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Daily Howler: Brian Williams possesses vast skills. At least, that's how Williams reports it
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COULDN’T GET NO RESPECT! Brian Williams possesses vast skills. At least, that’s how Williams reports it: // link // print // previous // next //

WE HAVE A WINNER: Somewhat predictably, we do have a winner! Barack Obama “refuses to dress the part of the presidential contender, with all of its safely prepackaged banality,” Robin Givhan tells us this morning. Of course, Givhan is the last person on earth who ought to be playing the banality card. For example, here’s her opening nugget:

GIVHAN (12/14/07): One of the most distinctive elements of Barack Obama's public style comes down to what he so often is not wearing: patriotism on his sleeve. Whether he is speaking at a campaign rally, attending a fish fry or debating his Democratic challengers, he comes across as the candidate least willing to drape himself in the usual symbols of nationalism and politics. No flag pin on the lapel. No hand on heart during the national anthem. And he generally shuns bold red ties.

Do they play the national anthem at fish fries? (Beyond that, are we supposed to think that Givhan has seen Obama at such an event?) By the way, at yesterday’s debate, only two candidates wore red ties—and one of them was Obama! (Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that.) As near as we can tell from the tape, only Richardson sported a flag pin.

But then, Givhan was explaining how Obama “comes across,” not how the world really is.

Yes, Givhan’s work is largely novel/narrative, like much of her daft cohort’s product. And don’t worry—Givhan knows narrative:

GIVHAN: The most distinctive style in the Obama repertoire is his tieless suit...It is warmly, safely, nostalgically . . . cool. Has that tiny word ever been applied to a presidential candidate? Perhaps when Bill Clinton blew his saxophone on the old “Arsenio Hall Show”? Most definitely not when John Kerry went kite-surfing.

Like the rest of her banal cohort, Givhan knows Kerry’s wind-surfing wasn’t cool. And she seems to know something else—she knows she doesn’t have to say why. By the way: Givhan wonders if Clinton was called “cool” after Arsenio. As with so many of her breed, it doesn’t seem to enter her mind that you can actually look such things up. (Answer: Yes—he was called that. But novelists often by-pass Nexis in the course of assembling their novels.)

Meanwhile, over at “How He Talks,” Dana Milbank is a bit predictable too. When he profiled Clinton earlier in the week, he savaged her for talking education to a roomful of teachers. Today, he uses his moments critiquing Obama as a chance to aim standard insults at Clinton. Good old Milbank! He refers to Clinton as “ol’ lady” and granny” just in his first six paragraphs.

But this is how this simpering breed has written politics for many years. For reasons we can’t begin to explain, the liberal world is prepared to accept this. Banality helps define the age—and on our side, we don’t seem to care.

HOW TO SPREAD RUMORS, CONTINUED: This morning, Katherine “Kit” Seelye helps Mike Huckabee spread his Jesus-and-Satan story. It doesn’t seem to enter “Kit’s” heads that something is wrong with this treatment:

SEELYE (12/14/07): On the Republican side, Mr. Huckabee was responding to questions in an article to be published on Sunday in The New York Times Magazine. He was asked if he considered Mormonism a cult or a religion. He said he did not know much about it, adding, ''Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?''

The comments could be damaging to Mr. Romney because polls have shown that many voters are suspicious of Mormonism and would not vote for a Mormon for president.

Mr. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, apologized to Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, after the Republican debate on Wednesday.

Thursday morning, he appeared on MSNBC. ''It was never my intention to denigrate his faith,'' Mr. Huckabee said. ''I raised it not to create a story. I thought we were having a simple, casual conversation.'' He said he apologized to Mr. Romney because, “I don't think his Mormon faith should have anything to do with him being elected.”

Truly, that’s amazing. “It was never my intention to denigrate his faith,” Seelye quotes Huckabee saying. ''I don't think his Mormon faith should have anything to do with him being elected.'' But is that tale about Jesus-and-Satan part of Romney’s Mormon faith? Just like the Washington Post’s Michael Shear (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/13/07), Seelye forgets to tell us.

But then, the corps has been writing a textbook this week. That textbook’s title? How To Spread Rumors. To state the obvious, you shouldn’t keep repeating false claims—unless you want false claims to spread. What explains the breakdown here? We don’t have the slightest idea. But this is the work of your upper-end press corps—the best work your press corps can offer!

