AFTER FIFTEEN YEARS, IT ENDS LIKE THIS: Wow. In todays Post, Gene Robinson hits rock bottom. His column about (snore) the kindergarten thing was already willfully silly (see below). But then, in the following gruesome passage, he stoops to the level of smear:
ROBINSON (12/7/07): No one is going to believe that Hillary Clinton is unambitious compared with Obama or anyone else. And that's fine. Our system basically requires that major party presidential candidates be pathologically ambitious. What normal person would suffer the indignities of a national campaign?
The real problem is the implication that there's something specifically wrong with Obama's ambition—that he has no right to be where he is, challenging her for the nomination. There's a suggestion that he's somehow a usurper, which allows Obama supporters to charge that Clinton, without using the word, is accusing the Illinois senator of being uppity—which opens up a discussion about history and entitlement that I can't imagine any Democratic front-runner would welcome.
After fifteen years, it has come down to this—an open racial smear aimed at someone named Clinton. (Note the gruesome sourcing offered by Corn, where this mess was first recorded.)
After fifteen years, it has come down to this—and to that kindergarten cop-out.
How silly is the ongoing treatment of that kindergarten matter? Lets skip Robinson for the moment. Instead, lets consider an exchange from last nights Hardball, involving Ezra Klein. As he has done for the past fifteen years, a certain host was sounding off about Clinton/Gores terrible character. And Ezra, like Deroy Murdock before him, moved in quickly to help:
MATTHEWS (12/6/07): You know what it strikes me as, Deroy? That the people around [Hillary Clinton] felt they were entitled to win this election. Theyre the elite of the Democratic party, the best and brightest. It should have been theirs. Whos this guy to come along and think he can beat her?
MURDOCK: How dare he?
MATTHEWS: Were going to show him! Were going to spank him and send him back to kindergarten! In fact, were going to give him a kindergarten report card! Theyre going after, Ezra, what he said back when he was five!
KLEIN: It made them look terrible. By the way, I hate this whole line of attack. I have never heard of anyone attack a doctor because he wanted to be a doctor since he was 12 or 14 or even ever since they went to medical school. The idea that our president shouldnt have ever wanted to be president, that they should have accidentally woken up one morning to find themselves in the Oval Office, its very bizarre. Hillarys whole argument, shes been preparing for this for a long time. If he has too, that undercuts her argument against him.
Good boy! Ezra just hates this whole line of attack. That said, he seems to have come to this sensibility rather late in the game.
Ezra is right. Its deeply stupid to complain that someone has prepared himself, or has planned, to be president. But that isnt what the Clinton campaign was saying with that post about Obama. Meanwhile, this deeply stupid line of attack has been regularly aimed at Big Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, over the past fifteen years. All of a sudden, Robinson and Ezra have worked up their outrage about it.
Lets start in 1999. By then, the mainstream press corps, with Matthews as shouter, had decided that Bill Clinton was the worlds vilest human. (They had acted this out for many years, inventing many tales as they went.) And by 1999, they had also decided that Al Gore was just like Bill Clinton! So they started complaining that Gore had always been raised to be president, just like Clinton before him (although there was no particular evidence). During Campaign 2000, an inordinate amount of utter bullsh*t was built on this dim-witted premise.
If Ezra hates this line of attack, hes been able to hate it at least since that time. (Of course, all good liberals ran and hid when this bullsh*t was aimed at Vile Gore.) In 2004, similar themes were aimed against Kerry; its a standard attack against Democrats. (Remember? Kerry was planning his run for the White House when he faked all those Vietnam medals.) And this year, this same line of attack was now aimed at Hillary Clinton, when former New York Times hit-man Jeff Gerth published his gruesome bio. (A twenty-year plan!) If Ezra hates this whole line of attack, surely he hated it last spring too, when Gerth so dumbly revived it.
And surely, he hated it in the past month or so—when Obama kept dragging it out!
Thats right! As we all know (except when playing Hardball), this whole inane kindergarten claptrap began when Obama kept recycling the Jeff Gerth line, aiming it at Clinton. It was Obama who said that HRC had been planning a long-term run for the White House—and that he, the more authentic Obama, had not. (Surely, Ezra must know this.) The Clinton post was an ill-conceived rebuttal, designed to suggest that Obama was perhaps being a trifle dishonest. But then, why would dishonesty bother career liberals—career liberals who enjoy playing Hardball?
