Chronicling the Tiresome

The French call it a cri de cœur – literally, a cry from the heart. Somehow the expression slipped into English, used by pretentious folks when they want to be extremely precise about a unique moment, that outburst of protest and agony when someone just cannot take it anymore. There ought to be a specific term for that. This one will have to do. There ought to be a specific term for what happens in that famous movie when the profoundly disgusted newscaster galvanizes the nation, persuading millions to shout out of their windows “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The French had a term for that.

We may be reaching that point again, but this time is not the fictional suicidal Howard Beale from the 1976 movie, it’s the New Yorker’s George Packer – the widely respected expert on US foreign policy and on how our politics really work. There was The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq – the definitive work on the whole Iraq debacle – and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America – that one covers the history of America from 1978 to 2012 in a rather depressing way. That won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2013 with a masterful explanation of just how things went wrong for us all. Packer unpacks the systematic unraveling of “a contract that said if you work hard, if you essentially are a good citizen, there will be a place for you, not only an economic place, you will have a secure life, your kids will have a chance to have a better life, but you will sort of be recognized as part of the national fabric.” There are reasons that happened.

Packer sounds like a dour fellow, but he’s not. He likes looking into things. He wants to know why things happen. Curiosity is not pessimism, but now, looking at our politics, he decided to say what no one else in the media has had the courage to say. Politics has changed. This is tiresome stuff. The item is American Politics: Why the Thrill Is Gone:

It might not be wise for a sometime political journalist to admit this, but the 2016 campaign doesn’t seem like fun to me. Watching Marco Rubio try to overcome his past support for immigration reform to win enough conservative votes to become the Mainstream Alternative to the Invisible Primary Leader – who, if there is one, will be a candidate named Bush – doesn’t seem like fun. Nor does analyzing whether Chris Christie can become something more than the Factional Favorite of moderate Republicans, or whether Ted Cruz’s impressive early fundraising will make him that rare thing, a Factional Favorite with an outside chance to win. If this is any kind of fun, it’s the kind of fun I associate with reading about seventeenth-century French execution methods, or watching a YouTube video of a fight between a python and an alligator – fun in small doses, as long as you’re not too close.

It’s not that he’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore. He’s bored as hell and he’d rather not deal with it anymore:

There’s nothing very entertaining about super PACs, or Mike Huckabee’s national announcement of an imminent national announcement of whether he will run for President again. Jeb Bush’s ruthless approach to locking up the exclusive services of longstanding Republican political consultants and media professionals far ahead of the primaries doesn’t quicken my pulse. Scott Walker’s refusal to affirm Barack Obama’s patriotism doesn’t shock me into a state of alert indignation. A forthcoming book with revelations about the Clintons’ use of their offices and influence to raise money for their foundation and grow rich from paid speeches neither surprises me nor gladdens my heart.

The thrill is indeed gone:

Since I was eight years old, and the Republican candidates were named Nixon, Rockefeller, and Reagan, and the Democrats were Humphrey, Kennedy, and McCarthy, I’ve been passionate about American politics, as a student, a witness, and a partisan. Politics was in my blood, at the family dinner table, in my work and my free time. But at some point in the past few years it went dead for me, or I for it. Perhaps it was week thirty-eight of the Obama-Romney race (a campaign between “Forward” and “Believe in America”), or the routinization of the filibuster, or the name Priorities USA Action, or the fifty-eighth vote in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act – something happened that made it very hard to continue paying attention. I don’t take this as a sign of personal superiority: I’ve always disliked people who considered themselves to be “above” politics. I mourn my lack of political passion as I would if I were to lose interest in reading fiction, or to stop caring about someone who’d been important to me for most of my life. And I count on getting back the feeling – the intense mix of love, hatred, anxiety, astonishment, and gratification – because life, public life, is impoverished without it. Perhaps it will return sometime before November 8, 2016. But for now – I have to be honest – it’s gone.

And he doesn’t see the thrill returning:

The reason is the stuckness of American politics. Especially in the years after 2008, the worst tendencies of American politics only hardened, while remaining in the same place. Beneath the surface froth and churn, we are paralyzed. You can sense it as soon as you step out of the train at Union Station in Washington, the instant you click on a Politico article about a candidates’ forum in Iowa: miasma settles over your central nervous system and you start to go numb.

