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EASY TO BE EASY! At long last, we start our back-to-school week, musing on what Kristof said: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2008

Home of the soaps: Careful, Brownstein! Ron Brownstein isn’t one of the screaming mimis who virtually define your pundit “elite.” Result? On last night’s Hardball, a touch of condescension may have seeped from his voice, aimed at a cable screamer. You see, Brownstein’s host, screaming-mimi Chris Matthews, was ranting again about a troubling matter—the deeply vile, unconscionable way Hillary Clinton’s possible nomination was being vetted right out in public. In this exchange, an upper-end, screaming-mimi “journalist” turned to someone who isn’t:

MATTHEWS (11/20/08): Why are we having this public dispute?...There’s a game afoot. Why is it being done in public?

BROWNSTEIN: First of all, I’m wondering—has anybody ever called you "No-Drama Matthews?”

MATTHEWS: No.

BROWNSTEIN: That would not be appropriate.

Careful, Brownstein! The rules on this program are rather clear. On even-numbered nights, pundits are supposed to rant about the way “No-Drama Obama” has been rolled/humiliated/made to look stupid by the deeply vile Clintons. (On even-numbered nights, Matthews recommends Clinton for State, saying how wondrous she is.) Pundits troop onto the show to decry the “soap opera” we’re forced to endure. But they’re not supposed to note the actual source of the “drama.”

How deeply stupid can it get as Matthews rants about the Clintons? First, let’s examine the trouble he has sticking to one point of view. Then, let’s review the laughable way this big hack “prepares” for his programs:

Death of consistency: Matthews and his upper-end pals tend to have a very hard time creating consistent presentations. (It’s like that when you’re making sh*t up.) Just consider the oddness of the way last night’s program ended. Worrying very deeply and hard, Matthews posed a question to poor Perry Bacon: Who will really drive foreign policy if a certain witch gets appointed to State? Bacon knew how to frame it:

MATTHEWS (11/21/08): Where will the policy germinate from? Where will the ideas, the suggested initiatives, the clever new overtures to other countries, the interesting triangulation, all the stuff that goes on in foreign policy, where will it come from? Obama’s brain or the people around Hillary’s brain?

BACON: I think, Chris, the answer will be the people around Obama.. If you pick someone as secretary of state you don’t trust all that much in the first place, I can’t imagine you are going to be delegating large amounts of things to a person you don’t have the utmost confidence in. I suspect it will still be his staff that will ultimately be deciding a lot of those issues.

Good boy! Young Bacon knew the rules of the road; you’re required to denigrate Hillary Clinton—although this means that you’re denigrating Obama in the process. An obvious question lurked here, after all: If Obama “doesn’t trust Clinton all that much in the first place,” then why on earth would he appoint her Secretary of State in the first place?

Why would Obama appoint a person in whom he didn’t have confidence? The scripted answer is well-known, of course: It’s better to have her inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in! On the train wreck known as MSNBC, every pundit knows this point. But in this instance, Matthews free-lanced. Please note his own view of this matter:

MATTHEWS (continuing directly): OK, that is what Tom Friedman of the New York Times said, too: Foreign leaders will know Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the full backing of Barack Obama, that he put her there so she wouldn’t be in the Senate. I mean, that’s the writing. I don’t believe that is true. But the writing has all been around that, that somehow she’ll be less of a problem for him. I never thought of her as a problem in the Senate. I think she is going to be completely loyal to the Democratic agenda, until maybe way down the road when she decides to run again. Then she’ll have to be independent.

In fact, that isn’t “what Freidman said.” In his column, he said he didn’t know if Secretary Clinton would have Obama’s full backing—and he expressed no view about what foreign leaders would come to think of this matter. (He only said it’s the sort of thing such leaders will surely sniff out.) But let’s note the way consistency fractures when clowns like Matthews keep driving soap operas. Matthews said he doesn’t believe that Obama is picking Clinton “so she wouldn’t be in the Senate” (where she could act as a rival). And he said this: “I never thought of her as a problem in the Senate. I think she is going to be completely loyal to the Democratic agenda, until maybe way down the road.” But now, he turned to Jeanne Cummings for insight. And uh-oh! When Cummings began to wax too positive, her clownish host quickly reversed:

MATTHEWS (continuing directly): What do you make of this, Jeanne, that she has been given a job at State because she will be less of a problem than she’ll be in the Senate? I just don’t buy that, but it’s been written everywhere.

CUMMINGS: I agree with you. I don’t think that is the calculation here, because I don’t think that is what would motivate Barack Obama to fill such an important cabinet position. I think there are strengths to Hillary Clinton at State. I think he is looking at those strengths. To your question about where would policy originate: Right now, Susan Rice is expected to go inside, to be his National Security Adviser. The two of them are very close. They developed his policy. I think that is where it would come from, and it would be up to State to implement. And Hillary would clearly have a voice, but when you look at—

MATTHEWS: Are you laughing like I’m laughing? Senator Hillary Clinton has gotten as far as she has gotten in her career—she was almost the Democratic nominee for president. She’s in New York as the United States senator from New York—she won that on her own. She’s done it all. Now she is going to take orders, instructions? “Here is your mission statement today?”

Weird, ain’t it? Matthews had just finished saying that Clinton would be “completely loyal” to Obama, until some possible point, “maybe way down the road.” But so what? When Cummings got a bit too sanguine, he was suddenly “laughing” at this very notion! It was absurd to think that a person like Clinton was “going to take orders, instructions,” he said. And sure enough! Reading these cues as Good Pundit Guests do, Cummings semi-reversed herself (though in fairness, she hadn’t stated a clear view about Clinton):

CUMMINGS (continuing directly): Therein lies the problem and the danger and the risk to what he’s doing. There’s an old expression, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” They aren’t enemies—they’re adversaries. But maybe we have a lot more of that going on here, rather than—

MATTHEWS: You don’t give your enemies the gun. Anyway, thank you Perry Bacon. Thank you Jeanne Cummings. Right now, it’s time for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with David Gregory.

