Now It’s About Nothing

There are national holidays about nothing, like Guy Fawkes Day in England, celebrating the day in 1605 when Parliament didn’t blow up. That actually is a celebration of stopping, at the last moment, a major urban terrorist attack by a band of odd religious fanatics – crazed Catholics not Islamic jihadists, but close enough – to do just that. But nevertheless it’s a holiday about something that didn’t happen. And of course we have our Presidents Day, celebrating the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln on a day neither of them were born, but close enough. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 declared the third Monday in February would do just fine for both of them, so we get a day off for no particular reason having to do with the actual date on which the holiday falls. And there are always a lot of sales. It’s a good day to buy a new mattress. But all holidays get hollowed out and drained of meaning eventually.

One day we may celebrate Sarah Palin’s birthday – February 11 – but probably not. Holidays should at least start out with some substance, some amazing story of heroism or service, or something. And we have no story here – or no story yet. In fact, on that day the Washington Post released that devastating birthday poll – seventy-one percent of Americans think she’s unqualified to be president, including a majority of Republicans. And the numbers had deteriorated badly from what folks thought of her just the year before, which wasn’t much then. It’s obviously premature to start the lobbying for new national holiday. But on the same day, the man who is often called the Dean of Washington Journalists, David Broder, wrote his worshipful column on Sarah Palin – we must “take Sarah Palin seriously” as everyone should be in awe of her “pitch-perfect recital of the populist message.” And he warns all of us that she will be difficult to stop as a major political force – she’s the real deal, the tops.

And Glenn Greenwald was not impressed:

I was fairly certain that Washington Press Corps Dean David Broder’s career would end with his last memorably humiliating moment (of many) being this February, 2007, column, when he giddily announced that “President Bush is poised for a political comeback,” that “Bush now shows signs of renewed energy and is regaining the initiative on several fronts,” and that “he is demonstrating political smarts that even his critics have to acknowledge” – only for Bush’s approval ratings to continue to plummet until he finally left office as one of the most despised Americans politicians of the last 100 years. I was wrong.

And there were many of such attacks on Broder. The old man has become an embarrassment. But on the other hand, oddly enough, there is no reason to bash Broder, as he is doing what is now mainstream analysis. In fact, that’s what George Packer is getting at in this New Yorker post:

Broder wasn’t analyzing Palin’s positions or accusations, or the truth or falsehood of her claims, or even the nature of the emotions that she appeals to. He was reviewing a performance and giving it the thumbs up, using the familiar terminology of political journalism. This has been so characteristic of the coverage of politics for so long that it doesn’t seem in the least bit odd, and it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way.

And at Balloon Juice, Juan Cole sees where that leads:

It no longer matters whether or not a politician’s performance (I think that’s the right word here) has any connection with any kind of discernible reality. Movie-goers are pickier about the believability of movies than pundits are about the believability of politicians’ claims. You’re more likely to hear a moviegoer complain “there’s no way a school teacher could afford that penthouse” than to hear David Broder complain “there’s no way `we win, you lose’ can be a serious foreign policy.”

The age of realism in politics is over.

In fact, shifting focus to the venerable New York Times, that is just what Packer is getting at:

It would be strange if the Times’ coverage of the financial crisis, which has been stellar, focused entirely on things like Richard Fuld’s handling of his PR problems while Lehman was going down. And it would be strange if the paper’s coverage of Afghanistan, which has also been stellar, focused entirely on things like Hamid Karzai’s use of traditional Pashtun rhetoric in his effort to ride the wave of public anger at the Americans.

He asks us to imagine Karzai’s recent inaugural address as covered by a Washington journalist, like Broder, or any of them, as suggests it would go like this:

Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats who have lately been disappointed in him, and at the same time he reassured the Afghan public that his patience with civilian casualties is wearing thin. A palace insider, who asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak candidly, said, “If Karzai can continue to signal the West that he is concerned about corruption without alienating his warlord allies, he will likely be able to defuse the perception of a weak leader and regain his image as a unifying figure who can play the role of both modernizer and nationalist.” …

We seem to have gotten used to people focusing on what is secondary, or tertiary, or whatever comes after that:

A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt.

And he then argues it hasn’t always been true, as in as late as 1993, Michael Kelly, wrote a Times Magazine piece called David Gergen, Master of the Game – all about the culture of American politics, including those who write about it, and “the story of how the idea of image became the faith in Washington.” Kelly excoriates Gergen, and himself, for falling into the same sort of fatuousness as all the rest, reporting on the success or failure of messaging, as they call it – managing the perception of policy, not policy itself.

But that’s the rule now, and Packer knows it:

It’s hard to imagine Kelly’s piece being published today – its scathing critique would seem quaint, if not mystifying. Anyone covering Washington, not excluding me, will sooner or later turn to a phrase like “refocus its image” or “a perception that the President has come to look” or “a pitch-perfect recital of the populist message,” because they come so easily, and because they make it unnecessary to say anything substantial, which means thinking hard and perhaps suffering the consequences.

Still, as an exercise in accountability, political journalists should ask themselves from time to time: Would I write this about a war, or a depression? In the same vein, a government official once told me that the best way to cover Washington is as a foreign capital – as Baghdad, or Kabul.