What has happened is that the same things keep happening. The tidal wave of money keeps happening, the trivialization of coverage keeps happening, the extremism of the Republican Party keeps happening (Ted Cruz: abolish the IRS; Rand Paul: the Common Core is “un-American”). The issues remain huge and urgent: inequality, global warming, immigration, poorly educated children, American decline, radical Islamism. But the language of politics stays the same, and it is a dead language. The notion that answers will come from Washington or the campaign trail is beyond far-fetched.

Well, someone had to say it, but Ed Kilgore fires back:

In terms of politics being less interesting than those of Packer’s childhood – well, some of that is a deception of memory, probably, and some of it the product of knowing now how much of the “magic” of politics isn’t magical at all. In the twenty-first century, we’ve had one of the three presidential elections in American history to go into overtime, a very close election in which the two parties polarized to an extent rarely seen in the previous few decades, and then the historic election of an African-American after a historic primary against a woman and competitive nominating processes in both parties. Even 2012, which left Packer cold, was relatively unpredictable, if you look at how close the general election contest became after the first debate and consider the perils experienced by the obvious Republican nominee in the primaries facing challengers who might have been wearing full clown regalia.

Packer seems unmoved by all that, but there’s hope for him:

As for the “stuckness” of American politics, we all understand what Packer’s talking about – I’ve said it myself frequently – but going into 2016, the objection seems increasingly anachronistic. Depending on what happens then, the Supreme Court is very likely to become “unstuck” in one direction or another, with large consequences for reproductive rights, voting rights, and other hot issues. Climate change policy will either continue on the current course or will be reversed. The same is true of immigration policy. The Affordable Care Act will either become part of the landscape of American life or could well be repealed in one legislative stroke. America will either for good or ill follow a largely diplomatic strategy for its conflicts with other countries or it well adopt the very different path of bluster, intimidation and war.

So this strikes me as an odd year to be bored with politics.

Kilgore goes on to say that there’s always “a mystery to unravel, a lie to refute, or a consequence to be explained” – something worth doing and, in its way, kind of fun. Others, however, find that tiresome. Most of the American public, leading their lives of quiet desperation, or their lives of quiet relative pleasantness, probably wonder why a guy like George Packer took so long to come to his senses. Those whose blood boils when they hear this or that politician say this or that outrageous thing are on the edges of American life, on one end attending Tea Party rallies, if there still are such things, or watching Fox News hour after hour. On the other end they’re wondering why Elizabeth Warren isn’t president yet, and why Dick Cheney isn’t in jail. Everyone else gave up long ago. Nothing will come from outrage. The world rolls on.

Dylan Byers at Politico, however, tells George Packer to buck up, because 2016 won’t be another slog:

Back in September 2012, I spoke to several campaign reporters about what Mark Leibovich had dubbed the devastating “joylessness” of that year’s presidential campaign. After 16 months enduring a Republican primary and then a two-man contest defined by gaffes, cynicism, knife-fights and rapid-fire news cycles, everyone covering the race seemed to want it over with.

The 2016 race wasn’t supposed to be that way. There would be no Democratic incumbent. The top Republican hopefuls wouldn’t be sitting the race out, as they had in 2012. No, nothing could rival the drama of the 2008 campaign, but 2016 could be a significant improvement on 2012.

Why then, nine months ahead of the Iowa caucuses and a year-and-a-half from Election Day, do so many journalists already seem so weary?

They shouldn’t be:

1. The Republican primary will actually be a contest, in a way the 2012 GOP primary was not. There are at least three mainstream Republicans — Bush, Walker and Rubio — who have a real shot at the nomination, which means securing that ticket will require the sort of extraordinary political effort that journalists love to cover. There are at least two factional figures — Paul and Cruz — who are likely to infuse the primary process with far more drama than previous figures like Ron Paul ever could. And there are fascinating subplots in the GOP primary, including but not limited to the Sunshine State race between Bush and Rubio and the Rick Perry ‘comeback kid’ effort.

2. Hillary Clinton won’t actually have an uncontested primary. Whether she’s forced to face the likes of Martin O’Malley or not, Clinton is posed to face extreme scrutiny from the press and from Republicans throughout the primary season. So while she’s likely to cruise to the nomination (without having to spend a ton of money), she could be significantly bruised by the time she gets there. The Clinton campaign’s effort to navigate that opposition without being crushed by it will actually be as dramatic a test as any primary challenge (in the humble opinion of this media reporter). The latent tension between Clinton and the press is a recipe for drama, not boredom.

