Part 1—What Fineman said: For the past twenty years, America’s mainstream press corps has been typing a serial novel.
It’s what used to be called a dime novel.
(According to the leading authority on that term: In the modern age, “dime novel" has become a term to describe any quickly written, lurid potboiler and as such is generally used as a pejorative to describe a sensationalized yet superficial piece of written work. To verify, just click here.)
In the press corps’ lurid potboiler, some of the leading characters are crafted as Big Major Liars. Some of the characters are crafted as The World’s Last Honest Men.
(We can’t think of any women who have received the latter designation. To a small extent, Condi Rice, of whom we’ll speak later this week.)
The press has been typing this novel for the past twenty years. Many of their statements and judgments have been deeply consequential.
But when you write such a silly dime novel, much of your work will be foolish.
It’s hard to pick among the foolish statements made on behalf of The Last Honest Men. But our thoughts drift back to Howard Fineman’s profile of Bill Bradley, one of The Last Honest Men, a profile he typed for Newsweek.
It was September 1999. Bradley was running against Al Gore—and Gore was The World’s Biggest Liar. Almost by definition, this made Bradley one of The World’s Last Honest Men. But Bradley had also been a bit of a budget hawk during the Reagan years.
By the rules of the press corps’ novel, all self-professed “budget hawks” are numbered among the ranks of The Last Honest Men. And so, it came to pass that Fineman typed the highlighted nonsense:
FINEMAN (9/13/99): To understand Bill Bradley, you need to know that he's a shy, studious man—the only child of doting, older parents—and that he's been a hero in insanely public realms: basketball and politics. From early adolescence until nearly 35, Bradley was consumed—and formed—by hoops: a game, he mordantly observes, in which grown men play in short pants (next story). From 1977 on, politics has been his calling, the stage on which he has displayed the character—the values of the game—forged on the court. His life in the politics thus far provides clues to the kind of leader is, and the kind of president he'd be.Before the Bradley campaign was done, Fineman would fawn much harder than this. On Hardball, he and his writing partner, Chris Matthews, would embarrass themselves again and again with their praise for Candidate Bradley’s unmatchable moral grandeur.
He would, for one, not bother trying to charm the powers that be. Bradley has a Whitmanesque love of the average Joe, a romantic view reinforced by thousands of encounters in what he proudly calls his life on the run.
When the pair got together to swing an election, Candidate Bradley was “this clean-as-a-whistle NBA star.” Candidate Gore was “part of the bathtub ring.”
On September 7, Matthews asked his pal to comment on his new profile of Bradley, which was already on newsstands everywhere. Each man understood the terms of the press corps’ ongoing novel. This nonsense was offered on behalf of one of The Last Honest Men:
MATTHEWS (9/7/99): Let's go to Howard Fineman. You're writing this about—you've been writing this big cover piece that's in the newsstands right now for Newsweek, your magazine. You wrote the big piece. What is it about Bill Bradley that's appealing to voters out there that he's now running even with the incumbent VP?Over the course of the past twenty years, there has been nothing so dumb that the press corps won’t say it, just so long as it’s being said on behalf of The Last Honest Men.
FINEMAN: Well, he's no saint, and he's perfect—perfectly capable of pulling political flip-flops. But he's a Boy Scout otherwise. He played in the NBA for 10 years.
FINEMAN: He spent more time with African-Americans in a work environment—
FINEMAN: —albeit basketball, than anybody else who's ever run, any other white person that's ever run.
MATTHEWS: I think that's a big appeal, by the way.
FINEMAN: And, you know, he's straight out of central casting in the old-fashioned sense. Well-credentialed—
FINEMAN: Sports hero.
FINEMAN: Fellowship of Christian Athletes when he was young, the whole nine yards. So what he offers Democrats is a chance to keep the Democrats in the White House.
MATTHEWS: I think that five o’clock shadow, by the way, and the receding hair line are big pluses with men. Just guessing. Just guessing. He looks like a real guy.
In this exchange, Candidate Bradley was a “Boy Scout,” “straight out of central casting.” Fineman said Bradley wasn’t a saint, hoping viewers wouldn’t notice that he and Matthews were actually saying the opposite.
