Part 2—Who is Ruth Marcus: In this alleged information age, basic information can be amazingly hard to obtain.
Example: Yesterday, Kevin Drum reacted to Joe Nocera’s column in the New York Times. Nocera wrote about public schools; very few liberals waste time on such topics.
Drum reacted to Nocera's claims about public schools, as he often does. But at one point, Kevin said this about educational testing:
“The United States has always performed above average (compared to other industrialized countries) but only by a little bit, and that still seems to be true.”
Is that accurate? It’s our impression that American students have always trailed on international tests—although, as Kevin notes, “long-term data barely exist.”
Wouldn’t you think it would be easy to check such a basic point? In his column, Nocera implied that American kids are losing ground on international tests. He implied that American kids trail other nations today, though we wree once much more grand.
This claim is constantly made or implied by people who spout the party line about the need for certain types of education reform. But is this familiar claim accurate?
You’d think, in this information age, such information would be easy to get. But we actually live in a Narrative Age—and Nocera’s claim fits an establishment narrative which media hacks love to spout.
In this, our information age, it’s very hard to get information. (One of the last places to look would be the New York Times.) That's why we liked Bill Clinton’s convention address so much.
Good lord! Someone was actually on TV explaining basic facts about very basic topics! It had been years since we’d seen such a thing.
Over at the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus didn’t like it.
Who are these guys? Paul Newman posed the question long ago. The famous old question popped into our heads as we read Marcus’s review of Clinton’s address.
Marcus wrote a variant of a very familiar old story. Clinton’s information was great, she said.
But why did he give us so much information? Why did he talk so long?
MARCUS (9/6/12): Pardon the interruption of the Bill Clinton gush-fest for a few critical words: It should have started 20 minutes earlier. (Did we really need to hear from Mr. Costco?) It should have lasted 20 minutes less. How many undecided voters made it through the whole thing? Without heading to the kitchen to make a sandwich, flipping to the football game, checking their e-mail, then clicking back to the coverage and thinking: “He’s still on?”Marcus thought Clinton’s substance was great. But mainly, she seemed annoyed that he had provided so much of it!
You know the old joke about the restaurant: The food isn’t very good, and the portions are too small? My reaction to Clinton’s speech was the opposite: The substance was great, but so much of it?
We’re puzzled by Marcus’ post, a variant of a very familiar old tale. We’ll give a few famous examples below. But first, some basic info:
Clinton spoke for 48 minutes. Many members of the press corps complained about the length.
Can we talk? Forty-eight minutes isn’t even a long set by the norms of a comedy club! (Marcus called it a marathon.) And Clinton was plainly rocking the house in his convention address. In the hall, the crowd was roaring with laughter. Beyond that, they seemed to be hanging on every word.
Like us, they may have been amazed to see someone explaining basic topics! A few may even have twisted their heads like the RCA Victor dog, unsure of what they were seeing and hearing.
But most seemed enthralled by Clinton’s address—except within the mainstream press, where scripted adepts complained about the length of Clinton’s speech.
Marcus loved the substance—but she mainly wondered why Clinton made us ingest so much! As she continued, she kept complaining about the length of Clinton’s address. Especially from a political journalist, these are bizarre complaints:
MARCUS (continuing directly): Discipline has never been Clinton’s hallmark. Or brevity. Rhetorical brilliance—in particular, an ability to translate wonkish details into folksy, accessible language—has been. Wednesday night showed that nothing has changed.To Marcus, the fact that Clinton did 48 minutes betrayed a famous old flaw—his famous lack of discipline. She complained about the fact that he covered all the Republican arguments, instead of a tiny few. She offered a mocking portrait of Clinton yelling crazily at his TV, as if a person has to be nuts to be annoyed by the stream of nonsense which emerges from our sets.
You could imagine Clinton in Chappaqua, watching the Republicans in Tampa and yelling at the screen. You know he was stewing over Democrats’ failure to adequately answer those attacks. Wednesday was his time to vent.
