You don't read The Washington Post, but from a distance, the paper seems like a Doric column of journalism: serious, stolid and stalwart. What other newspaper in America hounded a president out of office? Sure, that was a generation ago, but this is the last great journalistic franchise still huffing along on the business of governance, right?
But read it on a daily basis and you'll come to understand that there are no issues here, only grudge matches. This is sports-page stuff rife with the same trite X's-and-O's analysis; it's just that the fullbacks are slower. And when it comes to the game of politics, every day is Super Sunday at the Post. Talk about feeding the fan base?the Post did seven-part biopics on the candidates last year. Not one for each. Seven separate personality set pieces on Gore, Bush and Bradley. Each of those candidates' every biographical wiggle was endlessly examined with a week's worth of stories. That's 21 stories, and we're only halfway through the field.
The joke long told about the Post is that they're the U.S. Dept. of News: one more bland, fact-churning component of the federocracy. Nothing could be further than the truth. You don't have to drill between the lines too far to find the driving imperatives of the Post: Fuck the issues?who's winning? Do they sleep in the nude? Do they believe in gaydar? And if so, which of their competitors is light in the loafers?
Not that they're in favor of anything or anybody. The game's the thing. The Post favors absolutely no one. The New York Times' relentlessness on behalf of Gore or the New York Post's sacred mission to destroy the liberal elite finds no analogue at the Post, which wears its eunuchism with gusto. Editor Len Downie has famously described himself as someone who doesn't vote for fear of creating the appearance of conflict of interest.
So forget governance. Bring on the needy freaks who want to be president and their barrage of spitballs?beats the hell out of reporting the latest emission standards out of the EPA. Just last week, the Tallest Midget Contest between Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes got a nice ride in the paper.
Keyes, apparently wanting to fill the room with love after his third-place finish in Iowa, made a spontaneous decision to surf a crowd of supporters who were listening to Rage Against the Machine. Bauer saw his opening?and so did the Post. "Do you think that's consistent with the dignity of the president?" clucked Bauer, according to the Post. You might think that the words "dignity" and "president" wouldn't come up in a lot of the same sentences these days, but Bauer?an unholy begotten son of Yoda and E.T. if there ever was one?believes that his competitor for the lunatic fringe should mind his manners.
Fun? Sure. Wacky? Almost every day. An issue of national moment? Are you kidding me? The Post doesn't bother pretending that anything other than fun bloodsport is under way. The day after the Iowa caucuses, there were seven stories about this arcane political exercise. Not one of those stories actually mentioned how many people actually voted. (It was 166,000, which is nine percent of the Iowa electorate.) Who's got time to worry about the efficacy of the database when there's an orgy of spin to chew through?
It's days before the New Hampshire primary as I write this, but I can reliably predict at least seven stories, none of which will mention spending caps on health care. The lede, written by Dan Balz, will suggest that Bradley is finished, McCain is surging and Forbes has frittered away his momentum. An analysis of the Dems by Thomas Edsall will say the same thing, but hold out the notion that Bradley could recover with a surprise victory in the coming primaries, because Edsall has to vote his story. David Broder, the most stalwart gasbag of the entire bunch, will intone that McCain now must capitalize on his momentum?look for a little anecdotal focus group at some goofily named New Hampshire cafe to back him up. Inside, there will be four more stories. There will be a scener from the polls, with a mopey-faced picture of either Bauer or Keyes, because they'll be the next to join Orrin Hatch in the pen of ex-candidates. And Gore will get another story suggesting that now that he's mastered the art of imitating a human being in sustained spurts, he's got the world dicked. Media reporter Howard Kurtz will get a turn?look for him to offer spin analyzing the spin that the spinners spun in the post-spin spin sessions.
How many is that?six, seven? Ah, lemmesee, how about one more crusty homage piece to the political primacy of the mukluk-wearing people of New Hampshire. Oh, and don't forget the edgy "Style" take in the back of the paper.
The Post won't run those stories because people need 10 iterations of the same narrative. They'll do it because they have a lot of bigfoot political reporters and they all need space. If you were a young writer who wanted to get ahead at the Post, would you cover the telecommunications industry or John McCain?
We still worship rank in Washington, even if the broader culture finds greater salience in net worth. Two weeks ago, Sally Quinn, a sometime Washington Post reporter and official chief of DC's Cocktail Nation, told Slate's David Plotz: "Money is not what we do here. In Seattle that's what they do. But this is the power capital of the world. No matter how much money you have, power is going to be the main event. It is not like they are going to come in and usurp that."
Oh yeah, everybody out there is just clamoring for the juice that's coursing through Washington. Now that the President's put his pants back on, it's no news to anybody 10 miles outside of the Beltway that Washington has fallen out of the national conversation. The only person in DC who seems to have any salience to the broader culture these days is Alan Greenspan, and why would The Washington Post care about him? He's not running for anything.
David Carr is editor of Washington City Paper.
