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Caveat lector

2 June 2000

Our current howler (part IV): MIA

Synopsis: The need for standards has long been known. But where are the press corps’ elders?

The Dilemma of the Ruthless Democrat
Jacob Weisberg, Slate, 4/25

Will the Biggest Liar Win?
Peter Keating, George, 5/00

Homer: The Iliad
Translated by Professor Fagles, Viking, 1990

It was an insignificant part of Weisberg's piece—a minor aside about Bush:

WEISBERG: To be sure, Bush has his own hereditary ruthless streak. In South Carolina, he sanctioned an Atwater-style campaign that stopped John McCain in his tracks.

"Hereditary ruthless streak" was underlined, linked to an earlier piece. (No genetic analysis was provided.) But by the time Weisberg's throw-away notion resurfaced in Peter Keating's George cover story, it was carrying a bit more weight. As he started his profile of Bush as a liar, Keating offered this, as his very first remark:

KEATING: George W. Bush is not, to put it mildly, as complicated as Gore. When something stands between him and a goal, he does what he must to obliterate it. Bush inherited this trait from his competitive family—in 1992, his father told David Frost that he would do "whatever it takes" to win re-election.

By now, Weisberg's throw-away notion of inherited ruthlessness has become a vivid bit of guilt-by-association. As we saw earlier, by the way, President Bush's comment to Frost was in fact quite benign—though George's readers had no way to know it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/17/00).

Similarly, when Robinson and Crowley profiled Gore for the Globe, they opened their piece with Gore's remarks on his father's civil rights record. They returned to the topic two more times, finally judging that Gore had "selectively rewritten" his father's history. Why? Because when Gore formally kicked off his campaign last June, he didn't mention Gore Senior's vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/12/00). On such utter nonsense are large indictments now based. But their claim of "selective rewriting"—already silly—was ratcheted up to a "lie" one month later. Jeff Jacoby, on the Globe's op-ed page, said that Al Gore "lies like a rug." One example? The things Gore has said about his father's career on civil rights (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/12/00). Robinson and Crowley had at least told readers that Gore Senior is routinely praised in this area. Jacoby—calling Gore a "liar" for mouthing a standard assessment—was too dishonest to pass that fact on.

That's right, folks. The silly stuff always gets recycled in today's hopeless press corps. We've described the process again and again: Today's scribe simply loves to repeat a good tale—and he'll improve the tale in the retelling. Eager young pups are hungry for glory; they'll embellish a tale that was weak from the start. And that is why we so badly need some leadership from the press corps' wise elders.

According to our Classics advisers, the situation has ever been thus. All throughout history, excitable troops have needed advice from their elders. Indeed, when headstrong Diomedes spoke back to Agamemnon, "all of the Achaeans shouted their assent, stirred by the stallion-breaking Diomedes' challenge." But noble Nestor quickly rose. As Professor Fagles deftly renders, "His advice had always been the best:"

But Nestor the old driver rose and spoke at once.
"Few can match your power in battle, Diomedes,
and in council you excel all men your age
But you don't press on and reach a useful end.
How young you are—why, you could be my son,
my youngest-born at that, though you urge our kings
with cool clear sense: what you've said is right.
But it's my turn now, Diomedes.
I think I can claim to have some years on you.
So I must speak up and drive the matter home.
And no one will heap contempt on what I say,
not even mighty Agamemnon. Lost to the clan,
lost to the hearth, lost to the old ways, that one
who lusts for the horror of war with his own people

The seasoned adviser had quickly risen, to calm the ranks and restore proven order. "Tonight's the night that rips our ranks to shreds or pulls us through."

The excitable troops gained from Nestor's advice. But where, today, are the press corps' elders? They should have spoken in 1999, when the nonsense began in those RNC faxes (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/26/00 and 5/30/00). Where was Hunt? Dionne? Tod Lindberg? Gigot? Where was McGrory? Where was Bill Safire? Even today, lesser elements need advice from their elders, as in the days when men fought around Troy.

This fall, will the public be given a sensible election—a discourse conducted by proven old rules? Or is Jeff Jacoby now driving the discourse? Alas, the answer seems plain.


Ever thus: Even great kings have needed advice. Nestor counseled Agamemnon:

"Come, gather us all and we will heed that man
Who gives the best advice. That's what they need,
I tell you—all the Achaeans—good sound advice."

We wait to hear from the press corps' seasoned drivers.

Visit our incomparable archives: The incomparable Nestor first appeared in THE DAILY HOWLER on June 2, 1998. To review Nestor's words, just click here.

Daily update: For today's Daily update, click here.