TIM DIDN’T ASK: Finally, someone asked Rudy about those billing practices concerning Judith Nathan’s security detail. It was Carolyn Washburn, popping this question at Wednesday’s Republican forum:

WASHBURN (12/12/07): So this next set of questions is entirely about character and leadership. Mayor Giuliani, your administration in New York has been accused of handling your security expenses in a way that obscured public disclosure. What specifically will you promise to do to ensure that a Giuliani White House is open with information that might be inconvenient to explain to the public?

Admittedly, that question was rather opaque. (She asked a similarly vague follow-up.) But last Sunday, Tim Russert didn’t ask about these odd billing practices at all when he spent the full hour with Rudy. As is required by Hard Pundit Law, pundits stampeded to tell the world how rough-and-tough Tim had been with the hopeful. But he wasn’t tough when it came to this matter. He saved the question of Nathan’s security until late in the sleep-inducing hour, and then he asked no questions at all about those odd billing practices. He only asked if Nathan had deserved her security (easy to answer—yes)—and in asking that, he made several basic factual blunders concerning simple chronology. These blunders let Rudy use his time to correct his host’s mistakes. (We’ll admit that Russert’s one unpleasant moment came when he said the word “mistress.”)

Was Russert “soft” on Rudy? For ourselves, we wouldn’t say that—but he wasn’t especially hard on him either. In fairness, Russert had already staged soft-soap sessions with Candidates Clinton and Obama.

For ourselves, we don’t care much about Nathan’s security, or about the way it was billed. We were struck by the questions that weren’t asked at all—questions about health care and taxation, for example. As a candidate, Giuliani has paraded grandly about, saying 1) that European health care is a disaster, and 2) that he will raise additional revenue by cutting federal tax rates. These claims are straight from the cuckoo’s nest—and they deal with basic matters. But so what? As Russert made clear again this week, Republican candidates can say any damn thing they like—as long as they say it about basic policy. They can announce that up is down. Even the tough guys don’t care.

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 NBC’s well-coiffed trophy anchor. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/4/07.

PART 2: Kurtz can barely control his emotions as he limns Brian Williams’ lean years. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/7/07.

In Part 3, we learn about Williams’ vast skills—for which he could get no respect.

PART 3—COULDN’T GET NO RESPECT: Brian Williams may have made a rookie mistake in the fall of '94. The perfectly coiffed anchor had signed with NBC one year before, “lured” away from CBS by Tom Brokaw’s rich, deep baritone. He soon became NBC’s weekend anchor. Now he’d been shipped down to DC, where he was serving as White House correspondent.

And that’s when Williams may have made a basic rookie mistake. TV writer Barbara Matusow wanted to profile him for The Washingtonian. And uh-oh! Breaking a key rule of Big Anchor Self-Definition, Williams let Matusow come to his home—let her see how he actually lived. People, Big Anchors never do that. Such elementary rookie mistakes can lead to copy like this:

MATUSOW (12/94): It’s a Sunday afternoon in early October, and Brian Williams and his wife, Jane, are lounging on the couch of their rented house in DC's Kalorama—a huge, Italianate stone structure that looks like an ambassador's residence. The inside is almost bare, partly because they haven't been there long, but also because they evidently view Washington as a short-term assignment.

Almost all the furniture, even the art on the walls, is rented. Their real home is in New Canaan, Connecticut—a converted barn on several acres that used to belong to Jane's parents: a caretaker now looks after it.

Oof! Today, NBC anchors go to great lengths to tell you they’re “average Joe” men-of-the-people—the kinds of people who come from Buffalo, shop at the Price Club, and are constantly up to their asses in water. They’ve seen their cars die in cornfields. And when they sign contracts worth “more than $20 million,” they’re principally thrilled by the length of the pact (seven years)—because their average-Joe, store-manager dads always taught them about job security. At least, these are the things they tend to say to journalists who write about them. If those journos are compliant enough—and Howard Kurtz is—they just type up all the bull-roar.

