The Limits of Smug

It seems like ages ago, and maybe it was – the eight years of the Bush administration. That would be the younger Bush. The one-term presidency of his father is now lost in the mists of time. No one remembers him, perhaps because he couldn’t manage to be outrageous enough, one way or the other. The father had the charisma of a sheet of wallboard, and even if you liked his policies, or thought he was dead wrong, there was nothing to get all that excited about. He had his justifications for what he did, and explained himself. And America said nope, that won’t do, and he was gone. After all, Bill Clinton promised to be much more exciting – and he certainly was. Richard Mellon Scaife really didn’t have to spend those tens of millions of dollars on the Arkansas Project, to spread the word that Bill Clinton was a drug dealer and a rapist and a murderer, and that Hillary Clinton had murdered Vince Foster with her bare hands. The Clintons provided their own high drama, or melodrama, or farce. Monica Lewinsky was the train wreck waiting to happen. It was a long, strange ride.

But the presidency of the younger Bush took things to a whole new level. We got a new kind of outrageousness. We got smug – or in the terms of alternative sports and men’s deodorant these days, we got Extreme Smug. That was what drove those even slightly to the left crazy for those eight years. We were told, with a sad smile of tolerant exasperation, that it was simple really – if you thought preemptive war against a nation that didn’t seem to pose a threat to us, and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and was itself worried about al-Qaeda, was a bad idea, then you must hate America and freedom, and love Saddam Hussein, and his sons. It was simple, really. Or if you thought, at the time, that the Europeans had a point – wait to see what the actual evidence is and then, when you know what is actually what, consider the range of diplomatic options before you consider preemptive war – then you were just hopeless. That came up in a Rumsfeld press conference, and Donald Rumsfeld gave a sort of Smug Hall of Fame response – yeah, those guys thought that way, but, you see, that’s Old Europe. No one cared what those guys think – consider Estonia, after all, or something. Rumsfeld was the master of smug dismissal. How could people be so foolish, when it was all so simple? Really, it was.

But the rest of the crew wasn’t far behind – torture saved lives, and all your evidence that it provided nothing useful, and that it made matters for us worse everywhere, just proved that you wanted Americans to die. It was as simple as that – and the same goes for your qualms about warrantless wiretapping and all the rest. And the pundits who supported the Bush administration jumped in too – they gave us Bush Derangement Syndrome – the notion that no one really disagreed with any Bush policy or position, or action. How could they? How could anyone? Anyone who disagreed with any Bush policy or position or action was consumed with almost comically irrational hatred. It was obvious that Bush’s manly decisiveness had driven such people over the edge. They must be sexually insecure. They were obviously jealous of Bush’s manliness, and it is no more than that. Charles Krauthammer coined the term, and he had once been a psychiatrist after all.

So it was day after day, and week after week, and month after month, and year after year, of political talk shows where one of these defenders of the president would be backed into a corner by the facts of the matter, that some Bush policy or position was just stunningly stupid, and they’d say, well, that’s just Bush Derangement Syndrome speaking – and they’d say no more, because there was no point in saying any more. It was the ultimate smug dismissal. You think some Bush policy or position is wrong in some way? Well, there’s no point in discussing it – it’s just kind of sad that his manliness drove you mad. But it happens.

So it was eight years of being dismissed as not wrong really, just unimportant in any way. You weren’t important enough to be wrong. It was a pat on the head – and now go off and play with your little friends, and let the adults do their adult things. Yes, these guys had perfected the art of talking down to everyone – critics, allies, enemies – it didn’t matter. They were dealing with children.

And at the center of it was Bush himself, forever saying it was simple really. They hate us for our freedoms. We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here. Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we – they never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we (the video clip of that). Was he talking down to us – smugly assuming we’re all idiots – or was he a bit of an idiot himself?