Otherwise you’ll be writing about nothing, or about the presentation of things, not the substance of the things, as everyone does. It’s like a restaurant critic writing about the furniture in the room and forgetting to mention the food.

And it gets odd when real things happen, like the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s top military commander, which is a rather big deal – if not a “major victory” – as Baradar is the most significant Taliban figure to be detained since the war began. He led the Taliban’s military operations. This may pay substantial dividends for our effort in Afghanistan.

But then there’s the perception issue. We were well aware of this guy’s capture early in February, but deliberately kept the news under wraps. You don’t want to screw up a sensitive and ongoing intelligence-gathering operation. And that led Juan Cole to say this:

That Joe Biden and others kept the arrest secret, in order to allow further operations against Taliban leaders in Karachi, shows a discipline that Bush and Cheney never had. They were always happy to prematurely release details of ongoing investigations to get a political bump, even if it meant allowing terrorists to escape.

Steve Benen seconds that:

Dick Cheney was blasting the Obama administration on national security over the weekend, and it might have been tempting for Biden and others to use the Baradar capture as evidence that Cheney doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But the White House Grown-Ups knew the ongoing efforts were more important than making Dick the Clown look foolish.

And Benen points to Andrew Sullivan saying that the president and his team “are serious about national security and do not put domestic political games before it.” Which Benen says is obviously a good thing, as it “inspires confidence in the administration.”

But he also points to this comment:

Guys? You should probably take at least a small victory lap. There has to be something you can do that’s more than stoic silence but still well short of the “Mission Accomplished” flyboy stunt. At least send Biden to the morning shows to talk about the capture … subtly, but with pride.

And Benen finds that persuasive:

During the Bush/Cheney era, no counter-terrorism development was too small to trumpet. The arrest of some low-level thug who once said something nice about al Qaeda was reason enough for press conferences and media interviews with high-ranking administration officials. If U.S. officials had helped capture Baradar in the Bush/Cheney era, we’d probably see just about every official you can think of — POTUS, VPOTUS, AG, Defense Secretary, HHS Secretary, NSA, etc. — hitting the airwaves to pat themselves on the back. The goal would be to get a bump in the polls.

Obama and his team are obviously less interested in exploiting counter-terrorism victories for political gain, and prefer to treat Americans like adults, rather than manipulating their fears. As a result, capturing high-profile terrorists (Baradar), killing high-profile terrorists (Hakimullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan), and arresting would-be terrorists (Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, and Hosam Maher Husein Smadi) — all victories that bolster our national security interests — are treated as low-key successes. All in a day’s work.

That’s admirable, to be sure. But a little chest-thumping is hardly out of the question here. If the White House doesn’t draw more attention to their victories, the public may not hear about them.

And Benen say that is necessary:

I can appreciate the president’s mature, sensible restraint as much as the next guy, but the White House is also facing an aggressive misinformation campaign, launched by those who still want to convince Americans that Obama isn’t reliable on national security, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Some understated-but-public appreciation for the men and women in the military and intelligence agencies that make these successes possible seems more than fair.

Fair maybe – but then you fall into the trap of talking about the furniture, not the food – the appearance of substance, or something you might associate with substance, not substance itself. But that is what people do talk about, after all. Obama may want to change that, but that may be impossible now.

And it can work the other way. As Glenn Greenwald points out here in some detail, Dick Cheney went on ABC News and boasted of the role he played in ordering the waterboarding of detainees. And Andrew Sullivan was all over that arguing that statement was actually a “confession of committing a war crime on national television.” Greenwald says that’s quite accurate and notes that Harper’s Scott Horton identifies the specific criminal statute Cheney confessed he violated and makes clear that – just as the Attorney General himself had previously said – there is no reasonable debate possible regarding the criminality of waterboarding under US and international law. And Harper asks the key question – “What prosecutor can look away when a perpetrator mocks the law itself and revels in his role in violating it?”

But Cheney knows we live in the world where substance no longer matters, which seems to amaze Greenwald:

In general, people who commit felonies avoid publicly confessing to having done so, and they especially avoid mocking the authorities who fail to act. One thing Dick Cheney is not is stupid, and yet he’s doing exactly that. Indeed, he’s gradually escalated his boasting about having done so throughout the year. Why? Because he knows there will never be any repercussions – that he will never be prosecuted no matter how blatantly he admits to these serious crimes. He’s taunting the Obama administration and the DOJ: not only will I not hide or apologize, but I will proudly tout and defend my role in these crimes, because I know you will do absolutely nothing about it, even though the Attorney General and the President themselves said that the act to which I’m confessing is a felony.

Does anyone doubt that Cheney’s assessment is right? And isn’t that, rather obviously, a monumental indictment of most everything?

Well, yes, it is. And perhaps the age of realism in politics really is over. We now talk about what people think of what other people must think of the quality of the presentation of one thing or another, which seems to be some odd thing no one wanted to think about anyway. We’ve become at least twice-removed from getting anything useful done. And the odd thing is we find that fascinating. It seems we like nothingness – and that’s also why we may one day have that national holiday, Sarah Palin Day.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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