Just a guess: That description of Williams’ home—it “looked like an ambassador’s residence”—has been used, in the past dozen years, to show other anchors what not to do in these profile situations. Result? Comedians never let you see them sweat—and anchors never let you see how they live. They tell you about their modest home—but you don’t get to see it. (Describing that “caretaker” up in New Canaan may not have been the greatest move either.)

In fairness, it seems that Williams already had some moves in place when he was profiled by Matusow. According to the subsequent profile, he and his wife had “just come back from a school outing in rural Maryland, picking cucumbers for Martha's Table, which feeds the needy” when they met the scribe at the Italianate mansion in which they were seen to be comfortably lounging. And it turns out that Williams had mentioned the fact that “[w]hen he was a volunteer fireman back in Middletown, New Jersey, his nickname was ‘Permapress.’” Beyond that, the future workhorse—the one so faithfully detailed by Kurtz—already was in evidence:

MATUSOW: Brian says he and Jane are with the kids most of the day when he's not working. “We take them to the store. We go for walks or throw them in the car and go for a ride. We're an extraordinarily boring family. The other night I was folding laundry until midnight.”

Williams didn’t drain any sump pumps this day. But he did say he’d been folding his trousers, until long into the night.

So Matusow’s profile did include some of Williams’ average-Joe tics—the kinds of tics which animate so much of Kurtz’s new book, Reality Show. But a rule emerged from Williams’ experience: Never let them see where you live! They may come out describing your “compulsive neatness” (“The magazines on the rectangular coffee table in the living room—Time, Newsweek, New Republic, among others—are arranged in four precise rows of six copies each,” Matusow wrote.) And if your wife blabs to them too much, and they see your car, they’ll also write things this: “Jane says his closets and the inside of his BMW is immaculate.”

Never let them see how you live! It’s a basic rule for modern anchors, a rule observed all through the press. Given the corps’ long-time fascination with “the lifestyles of the rich and famous,” it’s intriguing to note how hard it is to learn about Big Journos’ lifestyles.

For example, consider the Nantucket lifestyle of the NBC News island clique. As we’ve noted in the past, Russert and Matthews own homes among the island’s swells, hard by former GE CEO Jack Welch and former NBC News chief Robert Wright (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/24/04). But if The Washingtonian’s Sally Bradie hadn’t discussed this intriguing arrangement on that one occasion in 2003, this highly amusing—and suggestive—arrangement would be largely unknown to the world. For the most part, big anchors go to substantial lengths to keep the rubes clueless about their vast wealth. Just a guess: They don’t want you knowing how they live—or where. And they probably don’t want you knowing who else might be living there with them.

But just because we’re kept in the dark—or deliberately misled—about the lives of these major players, that doesn’t mean that they don’t develop the attitudes sometimes found among their high class. Indeed, it’s one of the pleasure of Reality Show—watching the way these pampered press poodles obsess about their own (modest) skills, and praise each other for possessing them. Throughout the book, we see the big stars of the millionaire press corps congratulating themselves for achievements so minor that they do invite our ridicule. And we see how highly they sometimes value their own quite modest work. For one example, consider the early passage when Kurtz chronicles Williams’ pique in 2002. Poor Williams! He was waiting for Brokaw to retire—and just couldn’t seem to get no respect.

Poor Williams! According to Kurtz, he was now earning $3 million per year as part of that seven-year contract. He would sit in for Brokaw at Nightly News when Brokaw was on assignment or vacation. But on other days, Brian Williams had to anchor his eponymous cable show, The News with Brian Williams, on the much less important MSNBC. And Williams just couldn’t get no respect—from Neil Shapiro, for instance:

KURTZ (page 30): His sense of isolation was exacerbated by Neil Shapiro, a quiet, unpretentious man who had succeeded the hard-charging Andrew Lack as the president of NBC News. Shapiro was, in Williams’ view, painfully introverted and did not seem to regard the care and feeding of the network’s next anchor as an important aspect of his job.

Shapiro, for his part, viewed himself as a big cheerleader for Williams who had drafted a plan to raise his profile by sending him out on major stories and to meetings with affiliate stations. But as Williams saw it, Shapiro had no idea of the qualities required to be a network anchor or the skills that Williams brought to the studio. In fact, it was downright insulting. The two men rarely spoke. They once went five and a half months without a conversation.