Of course it was the former. You don’t get to be president if you’re an idiot. It takes, at the least, a certain low cunning matched with ruthless ambition, and an ability to read and manipulate others. And that’s a kind of intelligence. But it does preclude overwhelming smugness. You have a rich, privileged and underachieving sneering Yale frat boy, with a chip on his shoulder and seething resentments, having to do with his father and all those damned smart people who are always showing him up, and you can have a president, this particular president. And you can have eight years of smug sneering.

And it got tiresome. After Bush we elected a guy who is just terrible at being smug, as much as those on the hard left would like him to be just as sneering and dismissive as Bush ever was. But Obama just doesn’t have it in him. He refuses to talk down to people, and actually listens, respectfully, to his critics – and then politely and courteously and accurately summarizes and dismantles their arguments. He’ll treat you like an adult, even if you’re on the right of the Tea Party right. The nation is still trying to get used to that sort of thing.

And of course that’s why MSNBC dumped Keith Olbermann. No, really. Olbermann and the network seem to have come to an agreement – they’ll give him money and he’ll just go away. The Age of Smug is over. He’s become a dinosaur of sorts. The climate changed.

Niall Stanage covers some of that in a column on why he’s glad Keith Olbermann is gone:

If there was some strange parallel universe in which Keith Olbermann and I were members of Congress, I suspect we would vote together about 99 percent of the time. But when the “Countdown” host announced his abrupt departure from MSNBC on Friday night, I felt only relief.

He does note the partisan and predictable reactions of others, like the New York Post being gleeful and listing Olbermann’s sins:

Over the course of Keith Olbermann’s career at MSNBC, the host kept putting his foot in his mouth:

“That woman is an idiot.” – May 13, 2010, referring to Sarah Palin

“I accuse you, Mr. Bush, of lying this country into war.” – July 3, 2007

“You saved no one, Mr. Cheney. All you did was help kill Americans. You were negligent before 9/11.” – May 19, 2009

“Reagan’s dead, and he was a lousy president.” – June 5, 2004

Yeah, so what’s the problem here? Olbermann was right, depending on your point of view, even if he was blunt.

On the other side, at the Huffington Post, you get Steven Weber:

And the side of the room that is reveling in his departure will, of course, display their colors as do all vain beasts who strut and preen and demonstrate their bloated, overcompensating masculinity to their submissive minions.

And then, having flexed and posed thus, proceed to bob and weave through the onslaught of righteous criticism, disingenuously denying the truth about their actions, deploying their meme-machines to spout nonsense and calumny about their accusers.

And because the other side of the room – along with wit, intelligence, reverence for history and mortality – possesses a crippling introspection which is often an impediment to action, they do little to impede them, hoping for the eventual tripping-up of the bullies, the inevitable gaffe which reveals their corroded inner workings.

And, as always, it becomes abundantly clear that their drivel is merely the raving of a cornered and terrified animal on the verge of extinction, railing against all who would snuff out its lethal messages of racism, sexism, classism, corporatism.

And Olbermann was our savior and now he’s gone. Yeah, yeah – we get it. And Weber’s blast of purple prose ends with this:

But for now, with the latest casualty in the struggle for progressive thought “mysteriously” leaving, the rest of the thinking world must once again stand by and endure the cartoon pomposity that the right so often depends upon, since truth and wisdom and taste are simply not in their repertoire.

Sigh. Smug is catching. And there’s Eric Golub:

Keith Olbermann needed eight years to rip the eyes out of decent people everywhere. Like the cliché says, when they came for Keith, nobody was willing to speak up.

For the twelve people on Earth who watched his program and are in mourning, Comcast will be replacing him with a three-legged, one eyed horse who is still more successful than Olbermann in the Kentucky Derby of humanity.

I did not know it was possible to be too crazy to be employed by MSNBC.

That’s just a taste of it. But Niall Stanage sees things differently:

But back in the real world, I cannot imagine I am the only viewer who is basically simpatico with Olbermann’s worldview, but who had come to find him and his show utterly insufferable. The glibness, the pomposity, the narcissism — all these foibles had, of late, reached gut-wrenching proportions.

