned. Dowd and Gore were right there, on page 10. Even this failed to jog the scribe’s memory.

The War on Brains, late 1990s style: Has anyone driven the War on Brains more than Kristof’s colleagues have done? Again, in this passage from a Brill’s Content profile, Gay Jervey quoted Joe Klein, who described a Pulitzer winner:

JERVEY (6/99): "Maureen is very talented," observes Joe Klein of The New Yorker. "But she is ground zero of what the press has come to be about in the nineties...I remember having a discussion with her in which I said, 'Maureen, why don't you go out and report about something significant, go out and see poor people, do something real?' And she said, 'You mean I should write about welfare reform?'"

Darlings! That would be tedious! In that same profile, Jervey described Dowd’s actual focus. She recalled the ludicrous hot tub junket we ourselves recalled just last week:

JERVEY: Among Washington columnists, there is no keener observer of Bill Clinton than Maureen Dowd...[S]he seems obsessed with his personality, always looking for the key to his character—or rather, his utter lack thereof. In the summer of 1997, for example, when President Clinton installed a hot tub at the White House, Dowd traveled to Santa Monica to visit the showroom of the manufacturer who had made the President’s new toy. She wanted to test the waters.

There you see the War culture, in a nut-shell. Describing Dowd’s inane behavior, Jervey knew she had to cite Clinton’s “utter lack of character.”

There’s your War on Brains, writ large. Kristof remembered to trash the kids—but he forgot to finger the veterans found within his own daffy cohort. With accountability measures so thoroughly fixed, this War is unlikely to end.