Poor Williams! As he saw it, Shapiro had no idea of the vast skills he brought to the studio. And we’ll admit it. From that point on in Reality Show, we couldn’t help wondering just what skills Williams might have in mind.

Many pages later, we thought we found out. In this passage which follows, Kurtz reports one of Williams’ many complaints about the offensive Katie Couric, who by now has made her first broadcast as CBS evening news anchor. As Williams grumbles to himself, we get a sense of the remarkable skills the suburban dad brought to the job:

KURTZ (page 273): Brian Williams took a DVD home that night and told colleagues that he didn’t think much of the Couric broadcast...

Couric was not an anchor, Williams thought. She had never been trained as an anchor. She was trained as a host, and there was a difference. She had plowed through the news items without pausing, without allowing a beat for transition.

Williams always knew when to pause—whether the Neal Shapiros of the world were able to see it or not. In yet another moving passage, we see Williams preparing a promotional “tease” for a Today show segment. The skills required for his job again become quite evident:

KURTZ (page 181): “Thanks, Ann, and we are back in New Orleans...” His rhythm was off.

“Thanks, Ann. . .” He stumbled again.

“Wow, the wheel are falling off today,” Williams said.

But Williams simply never stops battling—and finally, he gets his rhythms right. One wonders if Shapiro had ignored such skills—had taken such skills for granted.

But then, all through Reality Show, we see massively-paid network stars who seem to be extremely impressed with what can only be described, in truth, as their own rather modest achievements. At one point, CBS hires long-time star producer Rick Kaplan to help shape Couric’s broadcast. Kurtz describes the types of skill that justify these peoples’ large salaries:

KURTZ (page 398): Kaplan soon quickened the pace and hardened up the newscast. He decreed that each program would have only one feature story. Couric’s one-on-one interviews—one of her strengths—were greatly reduced, and chats with the correspondents were all but eliminated.

Some changes were more subtle. Couric switched her greeting to “Hello everyone” from the more informal “Hi.” She began opening the newscast from behind the desk. And she seemed to dress more conservatively.

You wonder how the Kaplans can command the big bucks—until Kurtz takes you behind the scenes at their nightly broadcasts. Meanwhile, you come to appreciate the way these stars are willing to fight the big battles. At one point, Kurtz tells us, with perfect straight face, about the tough questions Bob Schieffer was willing to throw at President Bush—at George W. Bush, his longtime personal friend. The interview occurs in January 2006, after Schieffer has taken over as interim replacement for Dan Rather. It’s no wonder our Big Major Pols despise these fearless journalists:

KURTZ (pages 78-79): Schieffer knew that Bush would not be expecting softballs. Bush, he felt, wanted the anchor to throw the high, hard one and see if he could hit it. Schieffer was no grandstander, but he had a disarming way of cloaking his tougher questions in neighborly, conversational tones.

“Last summer, it seems to me, Mr. President, public support for the war began to erode,” he offered. “Why do you think that happened?”

With perfect straight face, Kurtz presents that question as one of the “high, hard ones” Schieffer was willing to throw to Bush—who, of course, was eager to see if he could hit such pitches. That was one of Schieffer’s “tougher questions”—though it was “cloaked in conversational tones.” Elsewhere (page 397), Kaplan mutters “Good question, Katie” under his breath as Couric poses a question to Bush. That question seems amazingly tame too—but neither Kaplan, nor this book’s author, show signs of having noticed.

In short, Reality Show is full of exceptionally well-paid people who seem to be inordinately impressed with their cohort’s lackluster output. These stars are constantly being praised—except when curmudgeons like Neil Shapiro fail to see the depth of their skill. And this sort of un-reality show can produce predictably pompous attitudes. Consider Williams’ constant complaining about big dumb-ass Couric.

