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5 October 1999

Our current howler (part I): Of American beauty

Synopsis: Michael Kelly’s recent columns on Pat Buchanan are a study in press corps banality.

Beatty and Buchanan: That’s Entertainment!
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 9/15/99

Buchanan’s Folly
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 9/22/99

On September 15—before the recent World War II flap had begun—Michael Kelly wrote a column about Pat Buchanan and the Reform Party. He began with a trademark denigration:

KELLY (9/15): The news that Patrick J. Buchanan is seriously considering tossing his comb-over into the Reform Party ring is of course splendid.

In sentence two, Kelly widened his range:

KELLY (9/15): As we regard a race dominated by Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and George W. Bush (Tweedledull, Tweedleduller, and Tweedlejunior), we feel a sore need for electoral entertainment.

To judge from this particular column, Kelly is all about insult and name-calling. In the course of his piece, Kelly says that Ross Perot "made his way onto the national stage [in 1992] barking like a dog." He drags out Admiral Stockdale for more shopworn, stale ridicule. And—like so many others down through the years—he falls extra hard for Warren Beatty:

KELLY (9/15): This is a man of whom it can be boldly asserted: He is not less intelligent than Alec Baldwin.

Phew! That's good, solid, thought-provoking stuff! Kelly asks Beatty to "stand before us and grin that 62-year-old boyish grin:"

KELLY (9/15): Speak to us, Warren. Give to us your deepest thoughts, and as your lovely lips flap, we will listen to the wind whistle from ear to Beatty ear.

Wow! Beatty had authored a column in the New York Times that was, to be honest, not especially well composed. But there's a way to say that without swimming in insult. Kelly, by contrast, heads straight for the bottom, throwing his brickbats about:

KELLY (9/15): "Why Not Now?" the essay was entitled, and it was, for the heights of its vanity, the depths of its coherence and the reach of its banality, a thing of rare beauty.

He could almost have said "rare American beauty," thinking to the film on suburban banality. Beatty went on to make an address in Los Angeles last week in which he raised some telling and serious points. But it's odd to see Kelly complain of the banal, for his work on Buchanan in the past few weeks almost defines the concept. His "comb-over" comment is so lightweight it seems to be borrowed from Maureen Dowd (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/17/99). He devotes his valuable space in the Post to proving Warren Beatty don't write good. He calls Buchanan an anti-semite without making any effort to argue the charge. On balance, his column primarily seems to exist so he can say he's much smarter than Beatty.

Should Kelly be writing about the banal? Not based on his follow-up column. By September 22, the flap about Buchanan's new book had emerged, and Kelly was totally on it. First sentence:

KELLY (9/22): Recently in this space, I wrote unflatteringly of the entertainer Patrick J. Buchanan, suggesting that his material was old and that he was perhaps overly preoccupied with the subject of Jews and money.

Again, he kicks things off with gratuitous insult, then proceeds to a deadly serious charge which he makes no effort to argue. Don Rickles used to "argue" this way (just for fun). Now it's the style of our press corps.

Because when Kelly finally critiques Buchanan's book, he writes as if he has long since forgotten how a writer even offers an argument. He starts with Buchanan on World War I. We quote Kelly's treatment in full:

KELLY (9/22): Had America stayed out of the Great War, asserts Buchanan, "the Allies would probably have been forced to negotiate an armistice or sue for peace. The Kaiser's army, bloodied but undefeated, would have gone homeLenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the whole grisly gang might have been hung from the lampposts of Petrograd. A strong, united and prosperous Germany would not have spawned a Hitler. There might have been no Holocaust, no quarter-century reign of Stalin, no Cold War. There would have been no Versailles, no occupation and dismemberment of the German nation, no American war dead, no era of disillusionment." [Kelly's edit]

My God. And it gets worse when the great man shines the mighty light of his mind on the question of World War II.

Yes—that is Kelly's idea of an argument (and apparently the idea of his editor). Having quoted Buchanan on World War I, Kelly simply says, "My God." Then he makes a sarcastic comment, and moves on to assess World War II. Clearly, Kelly thinks Buchanan is wrong about America's conduct of the Great War. But why is the man with the comb-over wrong? Kelly doesn't bother to tell us. The very concept of making an argument seems to be foreign to Kelly.

Three days after Kelly's strange column, the Post published three striking letters, in which readers pointed to obvious flaws with the structure of Kelly's presentation. John R. Guardino called attention to the problem of saying "My God" in place of an argument. He also criticized Kelly's first paragraph, which we quote in full:

KELLY (9/22): Recently in this space I wrote unflatteringly of the entertainer Patrick J. Buchanan, suggesting that his material was old and that he was perhaps overly preoccupied with the subject of Jews and money. Various of Buchanan's admirers wrote to denounce me as a member of a vast left-wing conspiracy bent on destroying a good patriot. ("It's obvious to me what ethnicity you are, no matter what your surname," wrote one delightful correspondent.)

Yep. It's that good old stand-by, guilt by association. An anti-semite defended Buchanan; we're invited to imagine the rest.

Kelly never really tries to argue the claim that Buchanan is anti-semitic. He does offer an account of Buchanan's views—"the world would have been a finer, happier place if we had just let the Germans take what they want." He doesn't ever cite the language in which Buchanan makes so striking a claim. Or where Buchanan says, in Kelly's words, that he has "no real problem with the idea of the Third Reich as the 'master of Europe.'"

Is Pat Buchanan an anti-semite? At THE HOWLER, we aren't really sure. But we have some idea how to read a text. And increasingly, we notice this unhappy fact: when this press corps wants to make a favored point, it rarely will go to the trouble.


Tomorrow: Pundits make sweeping assessments of Buchanan—rarely citing his actual text.

Anchor's away: Another sad Brian Williams moment, on last night's The News. Pollster John Zogby had new polling numbers for the state of New York. Williams opened in a state of excitement:

WILLIAMS: There are dramatic new polling numbers to report to you this evening because while they are admittedly just a snapshot of voters' viewsthe voters for now seem to be content with the notion, at least, of leaving the vice president of the United States in the proverbial political dust in a hugely important and populous state.

Wow! That would be news! Unfortunately, Zogby's numbers were far from dramatic—at least not in the way that Williams described. A new poll showed Bradley leading Bush in New York, 48% to 42%. Meanwhile, Gore was also leading Bush in New York, by a 45-43 margin. Bradley was ahead by six points (in a home state); Gore was only ahead by two. But by the time Williams got through with predictable hocus-pocus about margin of error, he had managed to pretend that this was big news. Guess what, kids? It wasn't.

Is this actually dramatic "new" news? Hardly. Zogby's own numbers showed that, in a May poll, Bradley had trailed Bush in New York by eight points (38-46); Gore had trailed Bush by eleven (39-50). Bradley and Gore's relative standing hadn't changed at all in the new numbers. What had changed? Bush had substantially declined versus both Dem hopefuls. (Bush had lost thirteen points versus Gore in five months, fourteen points versus Bradley.) This striking trend, of course, was never mentioned. Folks, we've tried to tell you before: it just isn't the story Williams likes.

What did Williams' "dramatic new numbers" actually show? They showed that Gore now leads Bush in New York, where he trailed him by eleven points in May. But to Williams, these dramatic new numbers somehow show that New York voters are "content with leaving Gore in the dust!" Incredible.

This was simply a pathetic report. It is stunning to think that so hapless an analyst is in line to head NBC News.