3. The general election is a toss-up, and by the time we get there, the debate is likely to shift from cynicism and sniping to a more substantive debate about the direction of this country. There were different visions in 2012, of course, but the only time most journalists thought that Romney’s vision might trump Obama’s was in the immediate aftermath of the first presidential debate.

That’s good stuff:

I’ve been where Packer’s at – disenchanted, disheartened and dispirited. But if you lean into it a little there’s a lot of potential here.

No, there isn’t, considering this sort of thing:

The Koch brothers’ political machine is expanding into new states and recruiting new donors as it seeks to shape the Republican Party – and its presidential field – headed into 2016, according to interviews with multiple sources, as well as confidential donor briefing documents obtained by POLITICO.

The documents detail plans to beef up the network’s state-of-the-art data system, and pay hundreds of staff embedded in local communities across the country in preparation for get-out-the-vote efforts that are unprecedented from a third-party group.

The plan comes with a $125 million 2015 budget for Americans for Prosperity, the most robust arm in the network of small-government advocacy groups helmed by the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch. That’s the most the group has ever spent in a non-election year and the documents call the plan “beyond the biggest, boldest, broadest effort AFP has ever undertaken.” It calls for the creation of new chapters in Alabama, Idaho, North Dakota and Utah – continuing a move by the group to invest in deep red states where it can focus on pushing aggressive reforms to scale back union power and government regulation, rather than winning or protecting GOP majorities.

This actually has nothing to do with the tiresome Republican and tiresome Democrats:

That mission sets AFP and the Koch network apart from the GOP – a distinction to which the briefing documents allude, noting “foes of economic liberty still sit on both sides of the aisle.” In fact, there’s been rising competition between the two as they have jockeyed for major donors this year, according to sources in conservative finance circles. …

The relationship between the GOP and the Koch network – which fluctuates between faintly adversarial in off years and mostly supportive in election years – was thrust into the spotlight this week amidst confusing signals about the brothers’ 2016 leanings.

David Koch attended a Manhattan fundraiser on Sunday for a super PAC supporting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s expected campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, sources tell POLITICO. The next day, during a fundraiser in Manhattan for the New York State Republican Party, Koch said that Walker “should be” the GOP presidential nominee. But soon after The New York Times reported the comment, Koch’s office issued a statement saying: “While I think Gov. Walker is terrific, let me be clear, I am not endorsing or supporting any candidate for president at this point in time.”

Then, on Tuesday, Charles Koch, in a rare interview, told USA Today that he and his brother and their team are considering donating to five GOP presidential prospects – Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida. The Kochs would only “select one over the others,” Charles Koch said, “if somebody really stands out from the standpoint of their message and what they would actually do to benefit America and has a chance a decent chance of being elected.” The Kochs, he said, “expect them to compete on who has a more positive message for America.”

Sources familiar with the thinking in the Koch network say it will turn later this year toward issue-based attacks on Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, then will decide early next year whether to intervene in the Republican presidential primary. But they caution that such intervention likely would only happen if the final field pitted a candidate seen as aligned with the Koch’s small-government ideology – such as Walker or Paul – against one considered anathema to it – such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

This election will be about what the Koch brothers want it to be about:

Freedom Partners spokesman James Davis didn’t comment on specific presidential hopefuls or 2016 plans, but said his group’s efforts are intended “to advance a free society where everyone has an equal chance to succeed and opportunity is not limited to those with political connections. We will look to support candidates with a positive vision for addressing these pressing issues with free market solutions. We’re not interested in seeing any petty, personal attacks.”

Unlike the Republicans and the Democrats, the secret document shows these guys are organized:

The briefing document, which is called a “Partner Prospectus,” is glossy, bound and marked “confidential” and “privileged” on its cover. “Please do not disclose, discuss, or disseminate the contents herewith.”

Sent to major donors and prospects last month, it includes previously unknown statistics about AFP’s staffing (539 field staffers in key states in 2014), advertising spending ($60 million on TV, radio and online ads in 2014) and canvassing (2.4 million doors knocked and 7.5 million calls made). It outlines the development and testing of a “closed-loop data system,” online predictive dialing system and mobile canvassing app “that integrates household data, GPS mapping, and survey software.”