There was no issue left behind: Comparative jobs numbers under Republican and Democratic presidents. The auto industry under President Obama, with a detour into mileage standards. The boom in oil and gas production. The rate of health-care cost increases. The role of Medicaid in nursing home care. The legitimacy of the GOP attack on Obama’s welfare waiver.
“Now, let’s talk about the debt,” Clinton said at one point. He was about three-fourths through.
It was a one-stop-shopping refutation of all the Republican arguments against Obama. Every single one of them.
“There was no issue left behind,” she wonderfully quipped—suggesting that a more disciplined fellow would have discussed an issue or two, then let us head to the upscale bars where journalists like to unwind.
There was no issue left behind! In August 2000, David Broder reacted in much the same way when Candidate Gore made him listen to an interminable list of the “swell ideas” he would pursue as president. How tedious was Gore in his lengthy address? So tedious that the Dean, in an act of open mockery, said he almost fell asleep:
BRODER (8/20/00): At the beginning of convention week, James Carville remarked that "people think Al Gore was born in 1992," the year Bill Clinton picked him as his running mate. All the polling and focus group data support the belief that little information about his family, his early career or the work in Congress that commended him to Clinton has penetrated the public consciousness.Broder's reference to "swell ideas" was an act of open mockery. As Marcus did with Clinton, Broder offered faint praise for Gore’s approach before expressing his mockery. (He also littered his column with snarky asides about swank hotels and elite private schools.)
And so he told about the values he had learned from his hard-working father and mother, about his youth (though nothing much about living in the swank Fairfax Hotel or attending elite private schools), about his forays into the Army and journalism and the decision to make politics his career.
He mentioned only three aspects of what was, in fact, a significant record in the House and Senate--his work on the environment, welfare reform and arms control.
But, my, how he went on about what he wants to do as president. This, too, was necessary. Since the primaries ended last March, George W. Bush has been strikingly successful in marketing a handful of interesting policy ideas--his proposals for education and Social Security reform, for example--by dint of repetition. Gore has taken a more scattershot approach and has seen his opponent make headway on these traditional Democratic issues.
On some of the headline proposals—for Medicare prescription drug benefits or a patient's bill of rights—Gore humanized his presentation by pointing to specially invited families in the audience who would have benefited directly from the programs he is promoting. But I have to confess, my attention wandered as he went on through page after page of other swell ideas, and somewhere between hate crimes legislation and a crime victim's constitutional amendment, I almost nodded off.
Broder didn’t hide his disdain for Gore’s “swell ideas.” But try to explain this sentence:
“But, my, how he went on about what he wants to do as president.”
Candidate Gore was running for president. Broder was annoyed that he wasted our time telling us what we would do if he got the job!
Who are these guys? Broder’s reaction seems to come from some other world, but Marcus matched it after Clinton’s convention address. And the kicker here should't be skipped:
Gore’s address was a major success with the nation’s voters! Immediately after the speech ended, Republican pollster Frank Luntz rushed into the MSNBC studio, where he declared the speech “a home run,” based on focus groups who recorded their reactions as Gore’s speech unfolded.
In the next week, Gore received an enormous bounce in the polls—and the big bounce held. Four weeks later, Gore’s lead over Bush was approaching ten points—and the press corps had to invent two new lies by Gore to drag him back down to earth.
Howard Fineman told Brian Williams why his colleagues had done it:
FINEMAN (9/21/00): I don’t think the media was going to allow, just by its nature, the next seven weeks, the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign to be all about Al Gore’s relentless, triumphant march to the presidency. We want a race, I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it’s that we like to see a contest and we like to see it down to the end if we can.A full month after Gore’s boring address, the press corps was dragging him back to earth. According to Fineman’s astounding explanation, his colleagues weren’t “going to allow...the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign to be all about Al Gore’s relentless, triumphant march to the presidency.”