It is a sort of smugness, and that’s the real problem. But Stanage reminds us that might have been necessary once:

It is easy to forget just what the media landscape looked like in the early years of Olbermann’s tenure at the helm of “Countdown.” (He had, of course, had an earlier, unsuccessful stint at MSNBC, which culminated in one of the many enmity-filled partings that have dotted his career.)

The show began in 2003, when large swathes of the journalistic profession appeared to have been cowed – not just by the Bush administration per se but by a jingoistic atmosphere that lingered too long after 9/11 and took many unwise forms.

In that environment, Olbermann was fresh, even daring. The show’s increasingly forceful liberalism through its early years made for some riveting TV moments, the best-known perhaps his 2006 takedown of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

That’s on YouTube here – good stuff for the age of dinosaurs. But Stanage argues that age is over:

In his farewell remarks on Friday, Olbermann proudly proclaimed that his show was “anti-establishment.” In recent years, that description was a stretch, at best.

Everything from the increasingly contrived “Worst Person in the World” segments to the host’s persona – a kind of an ersatz version of Walter Cronkite, with infinitely more “attitude” but infinitely less real authority – had settled into a rut. Predictability and self-importance were the main features.

“Countdown” had a niche – a profitable one for both the network and its host, who was rumored to have negotiated a $30 million four-year contract in 2008 – and Olbermann apparently saw little need for change.

Meanwhile, his professed commitment to the questioning of authority all-too-evidently did not extend to himself.

And this seems about right:

But, more importantly, there was a years-long procession of pundits whose only apparent purpose was to confirm the correctness and brilliance of the host’s every utterance. The spectacle was one in which purportedly respectable journalists seemed to fall over themselves to play courtier to King Smug.

Damn – Olbermann had turned into George Bush. And that made Olbermann a relic from another age:

In any case, for me at least, Olbermann’s act has long been threadbare. Goodnight and good luck, Keith – and good riddance.

And Steve Kornacki looks back at that different age from a media perspective:

There was a time when MSNBC and Keith Olbermann both needed each other badly.

For the first decade or so of its existence, the cable news channel had only the vaguest of identities. Every few months, a new host or two would be tossed into the lineup, only to be shuffled around a few months later, and put out to pasture a few months after that. One day, Phil Donahue was the network’s prime-time face; the next it was Alan Keyes. Sometimes it seemed like the only programming MSNBC actually believed in was Don Imus’ tired minstrel show in the mornings and weird prison documentaries on the weekends.

A friend who was part of the team that founded CNN and worked for them through the first decades of cable news has confirmed that privately – he was commissioned to do an assessment of the threat MSNBC posed to CNN. Theer was no threat. MSNBC was a bit of a joke.

But Kornacki notes what changed things:

Meanwhile, the other cable news channel launched in 1996 was tearing it up in the ratings. From the very beginning, the Fox News Channel knew what it wanted to be. Rush Limbaugh had shown that there were millions of conservative Americans who were addicted to political news and commentary – and who despised the traditional broadcast outlets (and also CNN). They weren’t looking for thoroughly reported investigative pieces or in-depth coverage of foreign affairs; they just wanted to hear about the latest Clinton scandal or the latest outrageous statement from some Democratic congressman. The programming they wanted was cheap to produce, and if you gave it to them, they’d be fanatically loyal. “Fair and balanced” was thusly born, and by the turn of the century, Fox was overtaking CNN – and leaving MSNBC in the dust.

And then Olbermann saved their bacon:

He had actually been part of MSNBC’s revolving door cast before, in 1997 and 1998. Back then, though, his prime-time broadcast, “The Big Show” (a nod to “SportsCenter,” which he’d spent the previous five years co-anchoring with Dan Patrick), was as directionless as the network itself. Politics wasn’t always the focus and news was covered more from a general interest perspective. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in early ’98, executives demanded that Olbermann build his show around it; they hoped it might legitimize MSNBC the way the Iran hostage crisis legitimized “Nightline” in 1979 and 1980. But Olbermann resisted and walked away, making his disgust well known. (This kind of exit is his trademark. After he left ESPN, an executive commented that, “He didn’t burn bridges here. He napalmed them.”)