Ezra was a good guest last night. And today, Robinson turns this perfect nonsense into an outright racial smear. And so we see where our fifteen years ends. For fifteen years, the liberal world has trembled and quaked when the mainstream press went after Clinton and Gore. (Career liberals get their jobs in that press corps.) They kept their traps shut about Fools for Scandal; they let consummate slime-balls like Chris Matthews wage that twenty-month War Against Gore. From that day to this, our side has pretended that we dont even know what happened to Gore. (Ezra told the truth once, then shut up.) Now, we join Matthews clowning.
Ezra was very upset last night, and he made his host very proud. This morning, Robinson shows us where fifteen years ends. And both these fellows know to say how much they hate this line of attack. But they loved it when it was done to Gore—when Obama did it to Clinton.
For the record, this does not reflect a judgment about which hopeful would make the best nominee. But lets get serious. Obama has done what Bradley did—he has endlessly tickled the ivory keys of RNC/MSM attacks on Big Dems. Al Gore gave us Willie Horton, one said. Lincoln Bedroom, the other one shouted. Cant we stop pretending that we dont know such things? Cant we be truthful on Hardball? If Ezra is going to agree with Deroy, why do they both have to be there?
MORDANT CHUCKLES: Speaking of the past fifteen years, we mordantly chuckled twice this week, looking back at How We Got Here. First, we chuckled when Richard Cohen mused about what might have been:
COHEN (12/4/07): [I]t is singularly appropriate that Romney's speech be delivered at the Bush library. For it is the 41st president's underachieving son who put such emphasis on religious belief—and has shown us all, with his appalling record, that faith is no substitute for thought. A mind honed on the whetstone of doubt might have kept us out of Iraq.
Then, we chuckled when gruesome Gail Collins wrote perhaps her ten millionth column about how stupid the candidates are. She too had dreams of something finer:
COLLINS (12/6/07): Personally, I would love to be able to vote for a candidate whos spent his/her life preparing to serve the country as competently as possible. The one thing we dont want is somebody who just lucks into the job and then doesnt even seem to particularly want to do it. (Stop here and try to think of the name of a person who fits that description.)
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Both these brilliancies lambasted Bush—and dreamed of how much better things could be. Collins wants to vote for someone prepared. Cohen seeks a mind honed on doubt.
Why we chuckled: An omission made in each of these columns is quite typical of these life-forms. In fact, Bush ran against someone who was prepared—against a candidate who did have a mind honed by doubt. And Collins and Cohen both mocked him, quite hard! (Please dont make us quote the columns.) Today, both life-forms seek something fine. By now, theyve both strangely forgotten.
Special report: His own private Buffalo!
BE SURE TO READ EACH THRILLING INSTALLMENT: Howard Kurtz knows how to confect Brian Williams life story. Why not read each thrilling installment?
PART 1: Howard Kurtz knows how to fluff NBCs well-coiffed trophy anchor. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/4/07.
In Part 2, Kurtz reviews the lean years. His subject has fought his way up.
PART 2—HES SEEN RIVERS: An interesting word appears in Howard Kurtzs profile of Brian Williams—rather, in the intermittent profiles of Williams which form a large part of his new, fawning book. That interesting word is blue-collar. Well grant you, Kurtz employs the word carefully. Heres the passage in question:
KURTZ (page 31): As a teen-ager, Brian was at home in the white, blue-collar community of Middletown, spending time with the police dispatcher, the Amoco gas-pumper, the bartender at the local bowling alley. As a young man he worked at Sears, went to church on Sunday, and spent weekends at bars along the Jersey Shore. He graduated from Mater Dei, a Roman Catholic high school. Williams also worked as a volunteer fireman, building an unshakable camaraderie with the gang at Firehouse 11.
According to Kurtz, Williams grew up in a blue-collar community—Middletown, New Jersey. This suggests a recent change in the way Brian Williams gets profiled.