In fairness, Kurtz assures us that Williams’ attitude has nothing to do with the money. Williams has “married a modest woman,” we’re told. For that reason, he can get by on $10 million a year; it doesn’t enter his mind to care when Couric is paid a bigger salary. (We’re told this twice, so we won’t forget.) But Williams, the guy who came up the hard way, is frequently fuming at Katie. After all, Williams didn’t get a seven-figure salary until he was 34 years old, by which time he had “spent years knocking around local television.” (In New York City, for example.) No wonder he’s peeved when Couric is handed an anchor job—without displaying the vast array of skills which he possesses. On location post-Katrina, Williams gives expression to his understandable pique:

KURTZ (pages 184-185): [An NBC producer] had found the perfect backdrop for the newscast: a white shrimp boat, called the Dolphin, that the fierce floodwaters had carried out of the Gulf, three miles away, and deposited here among the brick houses, listing to the left. Williams went up in the cherry-picker, surveyed the scene, came down, and began talking out the opening of the broadcast. He could describe the van that had attached itself to the house, the seaweed on the roofs, the marooned boat that a furious Mother Nature had ripped from the water.

As a hot sun in a cloudless sky bore down on the eerily quiet neighborhood, Williams’ thoughts turned to the longtime colleague who would soon be his rival. If Katie Couric ever asked him for advice, he had plenty.

This, Katie, was what the job was all about. If she was going to be managing editor of the CBS Evening News, these were the kinds of disasters she would have to cover, these were the kinds of trips she would have to make, this was the kind of grueling work she would have to do. There was no easy path to being an anchor. It was all or nothing.

There was no easy path to being an anchor? Unless we’ve badly misread the material, Williams’ career defines one! But not to Williams! Williams thinks he’s done grueling work when he goes up in that cherry-picker, thinking of ways to describe all that seaweed. So it’s easy to see why the average-Joe anchor was peeved at the thought of Couric’s ascension. Indeed, the “mild mannered suburban dad” vents about Couric quite routinely in Reality Show—but his complaints are always well founded. A bit later, the grumbling starts again:

KURTZ (page 264-265): [F]riends had heard Williams go on about how the best evening news anchors were the ones who had dedicated their lives to pursuing the job. He referred to those who had lucked into such jobs—which would include Couric, Elizabeth Vargas, even his pal Bob Woodruff—as “accidental tourists.” There was nothing accidental about Williams’ lifelong quest for the post he now held.

Williams knew that he’d seen rivers. The others were accidents; they were just passing through. Later on page 265, we see the man in his daily Gethsemane, writhing about his show’s ratings:

KURTZ (page 265): If Gibson managed to beat him, so be it. Charlie was a newsman’s newsman, Williams felt, an older version of himself. There was no shame in losing to Charlie. But he felt very differently about Katie Couric.

It wasn’t that Williams was jealous of her fame, her huge salary, of the enormous wave of publicity surrounding her ascension. But Williams and others at NBC believed that Katie was in something of a bubble, living a wealthy celebrity lifestyle that set her apart from her viewers.

What was central to Williams’ conception of himself was that he was the down-to-earth journalist, the NASCAR fan, the onetime volunteer fireman, the guy who shopped at Price Club and watched American Idol. One recent Sunday his in-laws’ basement in Connecticut flooded and he spent four hours cleaning the gunk out of their sump pump. He was not above grunt work, either at home or in the newsroom, where he insisted on writing every word of his copy. Let Katie take her best shot. Brian Williams was convinced that, when it came to news, people would see who eats it, sleeps it, and breathes it.

And they were also going to see who knew how to pause between items! At any rate, it’s fairly clear that, at this high level, the high-strung artists of TV news can develop understandable sets of attitudes—the types of attitudes which, seen somewhere else, might be mistaken for excessive self-regard. And that can affect their views of the hired hands, as in the thoroughly understandable case of Williams’ pique with poor hapless Jerry Reiss.

“The tension had been building for months,” Kurtz writes at the start of this episode. Reiss was Williams’ executive producer and a perfectly decent guy. But something didn’t seem right to Williams. Uh-oh! Not suburban enough:

KURTZ (page 379): Brian Williams never thought that Jerry Reiss was a good match as his executive producer. Reiss, who had been a compromise choice, was smart and dedicated, but they often didn’t seem on the same wave-length. Williams was interested in stories that affected families and the great mass of suburbia, and he felt that Reiss, as a single guy who lived in Manhattan, did not have an innate feel for those subjects. He liked the man personally—they had taken the subway to the Bronx for Yankee games—but thought that Reiss didn’t crack the whip on some underperforming producers. And he was always disappointed when he e-mailed Reiss at one A.M. and didn’t get a response.

