Don’t even bother to ask: Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, is apparently in the United States senate. On New Year's Eve, he voted no on the fiscal cliff budget deal.
In this morning's New York Times, Maureen Dowd tells us all about him. What follows is almost half her column. In a truly remarkable moment, she even quotes Katherine Boo:
DOWD (1/2/12): Michael Bennet was supposed to be going off a cliff in Vail.Breaking: Bennet has three daughters, went to Yale Law, can be seen wearing plaid shirts. Also, the senator loves falafel.
But instead of his usual New Year’s trip to a ski lodge with his wife and three daughters, the junior senator from Colorado found himself in a strange, unfamiliar place in the middle of the night: breaking with the president and his party to become one of only three Democratic senators and eight senators total to vote against President Obama’s fiscal deal.
“I was a little surprised that the margin of the vote was so big,” said a weary Senator Bennet, who seemed a bit taken aback to be such an outlier. He was munching on a late-afternoon cheese steak sandwich at “George’s, King of Falafel and Cheese Steaks.” (The senator loves falafel, which his girls call “feel awful.”)
“I almost ordered extra cheese,” he said sheepishly, “but I would have been embarrassed.”
Long before Bennet came to work in the “land of flickering lights,” as he mockingly calls the dysfunctional nation’s capital where he grew up, Frank Capra dreamed him up. In a Congress that has become opéra bouffe, Bennet is the freckled blond choir boy singing a cappella. The 48-year-old senator looks like the Yale law student he once was, wearing a Jos. A. Bank plaid shirt, gray sweater and khakis. “These are the only clothes I have in Washington that’s not a suit,” he grins.
As Katherine Boo wrote in The New Yorker, back when Bennet was the crusading Denver schools superintendent, his open face and amiable manner “only partly masked the intensity and severity of his judgments.” He was, Boo wrote, “an overachiever. He liked to announce improbable goals, then defy expectations of failure.”
Voting to let the country fall off the cliff was an audacious, even precocious, move by the Democratic golden boy and presidential pet—one that, oddly, put him on the side of Marco Rubio and Rand Paul rather than Obama and Joe Biden. “It is an interesting group,” he deadpanned about the naysayers.
No word yet on how he treats pets.
Readers get to know quite a few things about this “man who voted nay.” They just never quite get to learn why he voted that way. This was the best Dowd could do:
DOWD: In frantic New Year’s Day deal-making, he voted “nay” at about 2 a.m., and the House passed the bill around 11 p.m. He said he did so because the deal did not have meaningful deficit reduction, explaining: “Going over the cliff is a lousy choice and continuing to ignore the fiscal realities that we face is a lousy choice.”His mother’s parents came from Warsaw! He was a crusading superintendent of schools! But why did Bennet vote no on this deal? Dowd never quite makes him say.
He said he thinks the president wants serious deficit cuts but is dealing with people “so intransigent I’m not sure they could be brought to an agreement that’s meaningful in the absence of going over the cliff. But it’s a terrible thing to say. People at home are so bone-tired of these outcomes.”
He said his focus now is the same as when he was the Denver superintendent trying to get more poor kids to stay in school.
“The burden of proof has to shift from the people who want to change the system to the people who want to keep it the same,” he said. “I think if we can get people focused to do what we need to do to keep our kids from being stuck with this debt that they didn’t accrue, you might be surprised at how far we can move this conversation.
“Washington politics no longer follows the example of our parents and our grandparents who saw as their first job creating more opportunity, not less, for the people who came after. My mother’s parents were refugees from Warsaw who came here after World War II because they could rebuild their shattered lives. But the political debate now is a zero-sum game that creates more problems than solutions.”
According to Dowd, Bennet says he wants more deficit reduction. But how would be accomplish that?
Unknown! Dowd doesn’t say!
Just last evening, we reread Boo’s 3800-word piece from November 1992, in which she defined a journalistic trend she referred to as “Creeping Dowdism.” In the lengthy passage which follows, Boo described this morning’s column, in which we learn all manner of personal trivia but don’t learn what it is Bennet proposes to do.