You see, through the bulk of Williams career, his upbringing was said to have been middle-class. That was the word Barbara Matusow used when she profiled Williams for The Washingtonian, way back when he was making his mark at NBC, in December 1994. Brian grew up in a middle-class family in northern New Jersey, she wrote. His father, Gordon Williams, was a retail consultant who worked for a trade association in New York. This characterization held steady for years. In October 2002, for example, Robert Strauss had it that way in a New York Times profile: Mr. Williams grew up in Mom-apple-pie-and-TV-trays style in Middletown, Monmouth County, a town of true middle class. Indeed, as late as September 2003, Williams was describing Middletown that very way, on the air. Gail Sheehy has written an entire book on my hometown, he said, introducing the famous author on his eponymous CNBC program. Speaking with Sheehy, Williams described the place where he had grown up:
WILLIAMS (9/9/03): When I grew up there, there was much more of, of a town feeling. I was a fireman there, and the presence of CEOs is brand-new. It was not considered a ritzy bedroom community, but it was considered good, rock-ribbed middle-class America.
As he frequently does, Williams mentioned one part of his own private Buffalo, saying hed been a fireman. But Middletown had always been middle-class—until 2004, that is, the year when Tom Brokaw retired. By May of that year, Williams had started a tour of NBC stations to introduce himself to the markets, the Hartford Courants Pat Seremet wrote in a profile. And for the first time in the Nexis archives, Williams background went blue-collar. Even though Williams is taking over an awesome seat in the nightly news lineup, he describes himself as just a regular guy who grew up in a blue-collar family in Middletown, N.J., where one of his best friends ran an Amoco station, Seremet wrote. A few months later, the Tampa Tribunes Walt Belcher passed on the same message. Williams Brings Blue-Collar Roots, Knack For NASCAR To Anchor Desk, said the headline on his profile. Williams may look like a preppie, Belcher wrote, but he's got blue-collar roots. (For the record, Belcher didnt seem to have interviewed Williams. He may have been channeling Seremet.)
Lets be clear: Its entirely possible that this change in SES had nothing to do with Williams. The Boston Globes Mark Jurkowitz interviewed Williams when Brokaw retired, and he quoted him saying the same old thing: I come from a classic middle-class upbringing, the new anchor said. But by the time he wrote Reality Show, Howard Kurtz had somehow gotten it into his head that Middletown had been blue-collar—and yes, such narratives do tend to spread. Already, Diane Holloway of the Cox News Service has repeated Kurtzs characterization in at least two major newspapers. For whatever reason, Brian Williams has started to fall out of the middle class.
Why did Middletown go blue-collar? We dont have the slightest idea. But its fairly clear that Williams, like his colleague Tim Russert, likes to be known as an average Joe, an everyday man of the people, very much like his dad. (In Reality Show, Kurtz describes Russert as a burly, down-to-Earth Irish-American from Buffalo.) Such an image is good for business, and Kurtz breaks his back in Reality Show to offer this pleasing portrait of Williams—to show us that Williams is just a mild-mannered suburban dad. Indeed, every time Williams turns around in this book, he is cleaning out sump pumps, shopping at Price Club, doing a bleach load or draining the pasta. Because he married a modest woman, he can even find a way to get by on $10 million a year. Who knows? Williams may have been joking when he said that to Kurtz—but Kurtz seems eager to talk down the life of Brian. Just consider how hard the poor guy had things on the way up.
Kurtz clowns hard about the lean years, pandering endlessly as he goes. Before quoting his account of Williams years in the desert, lets take a minute to sketch the shape of Williams actual career.
Lets be candid: By any rational standard, Williams reached the heights rather fast. In 1980, at age 21, his paid job in the Carter White House ended with Ronald Reagans election. Within the next year, he was hired by KOAM, a small TV station in Pittsburg, Kansas, and his career in broadcasting started. After thirteen months on the air in Kansas, he returned to Washington. In short order, he was on the air at DCs Channel 5; he was soon guest-hosting for Maury Povich on the talk show Panorama. In 1985, he was signed by CBS and dispatched to WCAU, its Philadelphia affiliate, where he served as a twice-a-night correspondent. In 1987, he was promoted to WCBS-TV in New York; he was soon anchoring the stations noon news, then filling in as 6 PM anchor. In 1993, he was lured to NBC by Tom Brokaw, serving as the networks weekend anchor—and he was told he might be Brokaws successor. He was 34 years old at the time. According to Matusow, a veteran TV reporter, he was being paid $2 million per year.