He returned more than four years later, after a doomed stint hosting a sports show on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Sports Net (and a brief period as a columnist, in 2002 and 2003, for Salon) and just as Donahue, MSNBC’s latest savior-turned-flameout, was being pushed out of his prime-time perch. “Countdown” was created, but its evolution to the broadcast we’re now so familiar with took time. The “Worst Person in the World” feature was an early hit, and even became a book. But by all accounts, the real turning point came in the summer of 2006. For three years, Olbermann had been chronicling the steady unraveling of America’s mission in Iraq – and the staunch refusal of the Bush administration and its supporters to admit that much of anything was wrong.

He became the foil to everything Bush, of course. And at the end of his August 30, 2006 show, Olbermann looked directly into the camera and tried something new – “The man who sees absolutes where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning is either a prophet or a quack. Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.”

Kornacki sees that as a turning point for Olbermann:

His blistering takedown of the defense secretary was a viral sensation. Millions of liberals were equally exasperated with the Bush administration; but few could express themselves as exquisitely and powerfully as Olbermann. They asked for more, and Olbermann gladly gave it to them; over the next few years, there would be dozens of “special comments,” each delivered in the same dramatic style.

Nor did Olbermann limit himself to criticism of the war and its planners. He became an all-purpose critic of the administration and its cheerleaders, and then of the Republican Party and the modern brand of conservatism it has embraced. For years, liberals had watched the growth of Fox News with dismay and alarm. With “Countdown,” they finally had their own prime-time cable news show to flock to. Olbermann embraced the rivalry, skewering Fox and its personalities – particularly Bill O’Reilly – with biting humor and sarcasm, daring them to respond and acknowledge him. His ratings climbed – not to Fox levels, to be sure, but to levels that had been unheard of at MSNBC.

And MSNBC realized this was the way to go:

By 2008, his frequent guest, Rachel Maddow, was given her own show at 9 p.m. And liberal radio host Ed Schultz was given his own show shortly after that. Lawrence O’Donnell, another left-of-center voice, was added just a few months ago. Eventually, the network adopted a new motto – “Lean forward” – that’s about as subtle as Fox’s “fair and balanced” pledge. MSNBC’s prime-time lineup is now awash in progressive politics. The most conservative voice after 5 p.m. belongs to Chris Matthews, a former aide to Tip O’Neill who nearly ran for Senate in Pennsylvania as a Democrat last year. After casting about for years, MSNBC at last knows exactly who it is – and isn’t – trying to reach.

But of course that was the end for Olbermann. MSNBC staffed up:

Olbermann isn’t nearly as essential to MSNBC’s brand, which surely has something to do with his abrupt departure on Friday night. Exactly what led to his exit remains unclear, but it’s hardly a secret that he’s had several intense clashes with his bosses recently, one of which led to a brief suspension in November. Now that they’ve built a loyal prime-time audience of left-leaning viewers, NBC’s executives may simply feel that they can afford to be rid of Olbermann and all of the headaches he brings with him.

It used to be that he was the only reason liberals turned on their channel at night. Now he’s one of many reasons – a victim of his own success, in other words.

But that’s not quite right. Olbermann had been the foil to everything Bush – and Bush was gone. And Obama had changed the game. Smug sneering was out. Maddow doesn’t do it – even Rand Paul, who embarrassed himself on her show with that business about how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was misguided, told the Fox and the Tea Party folks and all the rest that she had been eminently fair to him, and gracious, so back off. Ed Schultz rants, and is a bit of a populist buffoon, but he doesn’t present himself as the voice of God or anything. Schultz seems to want to channel Woodie Guthrie or something. Lawrence O’Donnell can laugh at himself and admit he’s wrong – he’s a happy sort. Olbermann was the odd man out, the dinosaur.

And, you know, people really don’t like to be told it’s simple really, and if you don’t see it, you’re an idiot, or a child, or evil. That gets old real fast. And of course that’s why MSNBC dumped Keith Olbermann. Time… marches on.

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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