Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Whatever one thinks of how convincing the available evidence is thus far, nobody who has an even basic understanding of how our government functions could dispute that the accusations in this scandal are extremely serious. Presumably, even those incapable of ingesting the danger of having U.S. attorneys fired due to their refusal to launch partisan-motivated prosecutions (or stifle prosecutions for partisan reasons) at least understand that it is highly disturbing and simply intolerable for the Attorney General of the U.S. -- the head of our Justice Department -- to lie repeatedly about what happened, including to Congress, and to have done so with the obvious assent and (at the very least) implicit cooperation of the White House. Even the most vapid media stars should be able to understand that.
And yet so many of them do not.
There is a true danger in the current vapidity of the national pundit class. Surely, a pundit corps that could rally itself to be outraged over Arkansas land deals could manage to eke out a bit of interest in the thought that staffers to the President of the United States and other Republicans were, as it now appears, using their government offices to encourage criminal indictments of their foes and protect against the indictment of their friends. The evidence suggests that McKay and Iglesias, at minimum, were removed from their jobs in large part -- and that "in large part" is itself being exceedingly generous to the administration -- because they refused to file politically motivated indictments against Democrats intended to help Republicans skew election results.
Despite befuddled mutterings to the contrary, that's a big deal. Corrupting a foundational principle of our democracy -- that the police forces of a state will not be used as political weapons against the opposition? Demanding that prosecutors hound your political rivals or be fired? It was, in earlier times, considered not just legitimate news, but of the kind that the press has created elaborate altars to itself over. The press as prime defenders of democracy; the ultimate check against such corruptions and manipulations.
It's at least as big a Constitutional deal as breaking into the offices of the other party, one would think. It's as big a deal as the Presidency sabotaging the investigators who are investigating the presidency (in fact, given Bush's shutdown of the investigation as to whether Gonzales and the administration violated federal laws against domestic espionage, it is _exactly_ that big a deal.) Sending the Attorney General of the United States and others up to the Hill to apparently flatly lie about the entire effort seems as significant a development as "accidentally" erasing the records of similar awkward moments in horsethievery.
In short, it would seem to have every central element of, oh, say, a Watergate, other than, you know, members of the punditry who give a flying damn. (In truth, we cannot say that the Watergate years were exactly monuments to pundit integrity either, not until it was all essentially over except for booking a helicopter ride out of town.) As with all previous administration scandals, we've indeed still got solid reporters on the story -- efforts by McClatchy have been especially notable. What we don't have is a pundit class with two goddamn brain cells to rub together to figure out why, exactly, any of the listed corruptions might be a negative thing on its face. They don't, apparently, spend much time thinking about things like that.
But why? What, and pardon my French, the flying baguette is going on, in our media, when large swaths of the pundit class, lethargic and addled, can't figure out that the manipulation of our very system of justice itself -- and this is far from the first incident, the fire alarm on these issues has been ringing since 2001, so there have been ample opportunities for all parties to familiarize themselves with the basic issues -- is not merely a political concern, but one with rather substantial implications towards the very way American democracy is practiced?
It would be tempting to chalk it up in many cases to blatant partisanship on the part of the pundit corps. In fact, it is so easy, I'll do just that for the moment, and explore where the premise gets us. Clinton was hounded at every turn by investigations and press "scandals" that seemed to be produced on an assembly line, many of them demonstrably false, some of them simply painful in thier absurdity (anyone remember Haircutgate?) Gore's 2000 campaign was hounded by pundits far more interested in fake propaganda claims that he said he "invented the Internet", and in the political meanings of "earth tones", and in fretting over his "wooden" demeanor, than they were in any more substantive comparisons of the two candidates.
(Oh, and a note, here: there is a special place in hell for anyone who, at any point, figured that America should elect their President according to who they'd like to "have a beer" with, or opined in the national media that such reasoning was anything but a godforsaken sophistry. By God, if there is any justice in the afterworld, each of you can spend eternity in a warm, comfortable bar with George W. Bush, alone with nothing but you, a bowl of peanuts, two mugs, and that barren moonscape of a mind.)
It was mere political Heatherism, respected and gloriously ascendant and praised as actual sagacity. Punditry as practiced by 16 year old North Hollywood mall rats could not have been more insipid, and would at least have been more inventively colorful. And it has continued, unabated, as the dominant theme of punditry. Mind you, an entire town full of Alice Roosevelt Longworths would be impressively interesting, if done well and with grace, but that's an impossible if, and the vast majority of the televised, paid gossips of the press do not exude either the wit or the insight that they pretend at. Like comedy, cynicism is best left to experts.