Its hard to spot the Dickensian aspects of that story—unless youre Howard Kurtz, that is, pandering to a major star who sometimes likes to show the world his very own private Buffalo. In Kurtzs hands, Williams speedy rise to the top becomes a tale of serious woe. His fullest account of the grim Kansas year reads like something out of the dust bowl. In what follows, Kurtz is describing Williams at age 22-23. Warning: Embellishment follows! And oh yes: Have hankies on hand:
KURTZ (page 31): In 1981 William got a job at a tiny station called KOAM in the Kansas town of Pittsburg, near the Missouri border, where he anchored the news and shot and edited his own stories. He worked seven days a week. The stations general manager, Bill Bengtson, found him eager to learn and desperate to get into the business. So desperate, in fact, that when Bengtson told him that his name was too East Coast Catholic and he would have to change it, Williams, crushed, prepared a speech for his parents. He was too anxious about succeeding to get the joke.
The unpaid bills and college loans piled up as Williams labored for meager wages, and when his Dodge Dart died one day in a cornfield, Bengston helped arrange a loan for a Ford Escort. But not even a new set of wheels could get Williams to a bigger market. He sent his audition tape to stations in Tulsa and other midsize cities without a nibble. He had no health insurance and was forced to skip meals. Clearly, he had failed.
He couldnt move up—even after a year! And by now, he was 23 years old! Indeed, Kurtz can barely control his emotions as he describes the suffering which followed. Williams packed his dog Charlie into a Ryder truck, drove to Washington, moved into a basement apartment, and took a couriers job at the National Association of Broadcasters, he mournfully writes. It was a huge comedown. Of course, Kurtz fails to note that Williams had been working at the NAB before he went off for his year in the wilderness—that he had gotten the job at KOAM through the help of NAB honcho Ken Schanzer, a friend of Bengtson. (According to Matusows 1994 profile, One reason Williams went to work at the NAB is that he knew it was a place where he would be in contact with TV-station executives people who hire reporters.) Meanwhile, had Williams really dreamed of working in Tulsa? Its possible. But instead, he returned to DC, resumed his job at the NAB—and was soon on the air at Channel 5. Eleven years later, he was NBCs massively-paid weekend anchor—the kind of person who would one day inspire massaged bio from fixers like Kurtz.
Its hard to see the miseries in that (very) young mans story. But so what? Through the early parts of Reality Show, Kurtz keeps making us weep and moan about poor Williams lean years. In his opening scene, Williams is being hired, at age 34, to serve as NBC weekend anchor, likely successor to Brokaw. But much like Matthews Arnold before him, Kurtz brings the eternal note of sadness in. This was heady stuff for a guy who had never graduated college, he writes, who had washed out in his first television job, a $174-a-week gig at a station in tiny Pittsburg, Kansas (page 2). On page 4, we gain another such moment. He had never expected it to happen, Kurtz writes, not to a college dropout who had spent years knocking around local television. Were not sure where Kurtz got the idea that Williams spent years knocking around local television, but he seems determined to promote the notion. Williams never forgot where he came from—a store managers son who...had bombed in his first television job, we soon read, on page 30. But then, hallelujah! Finally things began falling into place, we are told on page 32.
Finally—a laughable word. This is Kurtzs description of Williams signing by CBS—at age 26! But then, the same old mood comes drifting back when Williams finally takes over for Brokaw. After being mired at a tiny Kansas station, after pounding the pavement in local news, after serving as Brokaws understudy for a decade, he finally had the job he had wanted since kindergarten, Kurtz exults (page 123). Finally, this long-suffering soul had done it; hed left the $3-million paydays behind, with Kurtz right there to play his Boswell, finding every self-indulgent seam in his mournful life story.