The boys gushed about the fact that Bradley had played in the NBA with a lot of black guys. (In later renditions, Matthews would gush about the fact that Bradley had showered with lots of black men.)
Finally, Matthews established the key point: Absolutely anything goes when it comes to the The Last Honest Men.
At the end of this exchange, Matthews took a wild guess. He guessed that Bradley’s five o’clock shadow would be a big plus with male voters! So would Bradley’s receding hairline, Matthews said, guessing again.
Why would anyone care about that? The hairline and the five o’clock shadow make Bradley look “like a real guy,” Matthews said. In the language of the era, this meant that Bradley was “authentic.” It meant he wasn’t a slick confection like Gore and his mentor, Bill Clinton.
Matthews gushed about Bradley’s hair line on Hardball on September 7, 20 and 23, always noting that the hair made Bradley seem “real” or “authentic.” In the press corps’ dime novel, there is nothing so dumb that it can’t be said on behalf of a Last Honest Man. Indeed: You could even call Bradley “Whitmanesque,” a ridiculous claim which flew in the face of long-standing press corps assessments about the Bradley’s stand-offish ways.
Why did Fineman say, in that Newsweek profile, that Bradley was “Whitmanesque?” We can’t answer that question. But two other people had described Bradley that way in 1999—Bradley himself, and his wife! To all appearances, Fineman was taking dictation from Bradley, shaping this latest Last Honest Man in the way the great man preferred.
Within the American pundit corps, anything goes—it’s all OK—as long as you’re making ludicrous claims on behalf of The Last Honest Men.
Bill Bradley was one of The Last Honest Men. In recent years, smart honest courageous truth-telling Paul Ryan became one of The Last Honest Men too. In the last week, Ryan’s misstatements became so absurd that even the press corps was forced to take notice.
But that sort of thing often occurs with The Last Honest Men. Consider the conduct of Bradley.
Yesterday, Kevin Drum authored this post about the various Last Honest Men. One of his commenters perfectly stated where this led with Bill Bradley:
COMMENTER 1: [W]hile I won't argue over the examples given, if Bradley's the most deceitful politician out there, we could do a lot worse. Hey, he didn't claim running a 7-minute mile marathon; he didn't even harp on his NBA career to score political points, and that was real.Did Bradley “lie” about those matters as Campaign 2000 proceeded? We tend to stay away from the L-word—but Bradley’s claims about Gore and Willie Horton invite that characterization. He also made ridiculous claims about his health care plan—and about Gore’s past record with regard to abortion.
COMMENTER 2: No, you're right, Bradley didn't do that. What he did was much less serious. He lied about his health care plan, Gore's health care plan, SS, the budget, Willie Horton, ad nauseam. I think it's probably pretty fair to say Bill Bradley was the Paul Ryan of the Democratic Party.
Bradley’s claims about Gore and Willie Horton were astounding—a simple disgrace. And how odd! Bradley’s claims were made by one of The Last Honest Men!
The history here is unattractive, but it isn’t that hard to fathom. Once The Last Honest Men realize the way they’re being pimped by the mainstream press, they have displayed a strong tendency to start issuing whoppers. These are very ambitious people—and they know that they’ll get a free pass, no matter what they say.
Whatever they say will be treated as gospel! Before long, Bradley was disgracing himself with bald-faced misstatements and flips.
For years, bold honest Ryan has played the same game. He’s the most recent Most Honest Man—and he’s long been a fountain of howlers.
Tomorrow: The first of The Last Honest Men
Visit our incomparable archives: Our fullest account of the Horton matter was written long ago. Bradley was only one part of this press corps scam. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/02.
Bradley disgraced himself in that episode. Needless to say, the band played on, continuing its novelized praise of The Last Honest Men.
We’ll present a fuller account of that remarkable episode in Chapter 7 of our companion site, How He Got There, if the chapter ever gets written.
We’ve posted six detailed chapters recounting the seminal history of Campaign 2000. The liberal world responds with crickets.
This does constitute a fascinating study in the corruption of human nature. But it’s hard to keep writing those detailed chapters in the face of this misconduct which, to borrow from Reverend Jackson, “Keeps career alive.”