Bush got little of the same treatment, in comparison, and it stopped almost entirely when Bush got into office. Stopped dead, even before 9/11. It was not that such Heatherism had vanished -- far from it, as the Kerry campaign found out four years later -- but that Republicans were oddly immune not simply from tawdriness but from media investigation as well, especially considering the scale and scope of the targets. The Bush administration, from Enron onward, managed to sail steadily onward through damning investigations that, in the Clinton years, would have resulted in national pundit grand mal seizures. After 9/11, patriotism was suddenly and precipitiously refined as synonymous with Republicanism, with nary a peep from the pundit class and in fact a whole hell of a lot of support for the notion, both tacit and explicit. As it turns out, you'd have to do something really bad, unimaginably salacious and drop-dead three-word understandable to get the national pundit corps' extended attention if you're a Republican. Something like "propositioning sex from teenage children working at the Capitol" might do it, for a few weeks. Subverting the laws of the nation -- that's a harder fish to fry. That's gonna require a little pizzaz if it's going to make it down the national punditry gullet.
Perhaps if the Constitution was finally remanded to the custody of a lawyer, to be buried six feet under and fancy-side-up in the Bahamas, we'd get more interest? I am sure I could script it appropriately, if need be: The United States Constitution is survived by eleven of its twenty seven young children. Larry Birkhead claims to be the father of twelve of them. Join us next hour: we'll have live helicopter coverage of Nancy Grace attempting to ride the decaying corpse of our cherished legal frameworks like a surfboard.
So is the divide between the Heatherism directed at Democrats and the boredom with which Republican scandals are begrudgingly attended to actual bias, or merely an insipid blandness? One would think the answer would be transparent from a decade of uncanny patterns of alternated attack and acquiescence, depending on the party in power. Evidence, too, could possibly be found from any weekly rundown of the cable shows, which continue to somehow populate themselves primarily with Republicans and conservatives despite the valiant efforts of the terribly nonpartisan shows themselves. During the years when the House, Senate, and presidency were all controlled by conservative Republicans, the networks insisted that the discrepancy could be attributed to the imbalance in Washington itself; those in positions of power were naturally more newsworthy faces.
So what about now? When Democrats control both House and Senate, why do conservative Republican voices continue to disproportionately dominate the media discourse? Were the networks in fact more accurate than they intended, when they attributed the imbalance to power, but perhaps the power imbalance is less in the ballot boxes, and more in the control rooms?
Hmm. It is either that, or the horror of Creeping Rolodexism: a set of index cards sitting in a producer's office has finally achieved sentience, and the phone numbers call themselves, through sheer force of conscious will... all other shows and networks corrupted in turn by a viruslike exchange of complementary fruit baskets?
No. We must continue searching. Neither Network nor Little Shop of Horrors can fully explain this. Partisanship plays a role -- at this point, it seems difficult to argue with the weekly televised evidence -- but there is something else going on here. I think, at long last, that the plain folks of the land have reached their hearts' desire at last, and the pundit media has been adorned with a collection of downright morons.
Ah, there may be something there. The Rise of the Booboisie, we might call it, with deference to Mencken.
Let's be frank -- we've got possibly the least intelligent, most buffoonish President we've had in a generation (elevating all others as paragons of comportment and adroitness in the comparison), a man whose daily struggles with English are a window into a mind untarnished with complex thought, a man whose lack of understanding of foreign policy issues has knocked the wind from even those brought in to educate him on the subjects, a man whose daily pronouncements give trembling comedians ice cream headaches as they try to ingest the glory of it all. He is, simultaneously, a man aching under the confines of the presidency, a man who moves with tense, jerking rigidity whenever a stray nonconforming question requires his brain to shift, clutch smoking, into second gear, as if the tension of the thought process involved has caused his muscles to physically cramp from lack of oxygen. And to the punditry, this guy's, well, "Presidential", which roughly means he fills out a codpiece well. (You don't even want to_know_ what "inspirational" is codespeak for.)
Comedy Central can get two shows a night over the asininity of politics. It's made their network, and the entire premise of both The Daily Show and the Colbert Report is (1) to report something in the news, and (2) to dissect how and why what the government and media are saying about it is so flatly wrong, so devoid of meaning or substance or intelligence, as to be comical. He may not be a "newsman" -- and I would strenuously argue that he in fact is, though that is a subject for another time -- but Jon Stewart accurately reflects a certain mood, in this country, among those who are forced to laugh at all of this because to contemplate it seriously would, for more than a few of us, result in a decade-long panic attack.