Why on earth should Jerry Reiss sleep? As Kurtz continues, we see how deep the problems with Reiss could run:

KURTZ (continuing directly): One nagging thing came to symbolize what Williams viewed as the former Dateline producer’s lack of daily-deadline experience. When Reiss was in the control room and spoke to the anchor in his IFB, as the earpieces are known, he would always say “Brian?” or “It’s John.” That forced Williams to ask him what he wanted, wasting valuable seconds...

“Go ahead, just bust in, I’m expecting to hear from you,” Williams would tell him, but Reiss never did.

Again, we see the astounding skill levels required in this high-paid of work. Like Couric not knowing when to pause, Reiss didn’t seem to know how to break in. Soon, the tortured average Joe anchor couldn’t contain his annoyance:

KURTZ (continuing directly): There were other times when Williams showed his annoyance. When the death toll from tornadoes in Florida rose while he was on the air, they had to update the story for the Midwest feed at seven P.M. Reiss said from the control room that one of the writers would bang out a new top.

“Don’t you get that’s exactly what I don’t want to hear?” Williams snapped. “Give me the salient facts and tell me how long it has to be.” Williams despised cold copy, always fearing that he would stumble over it. In the minute he had before moving to a standing position to open the new broadcast, Williams updated the script.

Tormented by his fear of cold copy, Williams, understandably, lashed out at Reiss. At any rate, by the end of 2006, Reiss had somehow figured out that it was time for him to move on. (According to Kurtz, Reiss heard it through the grapevine: “The way you found out that Brian was unhappy with your work was that you would hear it from others on the staff.”) But the replacement process dragged on so long that Williams’ show dropped out of first place in the ratings; by some wholly mysterious process, Reiss ended up getting blamed for the fall in a front-page New York Times news report. Surely, Williams couldn’t have been the source; he was now losing to Charlie Gibson, and he didn’t care about that at all, since Gibson was so much like himself. At any rate, Reiss was gone soon after that—but not before a bit of major-league groveling:

KURTZ (page 381): Despite the humiliation, John Reiss, ever gracious, sent Williams a hand-written card: “I didn’t want to let this moment pass without noting what an honor it has been to work with you...You, sir, are an immensely talented broadcaster.”

How ironic! The two men were on the same wave-length at last! But when people of such modest talents are paid huge sums and fawned to so hard, might it be that this style of life affects their values and outlook? And here’s the eral question: Might the public occasionally wonder about their values and outlook—if allowed to learn about the Italianate mansions in which it seems they may live?

None of this would matter a bit if Williams did unobjectionable work. But we can recall his bizarre behavior during Campaign 2000—and in that debate on October 30. We can recall the rude, strange way he hosted this year’s first Dem debate. For these reasons, our ears perked up when Kurtz mentioned Williams’ apartment in Manhattan. It was something like His Own Private Nantucket when we saw this average-Joe dad hanging with the world’s biggest players.

COMING—PART 4: His own private Nantucket.

ANATOMY OF AN OVERSIGHT: It could be that Katie just doesn’t like Brian. Kurtz includes a comical anecdote from their days at NBC:

KURTZ (page 264): Although they had been colleagues at NBC for more than a decade, Williams had never forged much of a relationship with Couric. After her first big fund-raising gala for colon cancer, in memory of her husband, Williams had sent her a note. He said he was sure it was just an oversight that he wasn’t invited, that he and Jane would love to be active in supporting the charity. He never heard back.

Oh no! We won’t tell you what our sainted mother would have said about that.

SHE TOO IS BRILLIANT: Diane Sawyer is also brilliant—according to her peers in Reality Show. She “had one of the fastest minds of anyone he had ever met, an intelligence that operated at almost warp speed,” Charlie Gibson allegedly thinks. It’s never quite clear why Gibson thinks that—until Kurtz lets him recall their first meeting. “The first time he saw her in person, Sawyer was standing in front of him at a news event and taking note with four different colored pens,” Kurtz writes (page 218). “The woman, apparently, was well organized.” Nothing in the book seems to back that up. But then too, no one disputes it.