The prospectus also makes the moral case for slashing government, asserting that free-market conservatives need to do a better job debunking the notion that they’re out for themselves. “We must demonstrate our commitment to helping people improve their lives and economic fortunes,” it says, while demonstrating how social welfare programs “are hurting the very people the Left purports to help.” …

As the AFP briefing put it “While most organizations focus only on short bursts of activity around elections or legislative sessions, AFP is investing in creating a continuous culture of freedom, year-after-year.”

None of this has to do with the rest of us, or with any particular Republican or Democratic politician asking for our vote. Read this detailed account of why the Koch brothers suddenly backed away from Scott Walker – a few hours after one of the Koch brothers said Walker was their man, Walker dropped by the Glenn Beck Show and announced that he was not only against illegal immigration, as his comments in favor of some sort of amnesty had been misunderstood, he was against legal immigration too. Let no one in – period. The Koch brothers, businessmen who need cheap labor for all they do, and need a PhD or two from India or Germany now and then, were appalled. Suddenly, Scott Walker was just another guy. His big chance to be our next president was over before it started.

That item on Scott Walker is, however, tiresome – because it doesn’t matter much. The Koch brothers are building the country they want, and they can pay for it. The rest of us can only watch, so George Packer’s cri de cœur, that none of this is fun anymore, or even very interesting, is something everyone can shout from their windows now. We’re bored as hell and we’d rather not deal with it anymore! And some of us will continue to chronicle the tiresome, until there’s no point in that either. That’s any day now.

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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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3 Responses to Chronicling the Tiresome

  1. Rick says:

    I’m with George on this one. His critics may have their own points, but they’re totally missing his.

    This all has to remind you of that famous Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” The very first time someone hears that, they find themselves asking, “Hey, who wouldn’t want to live in interesting times?” but then realize that, for times to be interesting, they have to be mixed with a lot of misery and pain and discomfort — which is a pretty fair description of 21st century American politics.

    In fact, there must be something going around, in that what you say about George Packer…

    It’s not that he’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore. He’s bored as hell and he’d rather not deal with it anymore…”

    …sounds a lot like Jon Stewart, in his recent interview with Hadley Freeman, in the Guardian, on why he’s quitting his job on August 6th:

    “It’s not like I thought the show wasn’t working any more, or that I didn’t know how to do it. It was more, ‘Yup, it’s working. But I’m not getting the same satisfaction.’” …

    If anything, it was the prospect of the upcoming US election that pushed him to leave the show. “I’d covered an election four times, and it didn’t appear that there was going to be anything wildly different about this one,” he says.

    Ah, but who could have anticipated the excitement over Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails?

    “Anyone could, because that story is absolutely everything that it’s supposed to be about,” he says, with a groan; as a revelation, it managed to be at once depressing and completely unsurprising. …

    “Honestly, it was a combination of the limitations of my brain and a format that is geared towards following an increasingly redundant process, which is our political process. I was just thinking, ‘Are there other ways to skin this cat?’ “

    I can imagine what he’s going through. My favorite part of his show, more than the interviews and much more than the “correspondent” pieces, was his commentary found in the first and sometimes second segments. His viewpoint was almost always right on, and expressed with humor never seen — and sorely missed — on the big network evening news. But recently, I’ve noticed, as have others, that he’s been sounding tired and bored and lacking in energy.

    But there’s another presidential campaign cycle just starting, and I would guess he sees the same thing coming that I see — not exactly the same stuff as 2012, but close enough to make one wonder how hard it will be to come up with new, funny things to say about it that won’t sound like deja vu.

    In a way, I’m sure that part of what made doing what Stewart has been doing the best job in the world had to be that, with material like mimicking all these politicians and their ridiculous positions, it was so easy! But continuing to stay original, without finding yourself covering the same old ground, must be to him like what the producers of Friends faced after ten seasons — with pretty much each boy having hooked up with each girl, and some of them even getting married — there’s not much more to say. We’ve had a good run, and one we can be proud of, but it’s time to shut it down.

    Maybe Packer should consider packing it in, too.

    After all, what does one do with Hillary’s scandals-du-jour — the fact that she sent emails on her own account, rather than the department’s, or that foreign countries, in hopes for her returning the favor, may have contributed money to the family charity? — which, unless I’m wrong, doesn’t really enrich the family itself, does it?

    Equally redundant is trying to figure out whether either or both Scott Walker and Chris Christie are “moderate Republicans”, one of whom says he is against all immigration, legal and illegal, and the other one is periodically telling someone to “Shut up and sit down!” Haven’t we done these stories already?