I mention this remarkable and odious presidential doofustry not simply to take yet another gratuitous swipe at Bush -- and by all means, I enjoy it immensely -- nor to point out the richness of conservative targets for mockery in general (adulterer Newt Gingrich returns from the political wilderness? Be still, my grateful heart!) but to note that the elevation of forceful incompetence is now a major American spectator sport, and there is little evidence that the Washington pundit media ranks any higher on the competence scale than the fool-riddled government they purport to cover. Intelligence, is, shall we say, not held in high regard, in our national debate. Intellectualism is scorned: knowledge, such as the environmental knowledge that Gore was able to rattle off with little difficulty during the millennial American campaign, is seen as pushy, or snobbish, or gauche. It is decidedly unappreciated. Having a keen grasp of an issue, or stringing together more than a bare minimum of bland, pasteurized sentences in a debate or response, is considered pretentious, and dull, and talking above the level of the people: pondering whether or not a candidate's red dress or new hairstyle is a stroke of manipulation: that we can do on a monetary and cerebral budget. That, in fact, anyone can do on a budget, which may give some small indication of its value.
To hear the pundits speak, the people of the country are pudding-brained idiots, capable of discerning only the basic shapes and colors of issues. The Attorney Purge may be to complex a notion for them, and may therefore be deemed uninteresting and pedantic (though the intricacies of Hillary Clinton's finances were certainly worth years of attention, and those same pundits were baffled when the public interest and earnestly required outrage never managed to percolate.) Who knows: perhaps they are right, and we are a nation of the addled and bored, but it seems a rather more testable notion that the pundits themselves suffer from more than a touch of the tapioca fog. There is nothing terribly controversial about presuming that within any group of individuals on this planet, a certain large percentage of them will be pudding-brained idiots, after all, and anyone who as worked in corporate America can vouch for the fact that at least in this country, the lightest and most bubble-filled minds tend to float to the top. Evidence would seem to suggest that the upper ranks of punditry are hardly exceptions to this rule.
We are not testing the intricacies of Sunni vs. Shia here, after all, nor debating the upsides and downsides of pollution credits in fostering environmental health; we are instead formulating a very basic question. If the Justice Department of the United States of America does not treat all Americans equally, if it engages in manipulations of the machinery of law, is that, perchance, a bad thing? Not from an electoral standpoint, God help us all, but from a raw governmental one? It is a fundamental political notion -- the one thing they are purported to be good at. It should seemingly gather rather more interest than horserace pronouncements of who might stay, or might go. It is not a question that should pinch the intellect of anyone in a position of purported media leadership.
Those questions, however, are not probed, and the thought that such questions should be investigated to determine the facts meets with surprising resistance from some wrapping themselves in the stolen mantle of journalism. The journalists report; the Congress investigates; the Bush administration shudders; the punditry sails obliviously with the winds, the only group of the four not quite sure why any of us are discussing this.
So if we are presuming that they have little interest in the story due to an underlying partisan reluctance to batter Republicans with the same unbridled glee with which your average anti-Democrat Drudge smear is picked up and tossed onto television screens, we might be well served to consider this simpler, though profoundly more insulting, explanation. Never ascribe to malice what simple dimness can more readily explain: the pundit media has for the last decade been fed the stories they discuss by conservative voices intent on making every land deal, every misspoken word, every failed joke, every innuendo into the scandal of the moment, whether evidence exists or not. There is little evidence to suggest that the pundit press can operate effectively within stories not handfed to them on a silver platter, with a garnish of appropriate, politically targetted catchphrases to use in opining on them.
Even stories of war, or illegalities, or administrative deceit may be a bridge too far for the congenitally stupid to cross. Like the D.C. politicians they cover, the record of the pundit press paints a fairly devastating account of their own competence: the more important the story, the more substantially the Washington pundit press has bungled it. Foley asking the penis size of his teenage charges, that they do well: in explorations of the rationales for the nation to go to war, they do poorly. That seems evidentiary of something, certainly, and nothing good.
Could this seemingly enforced dullness be a mere aftereffect of conservative bias, or slightly differently, an allergic reaction from the pundit corps to the omnipresent and laughable accusations of liberal bias. Maybe the easiest way to avoid the issue is to simply not cover the issues with any depth at all -- to never scratch any farther into the inconvenient facts of a case than absolutely necessary, so as to never have to come to that uncomfortable, distinctly discussion-ending conclusion as to what the actual facts are, and what the implications must, as a natural consequence, be?
So so far we have three tightly interconnected estimations of why national punditry has, well, devolved: Heatherism, bias, or rank stupidity, either real or pretended at. Compelling, perhaps, but oversimplifications to be sure. There are other dynamics at work here, and ones that I think ring truer, when it comes right down to it.
To Be Continued