Just like that, we were back to talk about “keeping your enemies closer.” And omigod: “You don’t give your enemies the gun,” Matthews said—having said, just moments before, that a Secretary Clinton would be “completely loyal.”

But that’s the kinds of clownish talk that almost defines this Potemkin world—a world in which multimillionaire shills pretend to conduct a discourse. Matthews, of course, is sick and inane—and he’s the laziest man in show business. To see the way he “prepares” for his show, let’s return to Wednesday’s program.

Absence of prep: Matthews is paid $5 million per year. For that money, does he ever prepare for his program? As late as December 2007, he still clearly believed that Obama’s “mother and maternal grandmother” were the Muslims in his life (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/21/07). We know, we know—that sounds impossible. But Matthews’ cluelessness has been stunning down through the years. He “prepares” by memorizing scripts. Facts he may stumble on later.

On Wednesday night, the hapless gentleman actually tried to cite the New York Times in support of his latest soap opera. You see, Matthews was deeply worried again about the source of all those leaks. But uh-oh! His guest, Joan Walsh, didn’t seem real sure he was citing the New York Times right:

MATTHEWS (11/19/08): Who’s leaking all this information? I’m looking at the New York Times today, Joan. You may have seen it. Here’s—

WALSH: I did.

MATTHEWS: —Philippe Reines, who’s Senator Clinton’s press secretary, saying that one of the concerns they have from their end is they want to pay off $7.6 million in campaign debts. They also want to pay the money back that Hillary Clinton leant her campaign as a pre-condition to getting this job. That’s being done in public. Bill Clinton`s in the Wall Street Journal, front page—

WALSH: I’m not sure Philippe actually said that.

Uh-oh! His honor having been challenged on cable, the host began reading the Times report—perhaps for the very first time:

MATTHEWS (continuing directly): Yes, here— Well, let me just read it—

WALSH: Did Philippe himself say that?

MATTHEWS: —again. Let me just read this again here. Just a minute. Let me read this again. “Mrs. Clinton has $7.6 million in outstanding bills from the campaign, Mr. Reines said, not including personal loans she made to her campaign.” I don’t know. I’m getting it from him in the paper today, and that information’s coming out from them.

Sad. The big hack stopped reading at the point where the Times report said precisely the opposite of what he’d just said. (If you want to explore, just click here.) Matthews is paid $5 million per year—and he won’t even prepare for his show by reading the daily newspaper. (Walsh apparently had.)

On Hardball, Matthews complains about the “drama” and the “soap opera”—the “soap opera” of his own confection. That’s why we feared for Brownstein’s career when he snarked at a mimi last night.

Special report: Back-to-school week!

PART 1—EASY TO BE EASY: In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof insightfully prayed that our “War on Brains” might be nearing an end. We’ll have an intelligent president, he said. Perhaps this fact will point the way to the end of this long, foolish war.

In his next column, Kristof turned to the problems of public schools—and he lightly scolded Obama:

KRISTOF (11/12/08): President-elect Barack Obama and his aides are sending signals that education may be on the back burner at the beginning of the new administration. He ranked it fifth among his priorities, and if it is being downplayed, that’s a mistake.

Easy to be hard! For ourselves, we’d say that “fifth” is fairly high on a list of priorities, given the problems Obama will face—and given the fact that very few pols know squat about public schooling. Nonetheless, Kristof continued his scolding, saying high-minded things—things everyone knows—about the great value of learning. Indeed, the scribe made a series of high-minded points which most folk can say in their sleep:

KRISTOF (continuing directly): We can’t meaningfully address poverty or grow the economy as long as urban schools are failing. Mr. Obama talks boldly about starting new high-tech green industries, but where will the workers come from unless students reliably learn science and math?

The United States is the only country in the industrialized world where children are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were, according to a new study by the Education Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington.

The most effective anti-poverty program we could devise for the long run would have less to do with income redistribution than with ensuring that poor kids get a first-rate education, from preschool on. One recent study found that if American students did as well as those in several Asian countries in math and science, our economy would grow 20 percent faster.

All right, all right! We’ll eat our greens! But as you might be able to guess, our curiosity only rose as Kristof’s light scolding extended through these high-minded opening grafs. Kristof wants Obama to pay more attention to urban schools. But what exactly does he think the new president should do or propose? What does he think Obama could do to improve these struggling schools?

Alas! We had to read to the end of the piece before our question was answered. Like a student killing time when asked a question he couldn’t answer, Kristof began a long discussion—an interesting discussion—about the history of our public schools. There was stuff in there we’d never heard, relayed from a hot new book by two of them perfesser fellers. (“As late as 1957, only 9 percent of British 17-year-olds were enrolled in school.”) But what was Obama supposed to do? What should he do for our urban schools? Kristof was nearing the end of his piece—and he still hadn’t breathed a word.

If scholars want to read ahead, they can see what Kristof proposed. But we were struck by a tired old thought as we perused this familiar piece. Easy to be easy, we sagely mused, when it comes to offering high-minded thoughts about the ills of urban schools. Does Kristof know whereof he speaks? Should Obama act on the gentleman’s say? With an election safely concluded, we’ll ask such questions in upcoming posts in this, our “Back-to-school week.”

Monday—Part 2: What Kristof said—and Fred Hiatt.