    Some may find all that interesting, but it’s hard not to conclude, on closer inspection, that it’s all totally made-up stuff, meant to take the place of matters that would be both interesting and important, which is stuff that’s nowhere to be found.

    On one level, Barack Obama being elected the nation’s first black president is interesting, and I suppose even “important”, but on another, to quote a frustrated Hillary Clinton, “What difference does it make?” The fact that he wasn’t able to get more done during his time in office, due to a government that is stuck in park and has forgotten how to govern, thanks to one of the parties’ near-total breakdown, is the larger story — and it, too, by this time, has gotten so old, with nothing more interesting to say about it.

    Packer’s problem may be like Stewart’s — neither are just disconnected observers of the world, they also, being on the left, have a burning interest in seeing the world somehow come out okay, and have both become overwhelmed with frustration in not being able to find some new way to “skin the cat”.

    Rick

  2. Alan, I have no substantive argument with the piece, but you’ve attributed the “mad as hell” line to “Network,” and that’s just wrong. Network appropriated it from an earlier and better film. In “A Thousand Clowns” (a 1965 adaptation of the 1962 play), Jason Robards originates the cry. It’s one of my favorite films. You should see it.

    • Rick says:

      Linda,

      Having attended college with Alan in the 1960s, I’m pretty sure he saw “A Thousand Clowns” that time we all went down as a group to see it at the Opera House theatre in town. The movie’s money line that stuck with us all at the time was, “Imagine my surprise!”, which was how 12-year-old Nick began his explanations whenever he got caught misbehaving.

      But I think you’re only partly right, above, in the sense that — at least according to Eugene B. Bergmann’s fan blogsiteboth of those movies borrowed this “hurling an invective” thing from the same source — radio legend Jean Shepherd, who most people will recognize as the brain behind the holiday classic, “A Christmas Story”:

      How many people know that the “I’m as mad as hell” speech is reliably reported to have been inspired by Paddy Chayefsky’s good buddy, radio humorist Jean Shepherd?

      From time to time Shepherd, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, would tell his listeners to go to their windows, open them, place their radios with loudspeakers pointed out into the night and turn up the volume. Shepherd would then yell some startling comment that would be heard throughout the neighborhood. He called this act of comic defiance, “Hurling an Invective.”

      Shepherd said that Chayefsky had called him and asked if he would mind if in “Network” he could, in a kind of tribute to Shepherd’s “invectives,” use the idea.

      Here’s what Shepherd would say to set it up:

      [Shepherd speaks in low, conspiratorial tones.] Put your radio on your windowsill now! Do it now! [Pounds on desk.] Now! The loudspeaker pointed out – toward the neighborhood….And when I give you the clue, turn that radio up as loudly as it will go! We’re going to use a very special kind of invective tonight….radio on windowsill now! [Whispering.] turn it up! Lights out! For heaven’s sake, turn the lights out. Turn the radio up. Pretend you’re looking at television. Pretend you’re asleep.

      And then he’d shout the “invective” into the microphone. Here’s what it was one time:

      “You don’t think for a moment you’re fooling anyone, do you?”

      And then another time, he shouted this:

      “Drop the gun, you rat! I’ve got the drop on you! Move one more time and you’re gonna get one between the eyes!”

      Bergmann reported that his publisher told him Shepherd was indeed friends with not only Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote “Network”, but also Herb Gardner, the writer of “A Thousand Clowns”, and who once confirmed to him that the character of Murray was based on his buddy, Jean Shepherd.

      But unlike Howard Beale, Murray Burns is no nutcase, tap-dancing on the edge of his sanity; his invective is hurled from the very center of his wacko soul. Here’s Nick, the kid, trying to explain Murray to some lady:

      You know what he does? He hollers. Like, we were on Park Avenue last Sunday, and it’s very early in the morning, there’s no one in the street, see, just all these big, quiet apartment houses; and he hollers, “Rich people, I want to see you all out on the street for volleyball! Let’s snap it up!” And you know, sometimes, if we’re in a crowded elevator some place, he’ll turn to me and he’ll say, “Max, there’ll be no more of this self-pity. Now, you’re forty; it’s time you got used to being a midget!”

      I’m with you on “Network”, though. Having worked in network news by the time that movie came out, I couldn’t relate to its unrealism at all, and never understood the movie’s appeal. I do remember thinking “A Thousand Clowns” was pretty funny, but also feeling let down at the end. Still, I think I’d like to see that one again.

      Rick

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