Its Kurtz who wrote this nonsense, not Williams, and its Kurtz we have to criticize for such a pandering narrative. But then, Kurtz seems happy to massage other parts of Williams Alger-like bio. (Horatio, not Hiss.) Remember: When we help someone craft his own private Buffalo, we must stress the years he spent knocking around—and we must disappear his advantages, the ways he may have been helped. Which brings us back to that humble farmhouse—the one in which Williams wife had grown up. For purposes of recollection, lets revisit Kurtzs picture of Williams in 2004, as he finally gets Brokaws job:
KURTZ (pages 38-39): Williams brought a very different background and sensibility to the job. He was forty-five years old with a wife, two teenage children, a dog and a rabbit. He lived in the Connecticut farmhouse in New Canaan where Jane [his wife] had grown up. He was a big NASCAR racing buff who took his son to the Speedway on Saturday nights and drove on a dirt track during vacations in Montana, where he owned a half-interest in a local team...
Williams was determined to infuse the broadcast with the values that reflected his life experience. As a guy who went shopping with his family at Target, he wanted more coverage of small-town America and the problems facing parents in everyday life.
No one knows small-town America like Williams, who shops with his family at Target. At least, thats what Kurtz seems to want us thinking. Which may explain why he drops basic facts concerning that Nutmeg State farmhouse.
(Note: There is absolutely nothing wrong with anything which follows. Unless you think a problem may lurk when multimillionaire newsmen spin their own bios, when they invent their own private Buffalos, when they hide the basic facts of their lives.)
How did Williams come to live in that Connecticut farmhouse—the very same one where his wife had grown up? Weve never seen that explained in detail. But if Kurtz is right in his basic assertion, the farmhouse had belonged to Hudson Stoddard, Williams superlative father-in-law, a major figure in New York public television at WNET, Channel 13. In the New York Times Williams/Jane Stoddard wedding announcement, Hudson Stoddard was described as the vice president of marketing for WNET/Channel 13 in New York; in this recent Daily News celebrity item, he is described as a former WNET fund-raising pioneer. (In that wedding announcement, Williams mother-in-law, Patricia Stoddard, is described as the director of the administration-executive office of the Champion International Corporation in Stamford, Conn.) But then, without trying to kill any tales of woe about poor Williams blue-collar background, Williams dad sounds a bit less beaten down in that Times announcement too. He may have raised his kid in a blue-collar community, where his kid had friends who ran Amoco stations. But the late Gordon Williams—no doubt a superlative man as well—was described in that wedding announcement as the former executive vice president of the National Retail Merchants Association in New York.
Theres nothing wrong with any of that; a good deal of that is surely quite right. But when celebrities (and their helpmates) craft their own private Buffalos, certain parts of their stories must disappear. Indeed, only once, in his first major profile, before he knew which things to leave out, did Williams describe the world into which he married into in a somewhat fuller manner. Ellen Edwards profiled Williams for the Washington Post when he signed with NBC. In that profile, we get a somewhat fuller picture of Williams life in New Canaan:
EDWARDS (10/18/93): When Williams was at Channel 5, he was asked to substitute for Maury Povich, then host of "Panorama." At 11 a.m. that day, he says, he met a woman named Jane Stoddard; it was her first day producing the talk show. At 4, he swears, he told Smilovitz he was going to marry her, which he did a few months later. That was eight years ago.
She had grown up in New Canaan, Conn., where the two now live with their two children. And her family was friendly with the Salants, as in Richard Salant, former head of CBS News.
"He adopted me as a science project," says Williams. He grew close to Salant, having occasional talks at his house, and he credits him with building his journalistic foundation. At Salant's memorial service in February, among all the famous-name CBS eulogizers was Williams.
Yikes! Salant, a much-revered newsman, was president of CBS News from 1961-1979. Williams would have met him a few years later. It seems odd to think that Salants name has never appeared in any subsequent profile of Williams, but thats what the Nexis archive tells us. But then, what happens in New Canaan seems to stay in New Canaan. Just a few weeks ago, Williams hosted the New Canaan Librarys 14th Richard Salant Lecture—not that consumers of Williams life story need to know about such matters. Sure enough, Brokaw was the featured speaker—and everyone shared a good solid laugh about local standards of living. Kimberly Nevas recorded the fun in the New Canaan Advertiser:
NEVAS (11/12/07): It was an evening of warnings, optimism and self-deprecating humor as veteran NBC newsman Tom Brokaw delivered the New Canaan Librarys 14th Richard Salant Lecture to an audience of 900 at New Canaan High School Sunday.