Boo’s piece appeared in the Washington Monthly. Like the Babe, Boo called her shot:
BOO (11/92): [C]haracter is only a piece of what a voter needs to know about a politician before he yanks that lever. Parse the ad lib to pieces, analyze the gesture for weeks, and you may still not get very close to what a politician will do while in office. Bush's character cues, for instance, aren't so very different from those of Franklin Roosevelt, another patrician who used cornball props—serving hotdogs to the Queen of England, for one—in an attempt to come off as a regular guy. Measured on program substance, there aren't two presidents less alike in this century. This is where Dowd's style begins to grate. By the end of the Darman piece, we know that Bush's favored aide is a conniver with an appetite for Chicken McNuggets. Yet we aren't afforded a clue about what Darman actually does—that is, how he runs the Office of Management and Budget, his job for the last three years. This, after all, is the man who advocated Bush's infamous tax increase, who is the theoretical watchdog of spending in every federal agency, who helped bring America a $341 billion deficit. How'd he pull it off? You're going to have to collar him at McDonald's and ask him yourself.That was Boo in 1992, describing Dowd’s column today.
Similarly, when the writer executes a lengthy campaign profile of Tsongas two days before New Hampshire, we learn all about a "Saturday Night Live" invitation, the effort to get him to sit up straight for debates, and his uncanny resemblance to a beagle. But there's just one substance-related sentence in the piece, on his controversial support for nuclear power. And this reference is made only to set up an anecdote in which he gets angry at a collegiate questioner.
Of course, you can't expect one writer to be a master of all trades. And even the crabbiest editor would balk before inflicting upon such a good stylist only subjects drier than a rash. But because Dowd is so good at limning character, and because her forum at the Times is so formidable, a generation of bright young writers is now imitating her—the flaws as well as the flourishes. Substantive political and policy pieces desperately need talented writers to make them come alive for the reader. Unfortunately, the more talented writers are desperately chasing after character and style. In piece after piece, this substance gap begins to look like more than an innocent sin of omission. One begins to sense a political nihilism undergirding the carefully chosen words.
While not every literary fillip from the Dowd Crowd is revealing, many of them are reducing. Von Drehle compares Ross Perot's appearance to Elmer Fudd's, and Bush's to that of an "oddly unfashionable" commercial air line pilot; Clinton and Gore are, as Dowd and Frank Rich have it, the "Double Bubba ticket" and "political Doublemint Twins." Reducing politicians—who calls them public servants with a straight face anymore?—to cartoons is as much a marker of Dowdstyle as the literary reference, only it's more troubling. It's fine to leave the fulsome profile to People, but there's often a conspicuous lack of empathy and generosity in the new writers' character deconstruction—and sometimes an unmistakable lack of interest in providing meaningful insight. Do we get any closer to the essential Tsongas when Dowd draws him as a turtle "look[ing] around him with a slow, blinking bemusement at the vagaries of fate"? Is the picture of a campaigning Bush "plucking at his chest as though he could pull his soul out of a buttoned-down shirt" really telling, or is it a well-turned cheap shot? And more important, does it help us find out what we really need to know about the candidate before November 3: How will the damn fool lead?
Yet among Dowd and disciples, the character painting continually shoulders out meaningful questions about what the pretenders to the Oval Office have in mind. Once Dowd allows us to know that Kerrey has "large blue eyes and a light-bulb shaped head that give him the look of a bemused extraterrestrial," can we really take seriously the mechanics of his health-care proposal? Of course, in her preprimary profile of Kerrey, the health-care issue—his campaign centerpiece—never comes up. And why would it? In Dowd's character-centered conception, issues don't merit too much concern. They're largely props in "meticulous Kabuki dramas in which the candidates enact the themes they want to sell to voters in November."
What does Bennet think we should do? In today’s column, we never find out. We do learn about his children’s jokes. Also, last night he saw Skyfall!
In the wake of Boo's piece: Boo wrote a searching piece about the drift of the mainstream press. She filled it with praise for Dowd’s endless skill, but her disapproval was plain.
Within the mainstream press corps, Boo’s searching piece has barely been mentioned in the past twenty years. On Nexis, the colorful term “creeping Dowdism” registers only three times!
Boo had written a naughty piece. In 1995, the Boston Globe’s Mark Jurkowitz reported what happened next:
JURKOWITZ (4/6/95): Charlie Peters says he once "adored" Dowd, but admits their relationship soured after the Monthly piece [by Boo]. "She pretty much frosted me out," he says.After publishing Boo’s infernal piece, Peters was dead to Dowd.