A Conservative Who Gets It by Sam Tanenhaus For almost two years now I've been waiting for a conservative to meet what I think of as "Lilla's challenge." Lilla is Mark Lilla, a former neoconservative turned political philosopher, now at the University of Chicago. In "A Tale of Two Reactions," an essay published in The New York Review of Books in May 1998, Lilla presented a devastating tour d'horizon of our current political discourse. His conclusion: left and right are equally clueless when it comes to interpreting the two-stage transformation that has reshaped America in the past 35 years or so. Neither sees that the social tumult of the 60s and the free-market explosion of the 80s are obverse sides of a single revolutionary coin. Anyone in Silicon Valley knows this. But not our ideologues of the left and right, locked in shopworn mythologies. If you're on the left the 60s were good and the 80s evil. If you're on the right, the formula is reversed. End of discussion.
And yet, Lilla argued, there was a time when political thinkers posed big questions instead of merely staking out positions. He cited Tocqueville. In the aftermath of the French revolution, faced with an event he didn't understand or welcome, Tocqueville wanted to know why it happened. He tried "to seek its causes deep in the French past, and to imagine its future by looking to the American present." There are more recent examples, too. Leftish thinkers like Daniel Bell or Richard Hofstadter abhorred Joe McCarthy. But they didn't simply denounce him. They tried to figure him out. What was McCarthyism, exactly? How did it come into existence? Who were McCarthy's followers?
You won't see that kind of analysis today. Try asking liberals?or "progressive reactionaries," in Lilla's phrase?to explain the Reagan Revolution. The answer is always the same overcooked melodrama: evil venture capitalists skulk across the stage while "right-wing foundations and conspiracy-obsessed millionaires" lurk in the shadows. (Check out Hillary Clinton's risible campaign literature, with its paranoid talk of right-wing plots.) The right is no better. When conservatives start in on the 60s all you hear is a jeremiad about moral decline, sexual license and dirty rock 'n' roll lyrics. If you ask how it came to be, you're told, says Lilla, that "the cause of the 60s was quite simply...the 60s. They just happened, as a kind of miracle, or anti-miracle." Thus we come to Lilla's challenge, issued at the end of his essay: Anyone "concerned about our liberal-democratic future," he stated, must follow Tocqueville and "study dispassionately the forces at work in the revolution of our time."
For the moment liberals are off the hook. The Clinton presidency, with its ingenious synthesis of 60s and 80s values?no government and good government, "diversity" and "personal responsibility"?backed by a robust economy, has postponed the Democrats' reckoning with History. But conservatives, out of power for a decade, can't wriggle out of it. At least one of their number, David Frum, a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard, gets it. His new book, How We Got Here: The 70's?The Decade That Brought You Modern Life?For Better or Worse, a deft and engaging survey of our changing politics and culture, transcends the usual platitudes. Though a moralist and a "social conservative," David Frum is no Bill Bennett or Robert Bork. On the contrary, at age 39, he is a creature of our Fallen Age. Better yet he's from Toronto?his mother, Barbara Frum, was a heroine in Canada and a beloved (and liberal) tv journalist?and so brings an amused outsider's prurience to his commentary on America, not unlike Christopher Hitchens. (Frum vs. Hitchens is a debate I'd pay money to see.)
When I learned Frum was speaking last week at a Manhattan Institute lunch I went to hear him. His topic was that conservative favorite, the Golden Age of the 1950s. You know the drill: a beloved Republican president, communists to contest all over the globe, Mom in the kitchen, Dad in a suit, kids respectful of their elders, blacks politely requesting a seat at the front of the bus (but not at the boardroom table), etc. Frum sketched it all in. But then he invited us to look past the gilt surface and take the measure of some disturbing facts: a general bivouacked in the White House, the Attorney General's office granted almost limitless powers to wiretap, the Secretary of State empowered to revoke any citizen's passport at will (for "security" reasons), the military draft. In sum, America in the 50s was still in the combat mode of WWII. And why exactly? To fight the communists, of course. Which was fine, until 18-year-olds were shipped off to the jungles of Indochina, and the overstressed economy buckled. College students shed their docility and burned their draft cards. Appalling? Perhaps, but very American. And there was a precedent: the draft riots of 1863.
In sum, the 50s were an anomaly, whose barracks-and-curfew worldview was doomed from the outset. Nor was it the last stand of American morality. On the contrary. Think we live in uncensorious age? Frum asked. Drop a Coke bottle in the wrong recycling bin and see what your neighbors say. Think we're living in a period of sexual license? Ask Bill Clinton, who was impeached for conduct winked at when the culprits were Harding, FDR or JFK. Think Americans condone drug use? Tune into the hellfire sermons drummed into our kids at school.
When Frum stepped down from the podium, his audience was slightly stunned. But I had a question for him. He was signing books when I found him. Had he happened to read Lilla's essay? He looked at me a little oddly and said, yes, he knew it well. Later he sent me an e-mail: "Sort of shocking to have you identify out of thin air how much influence Mark Lilla's question had on my thinking." Not as shocking?or as gratifying?as hearing someone finally try to answer it.
Sam Tanenhaus, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.