The lecture series commemorates the career of the late Richard Salant, a longtime New Canaan resident and former president of CBS News, and later vice chairman of NBC News.
Mr. Brokaws appearance, initially set to take place at the Library, was moved first to New Canaan Country School, then to the High School Auditorium as the demand for tickets grew.
Introduced by the man who succeeded him at the NBC Nightly News anchor desk, local resident Brian Williams, Mr. Brokaw joked that he lives in New Canaans public housing annex, Pound Ridge.
I think the difference between living in Pound Ridge and living in New Canaan is when I was an anchorman I only had to work five days a week, he said. Brian lives in New Canaan and he has to work six days a week.
Full disclosure: Our older half brother, Dick Somerby, raised his whole brood in New Canaan too. Theres absolutely nothing wrong with it! Pound Ridge, New York is near-by—and poorer. (According to Wikipedia, New Canaan has the eighth highest average income in the country among places with 10,000 residents.)
In Reality Show, you read a moving tale; were just not sure it belongs to Williams. You read about a kid from a blue-collar community who washed out in his first television job, then spent years knocking around local television before things finally started to click. Presumably, he was cleaning sump pumps for much of that time—and, of course, shopping at Price Club. In fact, this same kid was being mentored by an historical giant when he was still in his mid-20s, and was signed by CBS soon after that. And by the way, Kurtz knows that Williams (admirable) in-laws are well-connected players. In 2002, Kurtz wrote a profile of Williams in the Post; it provides some material for Reality Show. Kurtz described Williams hiring by NBC—and included a puzzling incident:
KURTZ (7/15/02): Before long he was anchoring the noon news [at WCBS-TV]. Out of the blue, NBC executives tried to lure him to their network, which was reeling after staging a fiery crash for a "Dateline" segment.
When Williams hesitated, a board member at General Electric, NBC's parent company, sent a back-channel message to his mother-in-law: "Tell Brian it's for real. They'll take care of him."
"It was like being in a Scorsese movie," Williams says.
But the whispered assurance was on target. NBC gave Williams the weekend anchor job and, in 1994, shipped him to Washington for seasoning as a White House correspondent.
How weird! Why in the world would a GE board member negotiate through Brians mother-in-law? Presumably, because she was well-connected within the powerful world Williams was now entering. But Kurtz never explained this odd part of his profile, and its MIA from his book. In Reality Show, we hear about Williams store manager dad. His connected in-laws disappear.
But so it goes in Reality Show, a book whose subject has really seen rivers—has knocked around, and gone without meals, and seen his car die in a corn field. He has allowed himself to be talked into cooperating with a cover story for Mens Vogue, even though he knew no one who read the magazine. (Hes too down-to-earth for that.) Like you, we found ourselves thinking of Thoreaus demand, the one announced at the start of Walden: I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives. This famous request bears a certain piquance when made today, of a TV anchor.
I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers, Thoreau further explains, if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life...Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid. Its only natural to ask such questions about important figures like Williams. But when vastly important public figures are allowed to construct their own private Buffalos, relevant items may drop from the mix. Townsmen may therefore fail to learn who these people are, who they actually live among, and whose perhaps-imperfect values they may be dumping off on the nation.
NEXT, PART 3—NO RESPECT AT ALL: About that early crib in DC—and about those meaningful pauses.
AFTER THAT, PART 4—TONY SOPHISTICATION: About that trashing of Clinton and Gore. About that fawning to Bush.
A TALE OF TWO PHONE CALLS: That phone call to Williams mother-in-law didnt make Kurtzs book. Instead, we look in on the very first phone call when NBC starts courting Williams. As usual, we find Williams in his fire boots, working so hard, in such dangerous times, that he can barely be bothered to answer. In Reality Show, you have to work extremely hard to make Williams seek his advantage:
KURTZ (pages 32-33): One afternoon in 1993 was in his fire boots, covering a powerful noreaster on the FDR Drive, when his cell phone rang. It was an executive at NBC News, asking if he would be willing to meet with Don Browne, the acting president of the news division.
Im up to my ass in water, Williams shouted into the phone. Whats this about?
One phone call in; one phone call out. Thats how PR men help big stars confect their own private Buffalos.