In truth, the press was at war with Candidate Gore. Fineman was putting a better face on his colleagues' astounding misconduct. That said, let’s return to the press corps’ hostility to “substance” and swell ideas:
Like Broder before her, Marcus squirmed in her seat, annoyed by all that “substance.” Why was Clinton talking so long? Why did he feel he had to address so many Republican arguments?
Broder was annoyed that Gore discussed so many “swell ideas.” Marcus joked about the way Clinton “left no issue behind.” Again and again, the press corps has reacted this way as Major Dems have offered long substance-strewn speeches. But uh-oh:
Again and again, the voters have shown that they like such addresses. Luntz’s focus groups went off the charts when Gore listed his “swell ideas.” And then, there’s the grand-daddy of them all—President Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union Address.
That speech actually was quite long; Clinton spoke for eighty minutes. In his book, Breaking the News, James Fallows described the press corps' reaction:
FALLOWS (1997): Less than one minute later, the mockery from commentators began. For instant analysis NBC went to Peggy Noonan, who had been a speechwriter for presidents Reagan and Bush. She grimaced and barely tried to conceal her disdain for such an ungainly, sprawling speech. Other commentators, soon mentioned that congressmen had been slipping out of the Capitol building before the end of the speech, that Clinton had once more failed to stick to an agenda, that the speech probably would not give the president the new start he sought. The comments were virtually all about the tactics of the speech, and they were virtually all thumbs down.For Fallows’ full treatment of this event, click here (then search on “mush”). Here too, by all objective measures, the public had loved the long speech. Focus groups praised the long address; Clinton’s polling numbers soared. Most strikingly: “Nielsen ratings reported in the same day's paper showed that the longer the speech went on, the more people tuned in to watch,” Fallows noted.
A day and a half later, the first newspaper columns showed up. They were even more critical. On January 26 the Washington Post's op-ed page consisted mainly of stories about the speech, all of which were witheringly harsh. "All Mush and No Message" was the headline on a column by Richard Cohen. "An Opportunity Missed" was the more statesmanlike judgment from David Broder. Despite the difference in headlines the two columns began with identical complaints...
A bored “press corps” wanted Clinton to stop. Public reaction was different.
Who are these very strange people? In a rational world, political journalists would enjoy long, detailed speeches by major political figures.
According to Marcus, Clinton’s address “left no issue behind.” You’d think a journalist would like that.
That’s how things would be in a rational world. In our world, the press corps has routinely punished Big Dems for engaging in such uncouth conduct. One more appalling example:
In 2006, Hillary Clinton gave a major address about energy policy. In the Post, Broder discussed her annoying, know-it-all tone. But first, he helped us understand what was on the minds of our “press corps:”
BRODER (5/25/06): [T]he buzz in the room was not about her speech—or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit—but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of [Tuesday’s] New York Times.Broder snarked throughout the piece about the annoying, know-it-all tone of Clinton’s long, boring speech. Meanwhile, “the buzz in the room” was all about—what else?—the state of the Clintons’ marriage.
The article, by Patrick Healy, was anything but unsympathetic. It touched only lightly on the former president's friendship with Canadian politician Belinda Stronach. It documented that despite their busy separate schedules, the Clintons had managed to spend two-thirds of their weekends together during the past 18 months.
For those who remember the former first lady's effort at comprehensive health-care reform in 1993-94, the scope of her energy initiative is a throwback to those days. She called for the creation of a Strategic Energy Fund, financed in part by taxes on oil company profits, and a National Institute of Energy, with a multibillion-dollar bankroll for financing innovative conservation and efficiency plans. She offered her proposal with the same self-assurance that she had brought to the health-care debate—a tone that suggested that “if you just listen carefully to all the things I can tell you on the basis of the study I have given this subject, you will know exactly what to do.”
Here at THE HOWLER, we were thrilled by Bill Clinton’s convention address. It had been a very long time since we saw someone explain so many key points.
For that same reason, Marcus was annoyed. But then, our journalists have been annoyed by such speeches for a long time.
If we may adapt Newman’s famous words: Who are these guys? Who the freak are these people?
Tomorrow: It's turtle doves, all the way down